The AFC Challenge notes

Philip Glass (b. 1937) :: Echorus

In January 2017, Philip Glass celebrated his 80th birthday. Few other contemporary composers have had a musical influence as broad and impactful as Glass through concert works, operas, and numerous film scores. His early classical training eventually led him to study composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, but it was his work with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar that shifted the way he thought about rhythm and time. The eventual result (bolstered by fellow composers who were coming to similar conclusions, like Steve Reich) was that Glass settled into a musical vocabulary that we colloquially refer to as “minimalism.” Minimalist music functions by implementing restrictions on harmonic changes — they are often few, and far between. The complimentary phenomenal effect for the listener is the sensation of wide-open space. In this context, a slight change in tonal color or density of musical texture becomes a monumental event.  

Echorus was adapted from Glass’s piano Étude No. 2. The composer writes in his note for the work that the title was “derived from the word echo,” and “was composed in the winter of 1994-95 for Edna Mitchell and Yehudi Menuhin.” Glass continues, “The piece is in A-B-A form and appears as a chaconne. The soloists either play the chaconne or melodic parts suggested by the harmonic structure. The music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace.”

John Cage (1912-1992) :: “Nearly Stationary” from String Quartet in Four Parts

For all the innovation the world of music has experienced since 1952, nothing has come close to the watershed moment when 4’33”, John Cage’s silent piece, was first performed. The profundity of its statement regarding sound, listening, and the nature of music remain unmatched.

By 1950, Cage had written his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as three (there would ultimately be five) Imaginary Landscape works. Those pieces all dealt with the manipulation of sound, either through inserting objects into the strings of a piano or through some electrical means; in other words, some outside element beyond simply a human performer and acoustic instrument. By contrast, it has been observed that the String Quartet in Four Parts also manipulates sound, but through altering the approach to the instruments themselves. For example, the performers are instructed to employ a light touch and no vibrato, and two of the cello’s strings are tuned a half step down, “scordatura.” As a result, the sound strikes the ear as both ancient and modern, often shrouded in shade, occasionally stabbed with an angular insertion of volume.

The entire Quartet doesn’t deviate far from specific intervallic spans and eschews overt tension-resolution/dissonance-consonance relationships. Increasingly interested in Eastern philosophy, Cage integrated into the music the Indian concept of the seasons: preservation (Summer), destruction (Fall), quiescence (Winter), and creation (Spring), which are then reflected in each movement: Quietly Flowing Along (Summer), Slowly Rocking (Autumn), Nearly Stationary (Winter), and Quodlibet (Spring).

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) :: “Scherzo” from Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11

Perhaps the most famous string octet is that shimmering masterpiece written by a sixteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Lesser known are these two works for the same instrumentation by an eighteen-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich. Both works show a particularly striking confidence in style for juvenilia. It seems some artists are equipped with a more direct channel to their creative voice from the start, as illustrated in an anecdote recalled by Irina Kustodieva:

They would put at the piano a small pale youth with a disobedient lick of hair on his forehead.  He sat down and started to improvise. “Mitya,” Irina would shout, “don’t invent anything - just play us a foxtrot!” Mitya was, of course, Dimitri Shostakovich . . . He submitted to the general chorus of dissatisfied voices, but in the music of his foxtrot all kinds of unexpected rhythms and intonations suddenly broke through. Kustodiev wheeled his chair closer to the piano, and bending forward to the pianist, whispered: “Just take no notice of them, Mitya, play your own thing.”

Shostakovich inhabited and cultivated both the worlds of symphony and chamber music with equal aplomb (incidentally, the op. 11 was written alongside his Symphony no. 1). Toward the end of his career, the two genres flirted with coalescence as his final two symphonies (nos. 14 and 15), and his Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti exhibited intricate interplays and pairings of instruments that were honed by years of dedication to chamber form.

