In Memoriam: Jim Primosch

Yesterday, my composition teacher Jim Primosch died of cancer. Many of Jim’s colleagues and students have been sharing memories online, and I’d like to offer one here.

Like my fellow Penn composers Melissa Dunphy and Nathan Courtright, I’m remembering one of those lesson moments with him when something big clicked.

This was my last semester of coursework, and I was just starting my dissertation piece—a quixotic evening-length extravaganza for singers and improvising instrumentalists. I had not written any vocal music at Penn, and now I was thinking that I was going to write 60-plus minutes of it.

Jim, on the other hand, writes the most incredible vocal music. I was understandably very nervous about bringing my first ideas in to our lessons. One magical thing about Jim’s vocal music is that he can take texts that are so rich on their own, and write music that fits so perfectly and doesn’t weigh the text down. It’s so hard to do. I reaaalllly wanted to do that in this piece.

So I brought in this poem “Oystercatchers in Flight” by Eamon Grennan, and the beginnings of a solo melodic line. Jim began to read the text and his mouth curled in an impish grin.

“I want to set this text,” he chuckled.

I sang him the line, and then we improvised together, jumping between singing and the piano, thinking about how to activate the breathless run-on sentence of a poem. That moment of recognition gave me the confidence to plunge into writing 70 minutes of vocal music; the confidence that I had something to say.

May Jim rest in piece, and may all who knew and loved him be comforted and sustained.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

And now for some live music…

The Kaufman Music Center in NYC has been organizing these fantastic pop-up concerts in storefronts near Lincoln Center. They’ve had some real heavies play, like Gil Shaham, Jessie Montgomery, and JACK Quartet. Last week, my good friends of Warp Trio played a few sets, and dusted off “A Thousand Skies” for the first time since COVID. Here’s a little bit more of their set:

Little did Warp know that playing something of mine at a Kaufman event is particularly meaningful for me – my great aunt Sue Shapiro was a big supporter of Kaufman, and would organize concerts with students from the Lucy Moses School at her retirement community in northern NJ. There she is, standing on the right!

Leave a comment

Filed under Goings-On

The Immeasurable Blank Space of Tones

swiftlutheradamsIn the fall of 2015, Taylor Swift made a $50,000 donation to the Seattle Symphony. In a letter to the orchestra’s music director, Ludovic Morlot, she said the donation was inspired by listening to the orchestra’s recording of Become Ocean, the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by composer John Luther Adams. Adams himself was delighted by the gesture, and wrote hopefully, “Through her generosity and her open ears, Taylor Swift is inviting her fans to experience a new and different kind of music.”

This week, in addition to dropping her seventh studio album, Lover, Swift noted in interviews that she is planning to re-record her first five albums to gain artistic and financial control over her material, after her masters were sold by her old record company.

In addition to re-recording her songs in their original form, perhaps it could be fun to throw in some remixed goodies as well. What if Swift teamed up with her favorite contemporary composer for one of those remixes? And what if it was of my personal favorite song “Blank Space?”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Almanac Sketches

Almanac_Kevin_Laskey_at_UniLu09649With the premiere of Almanac coming up tomorrow, I wanted to share some sketches and other goodies from the piece. If you’re curious about nerdy composer stuff, read on!

Movement III – Oystercatchers in Flight

The first part of Almanac that I wrote was a setting of Eamon Grennan’s poem “Oystercatchers in Flight,” which is now the third movement. To help constrain my pitch choices, I used some *gasp* serial technique! I can’t say that I use it a lot, and Schoenberg and Babbitt wouldn’t be too happy about how I used it here, which is to say relatively un-systematically.

