two concerts of ‘new music’



1) PERFORMANCE OF FEBRUARY 28, 1976 at Walter Hall, University of Toronto, Canada.

Music of Steve Reich / Salvitore Martirano / Musica Electronica Viva with Roscoe Mitchell

The New Music Concert series, directed by composer Norma Beecroft and flautist Robert Aitken, has been a fixture of Toronto’s established “classical” music scene for some five years. Not until this concert, however, had any attempt been made to touch base with other New Musics – specifically the Great Black Music developing out of the AACM – and even that was unintentional on the part of the producers. As it turned out, they invited Musica Electronica Viva, under Richard Teitelbaum’s direction, to perform, and Teitelbaum – in the tradition of MEV’s previous guest artists (Braxton, Lacy, Thornton) – asked Roscoe Mitchell to join. As Teitelbaum has pointed out, in the music of Braxton, Sun Ra, and many others there is a large and growing overlap between techniques drawn from the AfroAmerican heritage and those of post-Stockhausen Europe. Therefore, perhaps those of us immersed in New Black Music should pay more attention to this New Music as well (and vice versa). But – of which more later – having been subjected for an afternoon to the so-called intelligentia this music attracts, I have my doubts.

The afternoon concert opened with percussion composer Steve Reich directing and playing four compositions with local performers (the members of “Nexus”); the evening concert was to feature the Canadian premiere of his “Drumming” for percussion, voice, and piccolo, but tickets were impossible to come by. Reich turned to percussion as a revolt against the dehumanization of electronic sound. The tasks he chose had to do with reiterated rhythmic patterns, stacked in multiple counterwoven layers and evolving repeat by repeat. He superimposes real time on elastic time, and plays the sounds of his instruments off against the acoustics of the hall. As much of the impact of his music depends on the actuality of what he writes or plays as on its perception from the audience’s seating – echo, sum and difference tones, and beats, all leading to the superposition of accent shifts and drones. In “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ,” he uses voice as percussion, mixing with the impression of non-sustained tone, room echo, and organ drones to achieve a very metallic sound, almost trombonish, for the vocal articulation. The patterns were all fascinatingly intricate. But in all of this – the return to simplicity of medium (the concert also included pieces for two pairs of clapping hands and for five sets of claves) – his search for a diffuse, filtered sound is a retreat from the reality of his medium almost as extreme as the affirmations of technology indulged in by the original workers in electronic music and musique concrete. To me, his was a lightweight communication of rejection that said nothing about the present.

The second act, even emptier, was by University of Illinois composition professor Salvatore Martirano at the cockpit of his own electronic music machine, the Sal-Mar Construction. The machine is impressive; it allows the advance dialing of any combination of sound to be spatially scattered into twenty-four speakers. Each hung over the heads of the audience and illuminated according to rhythm, intensity, and sound location. The bullshit gadgetry made him look like a kid turned loose in a toy factory. We were treated to all the supersonic twitterings, subaudible snarfs, snorts, wheezes, cackles, and grunts that flesh, integrated circuitry and tin are heir to …without rhyme or reason of any sort. But – curiously to me – this is what the audience wanted.

from left to right: Allan Bryant, Ivan Vandor, Richard Teitelbaum, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran.

Apart from the impotent and pompously-received “Gee, dad, it’s a Wurlitzer” of a Martirano, EuroNew Music has not in the past two decades recognized improvisation as a valid means to musical ends – not since Lukas Foss was the bright young whiz kid coming up. But in a music that eschews expressive ends to art altogether (viz. the writings of John Cage), that’s not very surprising. For an ensemble like Musica Elettronica Viva, freely improvising with power, to take the stage in a concert like this was virtually an unprecedented event; to me, the only potential anomaly was the inclusion of a synthesizer in a small-scale free collective music. To say the audience was overwhelmed would be hyperbole; that they approved, a lie; it is fair to suggest that they were shocked.

MEV played essentially fleet cluster music with great impetus. The players each brought their own concepts to their instruments. Although he occasionally groped for sounds that seemed mildly inappropriate, Richard Teitelbaum made an excellent case for the synthesizer in this limited scale free music, improvising freely rather than around the sounds of the other instruments (as in the recordings with Braxton). He prepares and manages the tonal vocabulary at hand with the same incisive precision as Cecil Taylor prepares his piano. Frederick Rzewski, sitting across the stage at a piano, was frequently seen but unheard against the ensemble. His instrument was crucial to quantum steps of power in the music, and his command showed an equal portion of David Tudor on one hand and Taylor on the other.