Christopher Hossfeld :: “...AND ZOMBIES” from concerto GROSSO

concerto GROSSO blurs the line between chamber and orchestral music, creating multiple overlapping layers, thick dissonant chords, and a sense of rhythmic disorder and chaos. Its movements follow my emotional journey in the days after losing a beloved aunt, to whom the work is dedicated. The second movement, “...AND ZOMBIES,” is an 18-voice triple fugue. It depicts a nightmare: trapped in a demonic theater, I am forced to witness unspeakable acts performed by ghoulish creatures. The creatures are about to descend on me when a spiritual presence rescues me and wakes me up, leaving the air vibrating with glorious energy. (CH)

Christopher Hossfeld is currently the Director of Music and Ritual at Harvard Divinity School and the Director of Music at First Parish, Old Ship Church, in Hingham, MA. His compositions have been performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Yale and Harvard Universities, Jordan Hall, the Toronto Music Garden, and concerts in Montreal and Ottawa.

Hossfeld earned a Master’s degree in Choral Conducting from the Yale School of Music and a Bachelor’s in Music Composition from Harvard University, where he was a recipient of the Louis Sudler Award, given to a graduating student for excellence in the arts. In 1998, he was the only composer of twenty Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) :: Five Movements, Op. 5

In his book, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross notes that the aesthetic of the “New German” school “abandoned the clearly demarcated structures of Viennese tradition…in favor of a freewheeling, moment-to-moment, poetically inflamed narrative.” This inflamed narrative style would soon be viewed by a new class of composers as simply swollen. Sweeping changes took place across Europe as the 19th century concluded and the 20th century commenced. The orderly world of empires and monarchies crumbled. A specter of suspicion for anything related to these old ways spread. Disgust at bourgeois excess, vanity, and entertainments settled in artistic minds. There appeared to be a growing search for purity (one often teetering on the edge of the sinister, laying a grotesque ideological foundation for coming the horrors of the Nazis), which manifested artistically in a near rabid need for music to be released from the clutches of public consumption and given fully to the artist alone. Like Noah in the flood, Arnold Schoenberg gathered his pupils and prepared to shut the door on the degenerate audiences he felt deserved to be washed away, cleansed from concert halls. His brave new music was the 12-tone system, employing all 12 notes in a scale (e.g. on a keyboard, all the white and black keys spanning from one C to another C, higher or lower). Sound was to be emancipated from the servitude of tonal hierarchies: pan-tonality, he preferred to call it (though the term atonality stuck).

The early works of Schoenberg and one of his famous students, Anton Webern (another notable protégé was Alban Berg), owed a deep debt to their predecessors: Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. But, as Webern honed and crafted his personal style, it is as if he developed x-ray vision, the full bodied sonorities heard in works like his early string quartet, Langsamer Satz, and his opus 1, Passacaglia for orchestra, were abruptly replaced with almost skeletal remains. Extremely abbreviated works like his Five Movements from 1909 would come to define his mature aesthetic.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) :: Ramifications

In the late 1950s, Ligeti began work on a series of compositions for a new medium: electronics. Glissandi (1957), Artikulation (1958), and Pièce électronique no. 3 (1957–58, 1996), all exhibit some of the more typical aspects of early electronic music, sharp bleeps and clangs (like R2-D2 free styling) as well as amorphous clusters of sound, floating and drifting. The latter texture found its way into works he would write in the 1960s like Atmosphères (1961) and Ramifications (1968), where it was distilled even further.

Here, we encounter sound mass. Unlike the pinpoint sound of many serialist works (by composers like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, for example) that used all 12 notes of an octave in a variety of extremely precise patterns, outlined by silence, sound mass relied more on overall shape and shifting densities of texture and dynamics. Think of Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. When you look at it from a distance, the tiny dots of paint transform into a crowded park on a weekend. Sound mass, in other words, is zooming out. These are billows of sound, yet not without structure. In Ramifications, the ensemble is divided into two groups, one tuned slightly higher than the other, so they are “mistuned.”