A lot of the pitches in the movement are derived from this twelve note chord (labeled P0 in this first sketch).IMG_1485

The chord features a lot of different colors that I like—stacked fifths, whole tone segments, and this kind of major-7 with a sharpened/distorted octave on top. From there, I started writing the vocal line, which you can see in this second sketch.IMG_1486

The first segment uses pitches from that original chord, but the later segments were written much more intuitively. After writing the line, I figured out serially-derived alterations of the main chord that would more-or-less fit the different melodic segments, which you can see in the third sketch.IMG_1487

With all of those materials in place, it became a matter of writing lines that fit the harmonic plan and helped place the voice in the middle of a cold but kinetic landscape, like in this score example.Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 12.22.26 PM Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Instrumental Resistance


A performance of symphony for broken instruments at the 23rd Street Armory, Philadelphia

“Why didn’t they fix the instruments first, and then have us play the piece,” asked a middle-aged man sitting in front of me. He was fiddling with the third valve of an old trumpet, trying to free it from its stuck position. We were at a rehearsal for the project Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a large civic art project in Philadelphia that went up in the Fall of 2017. As one of the twenty-five section leaders, it was my task to help teach the piece symphony for broken instruments by the composer David Lang to some of the 400 professional and amateur musicians who had signed up to play.

“I’m not sure,” I answered. The man with the trumpet looked a little dismayed, seemingly concerned that the so-called section leader didn’t have a better idea of what was going on. Trying to save face, I continued, “I feel that not knowing how this all works can actually be a good thing. We’re figuring out how to make music in a different way than we’re used to. We’re going to try a lot of different things today, so let’s be open to whatever happens.”

“Trust the process,” my fellow section-leader Ben chimed in, repeating the mantra of Philadelphia’s long-improving professional basketball team. A few of the prepping musicians chuckled.

Although I didn’t have a good reason at the time why we were playing a symphony for broken instruments, rather than a symphony for instruments that used to be broken, but are now fixed and good as new, it’s clear to me now that project’s practical effectiveness and compelling artistry depended on those instruments’ brokenness. The project as a whole, and Lang’s composition in particular, transformed the essential hierarchical relationships of a typical orchestral performance. These relationship transformations turned the instruments into performative agents who could tell their previously-hidden stories of trauma and neglect. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Growing the Grass Roots: Some thoughts on devised music and pedagogy

In the fall of 1996, composer Gavin Chuck and conductor Alan Pierson were students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. They met at a party and began to talk about the contemporary music scene at the school. Chuck voiced his frustrations about the difficulties student composers faced in getting work for large ensemble performed, whether in school-sanctioned readings with the full orchestra, or in performances with hastily-rehearsed pickup groups. Pierson noted that among all of the contemporary music concerts at the school, none featured music by minimalist composers. Their conversation soon ballooned to include more friends, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to the creation of Eastman’s first student-run contemporary music group, Ossia, as well as the acclaimed and influential contemporary orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, which had its first performance under the baton of Mr. Pierson in May 2001.[1]

At the time of its founding, Alarm Will Sound was a rare bird in the contemporary music world. Many of its members were both composers and performers, and the group rehearsed collaboratively—a setup that put them in league with the social world of downtown minimalism. However, the members also all studied at one of the United States’ august conservatories and many of their early gigs were at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, performing the work of academic modernists like György Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle, and Augusta Read Thomas. This combination of intense, traditional conservatory training and a democratic, collaborative mindset to rehearsing and repertoire is reflected in the variety and creativity of their recorded projects, which not only feature works by composers as diverse Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow, and Charles Wuorinen, but also arrangements of music from outside the concert music world, including the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” and the work of Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin.

What’s most surprising about the group and their repertoire isn’t that classically-trained musicians can be interested in a huge range of music (just think of Gunther Schuller’s engagement with jazz, or Milton Babbit’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater). The real surprise is how influential Alarm Will Sound’s approach has become throughout the contemporary music scene around the United States. Groups like Ensemble Signal in New York, Contemporaneous (founded by students at Bard College), and wildUp in Los Angeles not only feature similar sizes/instrumentations as Alarm Will Sound, but also variety of repertoire. Other groups like Wet Ink feature composer-performers who both write for the group as a whole and perform their peers’ work. The piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire—another regular at the Miller Theatre Composers’ Portrait series—has premiered work by composers as diverse as Tristan Murail, orchestrally-minded singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and the experimental electronic musician Pete Swanson.

