The Music

Notes on the music from: Syntax

Posted by SoundBox

April 26, 2019

PAMELA Z: Quatre Couches, Badagada, and Breathing (1988, 2015, 2013  |  total 7 mins)
PAMELA Z: Born and Home from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  2 mins)
BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24  (1947  |  15 mins)

MARK APPLEBAUM: Aphasia (2010  |  9 mins)
PAMELA Z: A Piece of π from And the Movement of the Tongue (2013  |  2 mins)
PAMELA Z: Typewriter (2003  |  3 mins)
PAMELA Z: Cupertino from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  2 mins)

PAMELA Z: Heiligenstadt Lament (2019  |  8 mins)
PAMELA Z: Learned in the South and Henry in Cuffs from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  2 mins)
TOM JOHNSON: Narayana's Cows (1969 |  15 mins)



PAMELA Z: Quatre Couches, Badagada, and Breathing   (1988, 2015, 2013  |  total 7 mins)
Pamela Z (b.1956) offers these comments: Quatre Couches is a sonic trifle, tiramisu, or mille-feuille—juxtaposing four contrasting layers and manually toying with them—mixing them and moving them around on the plate until they all melt away. In Badagada, the syllables "ba-da-ga-da-ga-da-ga-da-ga" are layered in multiple delay lines to form a harmonic, rhythmic accompaniment to a melody sung in English. Breathing is a solo version of a movement from my 2013 multi-media chamber work, Carbon Song Cycle, which was originally scored for voice & electronics, bassoon, viola, cello, and percussion. Tonight’s version is reduced to spare voice and processing.

PAMELA Z: Born and Home from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  4 mins)
Pamela Z offers these comments: And the Movement of the Tongue is a work about speaking accents—specifically accented English. It started as an exploration of the profusion of broad-ranging accents that abound in the San Francisco Bay Area. But my last 2-1/2 months of composing the work were spent at an artist residency in North Carolina, so I couldn’t help but to expand the scope of the piece to include some of the richness in speaking accents I found there.

I have always had a fascination with language and speech, and have made many works that use the sound of the human voice as both an inspiration and a primary source for the actual generation of the music. I spend a lot of time listening to, exploring, and working with speech sounds, but in this case my focus was on the sometimes subtle and sometimes extreme differences in pronunciation and inflections of various English speakers.

To create this piece, I conducted and recorded interviews with a number of people who speak English with a variety of either regional, foreign language, or cultural accents. Combing through those recorded interviews, I hand selected speech fragments (phonemes, words, phrases, and complete sentences) that I found to be sonically or musically interesting. I created hundreds of audio clips, which I used to construct the text collage that became a kind of armature for the work. Many of the motifs in the string parts were derived from the melodic and rhythmic material found in the samples of those speech fragments.

The interviews, though fairly short and limited to the topic of accent, were compelling, amusing, and often revealing. The subjects willingly engaged in discussion about their own speech and what they felt influenced it. They also offered thoughtful insights concerning everything from social biases toward or against various accents to questioning the validity of the idea of a “pure,” “correct,” or “unaccented” English. And they all provided a seemingly endless supply of rhythmically, melodically, and timbrally rich building blocks for music. For that I’d like to extend thanks to my interviewees: Jordan Bass, Hugh Buck, Luciano Chessa, Mel Chin, Hank Dutt, Claudia Gonzales-Griffin, Guillermo Galindo, David Harrington, Ruth Hawkins, Martine Jardel, Joan Jeanrenaud, Peter Kaars, Lakshmi Karna, Manoj Kesavan, Tomoo Kitamura, Dennis Lemmons, John Love, Ibrahim Miranda, Anne Pajunen, JoAnn Sieburg-Baker, John Sherba, Donald Swearingen, David West, and Jeffrey Zeigler.

BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24  (1947  |  15 mins)
“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” These words, which are inscribed (but not sung) at the head of Barber’s score for the piece, are drawn from a prose poem by the author James Agee (1909-55) that the composer had found in an anthology of writings from The Partisan Review. Barber identified with the text’s images: “Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply,” he later recalled, “and my musical response was immediate and intense. . . . The summer evening he describes . . . reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home.”

When Barber finally met Agee, after he had finished this “lyric rhapsody,” he discovered that their childhood memories agreed in certain particulars: “We both had back yards where our families used to lie in the long summer evenings, we each had an aunt who was a musician. I remember well my parents sitting on the porch, talking quietly as they rocked. And there was a trolley car with straw seats and a clanging bell called ‘The Dinky’ that traveled up and down the main street.” The soprano Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the work and was the soloist at its premiere, insisted, “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia.” Similarly Leontyne Price, an indelible interpreter of the work: “As a Southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father . . . my home town. . . . You can smell the South in it.” Knoxville, West Chester, Wheeling, the South—it could just as easily be anywhere in small-town America in the innocent years before World War I changed the nation and the world forever.

