The Music

Notes on Music at “Extremities”

Posted by SoundBox

December 9, 2014

In Extremities, members of the San Francisco Symphony launch SoundBox, making music with pieces of wood, sirens, a lion’s roar, and more.

The first four pieces trace the organic origins of music, when the human voice was everyone’s go-to instrument. Members of the SFS Chorus sing works ranging from early Gothic Gregorian to modern Meredith Monk-style chants.


VARIOUS: "Stella splendens in monte," from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat | 3 min

Stella splendens in monte (circa 1399) begins our musical pilgrimage through time and space by (dis)placing us in a fourteenth-century Spanish monastery. True to the Red Book’s original notes, percussive accompaniment to this pilgrim’s chant is determined by the current instruments at hand.


DES PREZ: Kyrie from Missa Pange Lingua with original Plainchant | 5 min

The Gothic Missa Pange lingua (1515) is based on a brilliant Gregorian chant that the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez incorporated into the work’s opening movement, Kyrie. Listen closely as the Chorus first sings the original plainchant, followed by Josquin’s Mass setting. If a familiar tune catches your ear, you may have caught the third line of the Kyrie—one of the most famous settings in music history.


MEREDITH MONK: Panda Chant II | 2 min

The wordless Panda Chant II (1986), a heightened and pulsating chant with wails and extended vocal techniques, deftly showcases the ideology of New-York-based contemporary artist Meredith Monk—“a composer, singer, director/choreographer, and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films, and installations…. Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, in an effort to discover and weave together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.”


STEVE REICH: Music for Pieces of Wood | 8 min

In the late 1960s a new way of making and hearing music burst onto the scene, a style dubbed Minimalism. New York-based composer Steve Reich is one of the most recognizable first-generation Minimalists—and a trained percussionist. His Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) shows this to great effect, using a mind-blowing “rhythmic construction” that captures the bold dynamism of the era. Don’t miss a beat of this arresting work—there are a lot. The musicians play on pieces of wood: short, tuned sticks called claves. The first player lays down a basic, simple rhythmic pattern, repeated incessantly throughout. Our second player enters with a somewhat more complex pattern. Against this the other three musicians enter one by one, each staggering a new, evolving pattern. The parts densely overlap and build until the procedure reverses and the texture recedes to its initial simplicity … if “simple” is what you call no less than fifty-eight complex and shifting interlocked rhythmic patterns created in real time by five extraordinary musicians in eight SoundBox minutes.



STEINA: Voice Windows, SFMOMA Film | 7 min

Voice Windows (1986) investigates the essential relationship of electronic imaging to the space of sound. The voice of avant-garde composer and performer Joan La Barbara forms the videotape's guiding image device in a work that aims to actualize the physicality of the human voice. La Barbara's voice creates a "window" from one landscape, the open desert to another, the city of Santa Fe, where Steina and Woody Vasulka are based. This process builds throughout the tape, beginning with a simple grid of musical scales that offers a glimpse onto a new landscape with every note and then moves into more complex layerings. As La Barbara sings, hums, chirps, and chants in a form of half-song/almost-speech, her voice is the device that interfaces with the landscape, distorting shapes, and creating new forms.  Steina reveals the capacity of sound to reconfigure image and the malleability of the electronic signal as image/sound. This work demonstrates the fundamental alliance of sound and image in electronic media, each derived from the electronic signal and symbiotically part of the other.—Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Collection SFMOMA, Camille W. and William S. Broadbent Fund purchase. This work was produced using the scan processor designed by Steve Rutt and Bill Etra, and the EAB Video Lab designed by Bill Hearn. Steina’s _Voice Windows_ is co-presented by the San Francisco Symphony and SFMOMA.


RAVEL: Introduction and Allegro | 11 min

The highly perfumed Introduction and Allegro (1905) by French composer Ravel is one of the finest results of advanced twentieth-century engineering. Engineering, you ask? As chromaticism became all the rage in Impressionist music, performers were left to figure out just how to play the inventive new harmonies on their instruments. In an epic pairing of engineering and musicianship, harp builder Sébastien Érard decided he would commission a piece that would showcase the virtues of his new-model harp, which featured a system of pedals that nimbly accommodated the on-trend chromaticism in music. Thus was borne Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, an ultra-refined chamber concerto-in-miniature for harp—playable only on Érard's harp. Clever guy.

VARÈSE: Intégrales | 12 min

Varèse sought all his life to “liberate” sound, to stretch the range of possibilities for its use in music. His compositions force audiences to listen to unfamiliar sounds and to new sound combinations, organized in a manner disconcertingly different than those to which they are accustomed—if you can’t imagine what that sounds like, then you’ve got a good start on understanding Intégrales (1925). The instrumental masses in this cacophonous work are “building blocks.” The best way to approach Intégrales for the first time is to listen for the striking collisions and interplay of those blocks of sound—say, the winds as opposed to the percussion groups. Note the passages for winds without percussion, those for percussion without winds, and the mixtures of both. Listen for the punctuation—long-held phrases in which one section ends and generates something new. If you didn’t hear what you thought you’d hear, or if you heard exactly what you imagined you would, then you might try to listen to Intégrales again—it likely won’t sound anything like the first time around.



MONTEVERDI: Magnificat from Vespro della Beata Vergine | 19 min

Revolutionary Italian composer Monteverdi wrote Magnificat (1610) for grand spaces where music freely echoes and where any combination of voices sounds opulent. The long, held tones of the Magnificat melody are at times sung distilled and simply, and at others, with lavish decoration and text delivered in vocal spectacle—sumptuous textures woven with sections of wildly ornamented lines swirling in extreme registers.

Our journey together comes to an end not in exhausted silence, but in the midst of this vocal storm of culminating and clashing voices, all bounding with excitement, as if everyone were trying to talk at once.



Program subject to change.