This proliferation of groups who create their own repertoire through some combination of collaborative composition, improvisation, and commissioning marks a sea change in how contemporary concert music gets made in the United States. Top-down institutions like universities, conservatories, and large arts organizations like symphony orchestras have lost profound influence as tastemakers and producers to these grass-roots ensembles. In this new world, academic music institutions are faced with a particular quandary—how can they simultaneously preserve the rigorous traditions of classical training while simultaneously preparing students to become creative and collaborative musicians in this wide-open, self-directed contemporary music scene? By looking into how and why ensembles like Alarm Will Sound make music in a particular way, these academic institutions can learn how to adapt their teaching for the music scene’s next generation of multi-faceted music-makers.

A good place to start in this discussion of music and pedagogy is to define what groups like Alarm Will Sound do. The kind of collaborative music-making that powers Alarm Will Sound has an analog in the theatre world—devised theatre. In a work of devised theatre, a script is created collaboratively by a group of actors, many times through improvisation, or short prepared excerpts known as etudes. In this way, the writing and rehearsal processes of the theatre piece are the same, rather than split between different people and places. Using the concept of devised theatre as a jumping-off point, devised music is a form of music-making where the performers have a greater degree of control over the music they perform than in a typical classical situation. In a traditional classical model, the performers interpret a work of music through performance, but do not have the agency to change the notes written on the page—they can affect how a piece sounds, but less of what sounds in a piece. Groups that make devised music can determine the what of a piece in addition to the how in three major ways:

  1. They can collaboratively compose music through group improvisation. These typically include groups with strong connections to the jazz tradition, like Anthony Braxton’s or John Zorn’s ensembles.
  2. Different performer-composers in a group write or arrange music for the group to play, with other performer-composers having some degree of editorial input. These include groups like Alarm Will Sound and Wet Ink.
  3. A group can curate its unique repertoire by commissioning an outside composer to write a piece, yet also have editorial control over the work via a collaborative process. Groups like So Percussion and Yarn/Wire, among many others, frequently work in this way.

Now that we have a working definition of what devised music is, we can look into an example of successful devised music and explore how its devised nature affects its result—how the process leads to its product—and the various source materials that go into the work, whether from within the traditions of western concert music or without. The example I’d like to explore here is Alarm Will Sound’s 2005 record Acoustica, featuring arrangements by group members of pieces by the electronic music artist Aphex Twin.

The original pitch for making acoustic arrangements of electronic music came from group violinist-vocalist-composer Caleb Burhans. While many members of Alarm Will Sound were intrigued by the notion by adding another layer of human input to a form of music that was already based on samplings of preexisting sounds, others were worried. Gavin Chuck notes that one member questioned whether the project would “…end up being like The New York Philharmonic Plays the Bee Gees.”[2] The group decided that the music of Aphex Twin would yield the meatiest results, with its breakneck tempos, rich soundworld, and dramatic jump cuts.

While each arrangement from the record is credited to a single group member, the pieces were workshopped extensively. There were disagreements about how close the arrangements should hew to the source material, or what a certain note or rhythm was within a dense texture. Alarm Will Sound explored their instruments collectively, finding out the best ways to mimic electronic sound through acoustic means. Their catalog of extended techniques and nonstandard percussion instruments purchased from hardware stores could be used throughout all of the arrangements, creating a unified soundworld. In this way, the results of the Acoustica project are profoundly impacted by the collaborative creative process. From conception to execution, the physical music was shaped as much, if not more, in the rehearsal hall than in an individual’s composition studio. One can imagine what a less collaborative Acoustica project would have sounded like. Composers would have offered arrangements that only scratched the surface of possibilities in terms of what acoustic instruments could achieve when imitating electronic sounds. Some composers might try to reproduce tracks exactly, while others may have hit walls in trying to mimic Aphex Twin’s complex sounds and opted for safer, more cover-oriented material.[3] In the end, this version of Acoustica would have been a curious experiment, a bit of let’s-be-hip crossover, rather than a deeply considered and holistically-constructed work. Instead, Acoustica as conceived and produced by Alarm Will Sound shows the exciting possibilities of collaborative devised music.