Barber created Knoxville: Summer of 1915 in a flurry of inspiration. Rather than set Agee’s text wholesale, he selected passages to craft into a libretto and then completed the musical composition in the space of only a few days, finishing it on April 4, 1947. Family was much on his mind at the time, as both his father and his aunt Louise were terminally ill. Louise Homer would die that May, and his father, to whose memory the work is dedicated, would follow three months later. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 bears witness that Barber responded to these losses not with anger, but rather with tender contemplation and sincere nostalgia.

The piece unrolls leisurely in a single movement. LISTEN FOR: The soprano’s line captures the conversational flow of the text, while the chamber orchestra delicately evokes the charmed atmosphere—from the swaying of a porch rocker to the rattling of a streetcar—without ever resorting to cheap effects. Few pieces have ever sounded at once so simple and so unquestionably like a masterpiece.




MARK APPLEBAUM: Aphasia  (2010  |  10 mins)
Mark Applebaum’s (b.1967) works challenge conventional musical settings: works for three conductors and no players, a concerto for florist and orchestra, pieces for instruments made of junk, notational specifications that appear on the faces of custom wristwatches, works for an invented sign language choreographed to sound, amplified Dadaist rituals, a chamber work comprised of obsessive page turns, and a 72-foot long graphic score displayed in a museum and accompanied by no instructions for its interpretation. Applebaum is also an accomplished jazz pianist and builds electroacoustic sound-sculptures out of junk, hardware, and found objects. Professor of Composition at Stanford, he is the founding director of [sic]—the Stanford Improvisation Collective

The composer offers these comments on Aphasia: Aphasia, conceived originally for singer and two-channel tape, was commissioned by the GRM, Paris, and composed for virtuoso singer Nicholas Isherwood. The tape, an idiosyncratic explosion of warped and mangled sounds, is made up exclusively of vocal samples—all sung by Isherwood and subsequently transformed digitally. Against the backdrop of this audio narrative, the singer performs an elaborate set of hand gestures, an assiduously choreographed sign language of sorts. Each gesture is fastidiously synchronized to the tape in tight rhythmic coordination. The eccentricity of the hand gestures is perhaps upstaged only by the observation that the singer, however extraordinary, produces no sound in concert. (In fact, the role of the “singer” may be taken by any performer of suitably enthusiastic inclination and conviction.)

In that regard Aphasia may be the first piece in the vocal canon that can be performed even when the singer has laryngitis.

PAMELA Z: A Piece of π from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  2 mins)
[See above.]

PAMELA Z: Typewriter  (2003  |  3 mins)
Pamela Z offers these comments: This short, spoken piece uses for voice, processing, and typewriter samples (triggered with a gesture controller). It grew out of a segment of a collaborative work Pamela Z did with 77hz called Correspondence that was commissioned by the (then) Minnesota Composer’s Forum and premiered at LACE in Los Angeles.

PAMELA Z: Cupertino from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  2 mins)
[See above.]



PAMELA Z: Heiligenstadt Lament  (2019  |  8 mins)
Last May, composer/conductor/author Steven Schick contacted me and asked if I would compose something to open the “Beethoven Interpolations” concert he was planning for the San Francisco Conservatory Chamber Orchestra. He suggested that I consider using as source or inspiration the text from Beethoven’s famed Heiligenstadt Testament. I found Beethoven’s words to be so disillusioned and desperate in tone that it seemed only fitting to make the piece dolorous and lamenting. But I also couldn't resist the instinct to do something playful—something related to my penchant for sampling, layering, looping, and fragmentation. I decided to use the orchestra as a big, living, sample playback device by creating their phrases and motifs from chopped-up, granulated, and drastically stretched fragments of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. It’s gratifying to have the opportunity to present this piece again, and to perform it with members of the San Francisco Symphony.

PAMELA Z: Learned in the South and Henry in Cuffs from And the Movement of the Tongue  (2013  |  4 mins)
[See above.]

TOM JOHNSON: Narayana's Cows   (1969 |  15 mins)
Narayana was an Indian mathematician in the fourteenth century, who proposed the following problem: A cow produces one calf every year. Beginning in its fourth year, each calf produces one calf at the beginning of each year. How many cows and calves are there altogether after 20 years?

In 1969, Narayana’s problem inspired Tom Johnson (b.1939) to compose his popular Narayana's Cows. Johnson belongs to a rich tradition of artists—from Marcel Duchamp through John Cage—who prefer to “find” rather than “create.” In his music he works with simple forms, limited scales, and reduced materials, yet he proceeds in a more logical way than most Minimalists, often using the regularity, logic, and symmetry of formulas, permutations, predictable sequences, and various mathematical models to build beautiful musical bodies of work. LISTEN FOR: Serving as much more than atmospheric sound, Johnson’s clarity of texture, his ear for transparent harmony, and a preference for simple and elegant rhythmical designs serve as essential structural determinants that drive the forms themselves.

JEANETTE YU is Editorial Director at the San Francisco Symphony.