garrettlist.jpgTrombonist Garrett List devoted a great deal of almost painful thought to his every utterance. He is an elegant free trombonist making use of lip sounds, microtonal slurs contrasted with wide leaps through his range, and the full dynamic potential of his instrument. gregoryreeve.jpgDrummer Gregory Reeve provided a non-rhythmic timbral barrage that more counterpointed than contributed to the power. Ultimately, the framework was laid out by “guest” artist Mitchell, who overtook the ensemble at all points to singlehandedly establish its direction. His playing was as explosively gutbucket as ever, with a touch of the same spectacle (simultaneous playing of bass and soprano saxophones; improvising on the sound of his bass saxophone being dragged across the stage; circus marches and polkas) that the Art Ensemble of Chicago carries. roscoerogers.jpgMaybe he felt the same bad audience vibes I did. Ultimately, MEV’s art was a music of identity and power – two elements that had been thoroughly lacking in the previous sets. But while the audience as a whole responded to aimless meanderings and other shams, it could not accept the communicative element Mitchell and MEV brought [Roscoe Mitchell Photo: John Rogers] to their set (in the process, making mockeries of the two previous performances). Some audience members left on seeing Roscoe, without hearing him play a note; there was great deal of audience chatter about “put ons.” I submit to those there, that afternoon, that New European music is the last lily-white fortress of “serious” (their term) musical endeavor, and that they were not ready for a Black creator to show them just how empty all of it was.

Barry Tepperman, 1976

2) PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 6. 1976 at A-Space, Toronto, Canada.

Richard Teitelbaum – Frederic Rzewski – Anthony Braxton

contrabassbraxton.jpgIt’s amazing how much difference can exist between audiences. A week before this, Musica Elettronica Viva with Roscoe Mitchell as guest artist had antagonized an establishment audience oriented to EuroNew Music, creating a predictable confrontation by countering the listeners’ vaporous aesthetic of means as its own end with power, form, and individuality. Teitelbaum and Rzewski, the two pillars of Musica Elettronica Viva, reappeared this weekend in company with Anthony Braxton, who also embraces the Great Black Music in a personal manner that overrides Europe’s stale idiomatic walls. They returned this time in triumph, to an audience who first shared Braxton’s views of artistry. On that basis, they were open to accept Teitelbaum and Rzewski on the level of personal artistries rather than responding to manipulated preconceptions.

Each set of the Saturday evening concert began with performances of fully-notated piano works – one by Teitelbaum (”Intersections“), one by Braxton (“PJS-4-OK-MIXH”). Each form drew for its form contrasts between the resources of the keyboard. Teitelbaum’s alternated drifting sections of chordal harmony with kinetic, percussive tone clusters over a progressive variation of attack and dynamics. The work by Braxton stretched time and dynamic range elastically around repeated rhythmic figures, contrasting space and silence with heavy chord blocking. Teitelbaum was initially apprehensive about presenting these works to this audience, but unnecessarily so. Musical power and its accrual by contrast is hardly an unfamiliar compositional (spontaneous) device of the New Black Music post-Coltrane/Taylor. And for all the depth of its preconception, Rzewski proved himself still an effective interpreter of the most complex art, drawing the maximal timbral nuance from variations in attack and dynamics.


Richard Teitelbaum

The second performance for each set was a trio improvisation for piano, synthesizer, and reeds. Teitelbaum’s “Trio” was conceived circularly in multiple segments along timbral and ensemble textural lines. Apart from brief prewritten scaler motifs to be regenerated at variable intervals in the three voices, all that was charted was a subjective description of textures and range (in terms of Braxton’s choice of reed) to be achieved. The composer showed himself here – as in all other of his performances I’ve had the pleasure of hearing – to be a synthesizerist of uncommon subtlety. He uses the tonal range of his instrument not for exploratory purposes only but deliberately as an orchestral countervoice, and he conceives of the role of the synthesizer not as a musical center but as a link between levels of power in his ensemble. To my ears his is the first concept of the synthesizer as an effective contribution to ensemble voicing. It being that his instrument embraces intensity and unity above all, his role for the instrument is the only viable one offered to date. Rzewski improvised cyclically, building power in spirals that grew and subsided in especial response to the electronic sound, achieving a fleet cluster force drawing more formally from Cecil Taylor than from David Tudor or Aloys Kontarsky. Braxton played over and through the others, but the interaction beneath him was so great that he never became a solely dominating voice. He by now has arrived at a distinctive conceptual personality for each of his instruments, and built each of his segments as a compositional proposition around the tonal resources of his individual woodwind of the time.

Frederic Rzewski

The second trio piece, titled simply “Improvisation” (author unannounced), placed a much higher premium on totally spontaneous composition. Space was of far greater importance as a formal element than in “Trio,” and the three improvisers independently reached a personal unity that was quite as strong and purposeful as their group voice. One area, for solo alto saxophone, achieved an intensity that summoned members of the audience to scream to Braxton’s call. Ostinato figures would be transmitted from voice to voice before elaboration. Rzewski was at his most impressive in a section alternating a near-classic verbality with a clipped ellipsis of articulation. The synthesizer was vital as a source of melodic information rather than just (”just”?) as the unifier.

I find it hard to speak in great detail about a performance so live, so “gone in the air” (as Dolphy said). My fleeting impressions are perhaps cryptic. But Richard Teitelbaum is opening new horizons in the relevance of the synthesizer to improvised music. Frederick Rzewski is a powerful voice we have ignored in our midst. Anthony Braxton is approaching the universality his heritage so needs – so much so that Ted Joans evidently considers him “a danger to the tradition.” Need I say more?

Barry Tepperman, 1976


more on Fredereick Rzewski , Richard Teitelbaum, Alvin Curran, Garrett List, Gregory Reeve