The fact that Acoustica was produced in a collaborative environment isn’t its only defining feature. It’s also important to note how the project arose from various musical sources, both within and without Alarm Will Sound’s classical training. It is not enough to note that Acoustica is a work of classically-trained musicians performing vernacular music. If that was all it was, its interest would be no greater than the aforementioned “New York Philharmonic plays The Bee-Gees.” What is interesting about the project is how the musicians both leverage and expand their conservatory training to execute the non-idiomatic difficulties found in the music of Aphex Twin. On a surface level, the performances on the album showcase the players’ command of their respective instruments. The clarity of fast runs reflect study of virtuosic showpieces, while the range of extended techniques used reflect deep experience with post-World War II concert music. From an arrangement standpoint, the writers use their ear training to figure out complex rhythms and melodic contours, as well as the components of multi-faceted textures.

While traditional conservatory training is a necessary part of Acoustica’s performance practice, it is not sufficient. The kind of rhythmic accuracy needed to convincingly perform Aphex Twin’s music, particularly in regards to syncopation, is usually overlooked in classical training, as it is not a significant part of western concert music (certain works of minimalism excepted). In particular, percussionist Jason Treuting is a virtuosic drum set player with enough experience playing rock, funk, and jazz to give Aphex Twin’s frenetic breakbeats the right rhythmic feel—a skill that isn’t formally taught in a typical conservatory percussion course of study. In order to play the music on Acoustica effectively, the players of Alarm Will Sound had to expand on their training and learn new, non-classical performance practices in a self-directed way.

Alarm Will Sound’s arrangement and performance of Aphex Twin on Acoustica is an effective work of devised music because of three main ingredients:

  1. A strong concept regarding the nature of control in different kinds of music, motivating the combination of vernacular electronic music and acoustic classical instruments
  2. A collaborative creative process that opened up a unified soundworld and quality of performance across the varied arrangements
  3. The players’ ability to both leverage their classical training and expand upon it to accurately convey the nuances of the non-classical source material

With these characteristics in mind, let’s return to the discussion of how to teach devised music in a conservatory environment, in order to better prepare students for today’s wide-open, grass-roots contemporary music world and inspire strong new work like Acoustica. The essential ingredients of Acoustica’s success have implications in the teaching of critical and creative thinking, collaborative rehearsal, and technical training at American conservatories. With the expressed goal of fostering effective devised music in the conservatory and the greater contemporary music scene, I have the following recommendations:

Strong devised music projects have a deeply-considered underlying concept that motivates the particular combination of repertoire, performance practice, and creative rehearsal process. These strong concepts require musicians to think critically and creatively about the music they listen to and perform. In order to inspire this kind of thinking, conservatories should better emphasize study in music history and liberal arts among performers and composers. This does not necessarily mean adding additional coursework. Instead, courses should move away from tired and simple surveys, instead taking a more interdisciplinary approach. An effective music history course could focus on the influence of electronic sound on acoustic music across different genres (looking at the work of Ligeti, Acoustica, and the bluegrass band Punch Brothers, to name a few). These academic courses should stimulate independent thinking and create opportunities for individualized projects based on students’ interests, rather than ticking off arbitrary requirements.


In order to foster a spirit of creative collaboration in students, conservatories should follow Eastman’s lead and create student-run contemporary music ensembles, or at least give students significant governing power in a departmental contemporary music ensemble. Beyond this, faculty should reevaluate how they teach chamber music. Instead of coaching groups from outside the performance or via conducting, teachers can embed themselves in groups, teaching the necessary skills of chamber music in a constructivist fashion through example. Many of the groups that I’ve mentioned in this article take this approach at the summer festivals they run, including Yarn/Wire and So Percussion (it is telling that three successful percussion groups have come out the inaugural class of the So Percussion Summer Institute in 2009).


Instrumental and musicianship training at the conservatory should reflect a broader range of music from outside the classical tradition. Conservatories should mandate a course in improvisation (Stony Brook University’s improvisation class led by trombonist Ray Anderson is a good example) and change the musicianship curriculum to encompass more diverse music (i.e. transcribing jazz solos or Indian classical music, or learning fiddle tunes by ear). In lessons and chamber music, students should be required to perform pieces that require non-classical performance practices, like string quartet pieces from the Brooklyn Rider Almanac, for example.