Ramifications is at once completely foreign and yet familiar to our modern ears—it’s simply a matter of context. While we are not used to hearing orchestras acoustically producing sounds like these, we don’t think it unusual to hear a rock guitarist exploiting the sound of electronic distortion. In a small way, pieces like Atmosphères and Ramifications—and certainly the early experimentation with electronic sounds that those works came from—made possible the effects we find commonplace at a rock show.

Shiori Usui :: In Digestion

About In Digestion, Shiori Usui writes:

“What would my stomach sound like?”

One day, I pondered this to myself. I bought a stethoscope and listened to it in an anechoic chamber. “Grrrrrrrrrrrruuuu. Gugyuuuuuuuuu.” I ate and drank until my stomach became active and made a satisfied noise.

The action of digestion is so embedded in our daily activity, yet we only occasionally think about it thoroughly. The process of digestion really starts from cooking, and of course when we bite, chew and drink. I looked into the action of grinding food with the teeth and it made me realize that it is similar to the action of pulling the bow over the strings of violin, viola, cello and double bass. So I tried to find ways that the different kinds of pressure on the strings could make different colors of sound. Also, some of the harmonic language used in the piece is based on spectral analysis of the sound of biting an apple and the stomach rumbling.

This piece was composed as a result of my fascination into the sound of the body and various experimentations with acoustic instruments. I hope you enjoy the experience of tuning into the body of instruments. (SU)

Originally from Japan, Shiori Usui is a BBC Proms commissioned composer and improviser based in Scotland, UK. The Times described her as a composer with “entirely individual ears” after the premiere of her piece Liya-pyuwa for piano quintet at Wigmore Hall in 2006. Since then, Shiori has been a recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award (2012), a Civitella Ranieri Music Fellowship in conjunction with the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary (2010), a composer’s residency with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Cove Park  (2012), a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Sound and Music composer residency (2013-2014), and a Scottish Chamber Orchestra Connect Fellowship (2013-2014). In 2016, Shiori was awarded a Ricordi Lab contract by Ricordi Berlin to publish some of her works for the next three years.

Shiori produces radical instrumental works, and has worked with motion capturing sensors and biophysical technology. Many of her compositions are inspired by the sounds of the human body, the deep sea, and many other weird and wonderful organisms living on Earth. Shiori is also an improvising vocal musician and pianist, and has performed with artists and groups such as Arve Henriksen, Ilan Volkov, Rie Nakajima, Lee Patterson, Cato and Grey Area.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) :: Voile

Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka were among those who possessed the peculiar skill of creating not just works of art, but building metaphysical alternate universes.

Xenakis had the unique perspective of someone with experience building physical structures, too, as he was thrust into working for famed French architect Le Corbusier whilst residing as a Greek refugee in Paris during World War II (being part of the Greek Resistance against the German occupation put a price on his head). The City of Light also gave him Olivier Messiaen as a composition teacher.

Trying to explain Xenakis in a few hundred words is difficult. Architecture, mathematics, a thorough disregard for traditional tonal systems, and a consuming obsession with pitch time dimensions combined and translated into music in the mind of Xenakis. It would emerge on paper as excruciatingly complex works dense with layer after layer of scientific and philosophical properties. In developing his compositional technique, he developed his own musical language (not unlike Wagner did with “leitmotif”). A dictionary of Xenakian terminology would include words like “set,” “pitch time transformation,” and “sieve.” The phenomenal results translating to the listener’s ears might sound like total chaos on the surface, but the structural musical theories at work are exquisitely detailed and elegant.

Voile (“sail”) was written in 1995, and represents one of the composer’s later period works. Not unlike a sail on a boat, it both hides and reveals as it steers. Throughout the work the strings move in opaque clusters and “sieves” (to quote Christopher Ariza, sieves are Xenakis’ “...elegant and powerful system for creating integer-sequence generators,” using them “...for the generation of pitch scales and rhythm sequences in many compositions...”), lifting briefly to reveal a fragment of melody on the horizon.

Program notes for the works by Glass, Cage, Shostakovich, Webern, Ligeti, and Xenakis written by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.