Individually, these recommendations can better prepare conservatory students for today’s contemporary music world, but collectively, they build on each other to inspire thoughtful and creative musicianship, rather than just good musicianship. For instance, a violin student may enjoy transcribing a James Brown vocal line in musicianship class, which could lead her to the Brown-inspired string quartet piece Dig The Say by Vijay Iyer that she’ll put together with a group of friends for chamber music class, which could then motivate a larger project that interfaces with vernacular dance traditions. With studio work and narrowly-focused institutional (i.e. orchestra) jobs fewer and farther between, academic music training in the United States must adjust to this new reality. These changes are not mere practical realism, however. More importantly, they effectively foster the creation of exciting and relevant new work for the concert hall and beyond.


[1] This story is adapted from Gavin Chuck’s short history of Alarm Will Sound,


[3] An apt analog to this non-collaborative bizzaro-world version of Acoustica is a series of arrangements of traditional Irish songs for singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Some composers effectively got inside the songs, while others seemed to just add their stylistic flourishes to the surface. For more information, seeós-made-new-for-iarla-ó-lionáird-1.1518742

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Listening to Blackstar on this January Day

David Bowie—the artist who transcended style and media and form and perhaps his own self—died yesterday, 2 days after his 69th birthday and the release of what is now his final album, Blackstar.

The tributes and remembrances that I’ve seen today have been moving and wide-ranging, reflecting Bowie’s unique influence on listeners of all kinds. Composer/violinist/Arcade Fire member Owen Pallett has a touching story about having dinner with Bowie back in 2005. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is overwhelmed by Bowie’s making art in the face of death. And actor Simon Pegg put it beautifully and succinctly:

“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Like Gilbert, I am deeply moved by Bowie’s ability not just to create while confronting his mortality head on, but to continue to stretch himself in new directions. I’ve not only admired Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself (rock’s version of a Stravinsky or Miles Davis), but also his collaborative approach—how he embraces the knowledge and insight of others to expand his art’s expressive range.

Blackstar (and his previous single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” released in October 2014), find Bowie once again challenging himself to expand his art through collaboration, this time with New York jazz musicians (many of whom I’ve written about here and at Jazz Speaks). Sitting at home on this cold and sunny afternoon, all I can think of to do is delve into this valedictory work and bid farewell to this inimitable human being.

Track 1: Blackstar

This is a sprawling odyssey, but the direction of motion is uncertain. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is energetic and intense, but also brutally syncopated, as if gracefully tap dancing in lead shoes. The other band members seem to be moving at different speeds and in different directions. Guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerpicking is relaxed, peacefully drifting through keyboardist Jason Lindner’s vintage synth patches, while saxophonist Donny McCaslin swoops in and out with melodic fragments that move at yet a different rate. The atmosphere is simultaneously tranquil and deeply unsettling.

Bowie’s vocals are striking and declamatory, almost a sacred chorale. He harmonizes himself, an ethereal falsetto floating an octave and a fifth above his main note. That interval is part of the harmonic series, meaning that the two pitches, though far apart, are proportionally related and fuse in the mind. It’s as if I’m hearing both Bowie’s earthly and heavenly voices simultaneously. Both Bowie’s voice and McCaslin’s saxophone are mixed in a way to make it seem that the performers are moving in space in relation to me as the listener. Sometimes, they seem far away, other times close up. Sometimes they move from my right to my left side. It’s disorienting and positively spine-tingling.

At about four minutes in, the rhythms break down, the song reaching a place of restless repose. A new major-key chord progression enters, surrounded by the opening section’s fizzy haze. Bowie intones:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Poignancy aside, I’m really curious about the meaning of the word “blackstar,” particularly in how he contrasts it with not being a “gangstar,” “film star,” “pop star,” “marvel star,” “white star,””porn star,” or “wandering star.” Maybe it’s just the fact that the lyrics move to the second person, with Bowie addressing some unknown you, but I get a sort of Walt Whitman-esque feeling here. Perhaps “blackstar” is a way of saying that “I contain multitudes,” that this bridge is a sort of bizarro Song of Myself. After hearing the obtuse lyrics of the opening section that can disorient or alienate, Bowie is inviting the listener to ponder them, explore the blackness and the mystery. The things that the listener may not understand in a Bowie song are just as much an authentic part of him as the things that the listener can understand. This simultaneous disorientation and embrace is something that I experience in a lot of great music. I think jazz pianist Brad Mehldau puts it pretty well when he describes the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s like they’re saying: Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.

Of all the headlines Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States this week, this is one of the most recent:

Ok, ok that was an understatement—it’s also the most surreal one. The track—which has been streamed over 231,000 times so far today—does a respectable job of using a vernacular musical style to open up a space for communication and connection. After a slow-building opening that merges prog-rock organ with more post-rock guitar atmospherics, brass instruments enter on a square and declamatory melody that feels like a traditional hymn tune. This use of sacred music signifiers helps transform the rock milieu of the introduction, creating a dramatic juxtaposition that motivates the entrance Pope Francis’s sermon.

But in the end, the song isn’t all that memorable and doesn’t have all that much to offer in terms of musical richness or production values (it sounds like it was recorded in a home studio, with a lot of MIDI instruments, and a clunky, computerized drummer). It’s hard to imagine a song that sounds like this getting more than a handful of streams on the day of its release without the Pope’s imprimatur. Compared to the other ways Pope Francis has carried out his ministry—the strongly worded speeches, sermons, and encyclicals, his public interaction with the avoided and vulnerable, his predilections for Fiats and Ford Focuses—this one probably won’t be something he’s remembered for. However, I was struck by this quote from Don Giulio Neroni, the producer and artistic director not only of this work, but of albums with Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

As in the past, for this album too, I tried to be strongly faithful to the pastoral and personality of Pope Francis: the Pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality. For this reason, the voice of Pope Francis in Wake Up! dialogues music. And contemporary music (rock, pop, Latin etc.) dialogues with the Christian tradition of sacred hymns.

As someone who likes to create poly-stylistic dialogues in my own music, I certainly appreciate what “Wake Up!” is going for. But it also made me think about other music that engages in this dialogue of the sacred and secular more effectively, something that actually transforms both musical medium and ecclesiastical message.

Over the past two centuries or so, there have been a lot of works that use Christian sacred texts, but were meant to be performed in more-or-less secular spaces. There have been many rich and affecting concert requiems by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Faure, and Benjamin Britten (whose War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem text with poetry by Wilfred Owen). The work of Olivier Messiaen has much dazzling Christian imagery, many times articulated as a kind of ecstatic bird song (something the animal love Pope Francis could get behind. He’d also like Messiaen’s dramatic work about the original St. Francis). Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich both composed vibrant and joyful settings of Hebrew psalms. And current New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli recently composed a haunting, postmodern “Vespers For a New Dark Age,” a piece that deftly explores a changing relationship to the otherworldly in a world an increasingly technological world.

(A somewhat exhaustive playlist of the music discussed in this post)

Pope Francis and Don Giulio Neroni should definitely check all these works out if they haven’t done so, but if they only have time to listen to a ponder a single work that effectively interfaces the sacred and secular in this era, then I would suggest they spend some time with Osvaldo Golijov’s bracing Pasión según San Marcos from the year 2000.

Osvaldo Golijov’s life and music are suffused with contrasts. He grew up in Catholic Argentina, son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and an atheist father. He remembers a lot of different music floating around the house while growing up; traditional European classical; klezmer and Jewish liturgical music; the tangos of Astor Piazzola. While much of his music blends these various influences, none are so brazenly genre-crossing as his passion setting. Golijov was commissioned by conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling to write a passion based on St. Mark’s gospel in honor of the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. Golijov was unfamiliar with Mark’s specific account of Jesus’s death, but he was very familiar with the public depictions of Jesus he grew up with in Argentina. Using both his life experience and varied musical influences as a guide, Golijov gives Mark’s passion a distinctively Latin American flavor, complete with propulsive, percussive music based on flamenco, rhumba, samba, and other Latin dance styles.

Golijov’s composition is as much a passion play as concert piece. There are dance breaks inspired by the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and the choristers have choreography as well, including an intense flamenco foot-stomping sequence as Jesus stands silently before Pilate. It also has a strong ritualistic element because of there aren’t any texts from outside the passion that act as commentary. The visual spectacle of Pasión según San Marcos links it to Latin American street festivals, like Posadas, but curiously, it lacks is a clear segregation of characters. There is no single evangelist part—like Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions—or a Jesus soloist. Instead, the words are spread among the choir and a variety of soloists who play no specific role.

The alternation of choral and solo settings of Jesus’s words has particularly striking implications. Jesus is not just a first century Galilean Jew, but a transcendent being whose story plays out in the daily lives of the poor and politically oppressed of Latin America, as symbolized by the choir members dressed in humble robes. The combination of multiple storytellers, settings of vernacular translations of Mark’s gospel, and the mixing of popular Latin music styles make Golijov’s passion a musical analog of liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría’s concept of the “crucified peoples,” where Jesus is encountered through the experience of those on the world’s margins. Golijov is not setting the passion story as much as a particular experience of the passion, one that transcends its typical setting in Christian ritual.

Golijov’s work has a complicated relationship with the secular concert hall. With its shear volume, theatrical presentation, and percussive intensity, the passion attacks the listeners’ senses and forces them to deal with Golijov’s politicized message. If listeners disagree with or cannot relate to the message, the passion becomes obnoxious pastiche of popular Latin forms because these musical gestures lose their symbolic meaning of communicating the experience of a common Latin American person. In addition, Golijov’s particular fusion of text and musical styles can come off as disrespectful and drain much of the passion’s Christian meaning. In a review of the passion in the Christian journal First Things, music theorist and composer Michael Linton criticized many of Golijov’s musical gestures that he felt were ineffective at articulating the true meaning of Mark’s passion. He was particularly critical of the settings of Jesus’s dialogue for a female soloist that utilized singer Luciana Souza’s range extremities and Middle Eastern melismas, making Jesus look and sound like a “disembodied transsexual lunatic.” Linton was also disappointed at Golijov’s emphasis on political symbolism over character development, particularly during the foot-stomping section before Pilate. For Linton, Golijov’s passion is unsuccessful because the music undermines the story by advancing the composer’s own agenda, misappropriating the passion narrative for his own ends, rather than treating the passion as an end in and of itself.

However, La Pasión según San Marcos is admirable for its creative audacity. Despite not being a Christian himself, Osvaldo Golijov sees that the passion narrative is inextricably linked to Christian ritual. Thus in order to create an effective concert passion in a secular space, a composer must embrace the passion as a form of prayer, and not just a simple story that can be treated humanistically. By setting the words of Jesus—plainly-translated from Mark’s gospel—for singers of all kinds, Golijov articulates the transformational power of Christian ritual rooted in the passion narrative; a power that can transform the concert hall into a genuine place of worship. However, as the composition itself sees no boundaries between pop and classical, music and theater, religious ritual and secular life, it transforms the communicative power and reception of the Christian message, stripping away sticky doctrine to reach the heart of Mark’s gospel. The music’s sincerity and exuberance breaks down boundaries between the text, performer, and listener alike, inviting all to join in celebratory and communal music-making.

In this way, Osvaldo Golijov’s Pasión según San Marcos beautifully encapsulates Pope Francis’s ministry of encounter. In the making of the work itself, a Jewish Argentinian encountered Mark’s passion and discovered that it resonated with his experience in contemporary culture. The text of Mark’s gospel encounters the Spanish language, as well as Jewish traditions, as Golijov ends the work with a haunting setting of the Kaddish in Hebrew. Contemporary art music encounters vernacular styles from across Latin America, creating a rich and emotionally potent hybrid. And today’s staid concert culture, with its assigned seats and separation of performer and audience, encounters the theater of religious ritual. What would it be like to experience this musical encounter in St. Peter’s Basilica on a Good Friday?

Leave a comment

Filed under Think Pieces

For Gunther Schuller

Composer, performer, conductor, scholar, teacher, administrator, auto-didact, genre-coiner, nifty hairdo-wearer, and fiend for fat ties Gunther Schuller died today at the age of 89.

Throughout all of his life roles, Schuller’s principle project was bringing together music from the western classical tradition and the African-American jazz tradition. He played French Horn on Miles Davis’s seminal record Birth of the Cool. He wrote a pair of groundbreaking (though flawed–transcribing is hard!) books on early jazz and swing music that attempted to look at this music through the lens of classical music theory. He wrote music for mixed ensembles of jazz and classical players, juxtaposing serial techniques with swing and improvisation—a style he named “Third Stream.” And he founded not one but two departments devoted to jazz and improvisation at New England Conservatory, some of the first of their kind in the United States. As my friend/fellow composer Joe Sferra wrote on Facebook, “Any one of his projects would be a life’s work of great historical import to music, and he had SEVERAL of them.”

I was lucky enough to hear Gunther Schuller speak before a concert at NEC a couple of years ago. He was clear-eyed, passionate, and sincere about the music he wrote and enjoyed, and had a number of colorful stories about the many great musicians he worked with over the course of his long career.

But tellingly, Schuller wasn’t absorbed in the past, and instead was visibly excited about the new music that was to be performed that night—music that used many forms of improvisation to draw from diverse musical traditions. Even though he was decorated in all of his musical pursuits (Pulitzer, MacArthur, you name it) you could tell that he was most proud of opening doors for others through his teaching and administration.

Thank you, Mr. Schuller, for opening doors for people like me. I’m still trying to figure out this whole jazz-classical hybrid thing too, but I know I have a really good path to follow.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A conversation with myself (about David Bowie & Maria Schneider)

“Hey! What’s doing?”

“Hey back! A lot of things doing actually.”

“I’m not surprised. You haven’t written anything new on the blog in 2 months.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. But there’s still a lot of good stuff going up at JazzSpeaks! Keep your eyes peeled for a discursive interview with the amazing composer/drummer Tyshawn Sorey on Tuesday.”

“Cool. I know you’ve mentioned him before as someone doing really interesting/out-there/exciting stuff. But anyway, the thing that’s surprising me right now is that jazz seems to be having some kind of cultural moment.”

“What do you mean. We all know jazz is dead, right?”

“Haha. Very funny. What I mean is that jazz is popping up in some unexpected places, and without the influence of a neoclassicist like Wynton Marsalis. This new movie Whiplash about an aspiring jazz drummer and the relationship with this tyrannical teacher has gotten huge raves. And apparently another highly anticipated movie, Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a washed up action star trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway show, has a score that’s just some jazz drummer playing beats.”

“Yeah. That drummer is Antonio Sanchez, who’s best-known for playing with guitarist Pat Metheny for the past decade. Check out this solo!”

“Yikes. Those are some chops, man!”

“Oh yeah. Beats for days.”

“Jazz is also topping the charts right now for the first time in I don’t know when with that Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga record.”

“Yeah! I checked it out and though it’s very old-school traditional, it’s well done. Gaga knows this material, and though there are sometimes she goes too big and milks phrases unnecessarily, she doesn’t feel out of place. And the arrangements are all solid and the band is on point. I won’t complain if a lot of people want to buy it! I’d be interested in a Gaga solo effort though where she writes old-school-sounding material and tours with a big band.”

“That would be interesting to say the least. And beyond that record, there’s the new Flying Lotus record that everyone’s raving about. He’s related to Coltrane somehow, right?

“His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the great pianist & composer (and John’s wife), which also means his cousin is the great contemporary saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. But he really has his own distinct personality and the musicianship to back it up. I’ve been loving this track from the new album featuring Kendrick Lamar and a blistering solo by the bassist Thundercat.”

“Wow. This is pretty insane. And now I hear that David Bowie is releasing a new single with a jazz big band?”

“Yeah! It’s this tune called ‘Sue (or in a season of crime).’ He recorded it this past summer with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of my favorite groups, and one whose influence on my own writing is hard to discount.”

“So is he just trying to capitalize on this Gaga-Bennett craze for pop stars singing jazz standards?”

“I wouldn’t say so. While half of Schneider’s brass section did play on that Gaga-Bennett record, she’s not a traditionalist at all. Actually, she hasn’t written anything that swings in a traditional sense in like 15-20 years. And I don’t think Schneider would do something like this just for the money. She’s actually been quite successful as jazz artists go.”

“Oh wait. I just heard the song got released today on this BBC radio show, and now it’s posted on YouTube.”

“Sweet. Let’s check it out.” Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews