The Music

Notes on music at “Obsession & Creation”

Posted by SoundBox

April 21, 2016

TED HEARNE  For the love of Charles Mingus
PURCELL (ARR. CABLE)  Fantasia on One Note
STRADELLA  “Queste lagrime e sospiri” from Giovanni Battista
ZAPPA  Selections from Yellow Shark



HEARNE  For the love of Charles Mingus  2014/2016  |  9 mins

A composer, singer, and bandleader, Ted Hearne (b.1982) provokes possibilities ranging across the entire terrain of music, creating a vibrant, personal and multi-dimensional voice. As comfortable in operatic and orchestral works as in rock and choral music, Hearne's compositions are socially engaging, exploring the complexity of contemporary experience with visceral power and raw emotional beauty.

Hearne on For the love of Charles Mingus:

"For the love of Charles Mingus imagines a rhythmic and soulful artifact living and breathing under layers of distortion and interference. Like the sound of voices singing from inside a church when you’re passing on the street, or a song you’re barely picking up on a distant radio signal, this music encourages you to imagine it in a more complete form than you can actually hear.

"This music plays with the spectrum between pitch and noise. Sounds with an obscured or unfocused pitch profile—such as the sound of six violins bowing on the wood of the violin, or laterally at the top of the fingerboard, or trilling several non-resonant harmonics—coexist with (and sometimes subsume) music with focused and specific pitches.

"The connective tissue is rhythmic. A tough groove runs throughout the whole piece, and polyrhythmic relationships come into focus as the music progresses. For the love of Charles Mingus is dedicated with appreciation to Michael Tilson Thomas and the violinists of the New World Symphony."

Co-commissioned by the New World Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.


NATHANIEL STOOKEY  YTTE  2016  |  20 mins

Nathaniel Stookey (b.1970), who was first commissioned by the Symphony’s New and Unusual Music Series at age seventeen, is a homegrown product of San Francisco’s iconoclastic music scene. His first composition lessons, at the Community Music Center on Capp Street, were with Tom Constanten, who played keyboards with the Grateful Dead and performed with Steve Reich and Terry Riley.

Stookey’s music is likewise diverse—from collaborations with The Mars Volta (on their Grammy-winning album The Bedlam in Goliath) to the Kronos Quartet and many of the world’s top orchestras. Junkestra, written for an orchestra of garbage and commissioned by the San Francisco dump, was described by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields as “gorgeous music . . . delicate yet blunt, like a battle scene by Fabergé.” Stookey’s The Composer is Dead, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony (with text by Lemony Snicket) has become one of the most performed orchestral works of the twenty-first century.

Stookey on YTTE:

"YTTE (Yield To Total Elation) is the name of an elaborate imaginary city created by San Francisco “outsider” artist A.G. Rizzoli beginning in the mid-1930s. I first came across it in a newspaper article and, from the moment I read those words, I thought: This is how I want music to feel.

"All of my greatest musical experiences—from playing Brahms or Webern at the heart of an orchestra, to hearing a great jazz player kick it up to the next level in a packed and breathless club, to feeling a DJ drive a collective gear-change for hundreds of people simultaneously—have this in common: a moment when the music we’ve been processing in our minds, a succession of interrelated patterns, suddenly becomes something we feel collectively in our bodies. It may not happen consistently, even with the same music, but, for me, yielding to total elation is the ideal. It’s why I do what I do.

"From very early in my career, I have built my work for and with artists I admire, maybe because I feel that gives me a better chance of tapping in to this central nerve of shared experience.

"In addition to A.G. Rizzoli, I would like to thank the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony—with whom I’ve been collaborating most of my life!—and especially Timothy Higgins, Mark Grisez, Jerome Simas, and Jacob Nissly, all of whom gave me invaluable feedback on the piece as it evolved.

"Throughout my work on YTTE, I was inspired by the instruments and sound sculptures of Oliver DiCicco, whose haunting Sirens were featured in an earlier installment of SoundBox. DiCicco’s OOVE, an electro-acoustic stringed instrument, provides the harmonic background from which YTTE emerges; later, the OOVE rejoins the orchestra—which has gone very far afield in the meantime—as though to remind us of that lineage.

"The OOVE doesn’t have a written part but, because it shares the orchestra’s harmonies, it is able to mirror what it hears, both on its own, through the sympathetic vibration of its strings, and on behalf of the performer.

"For me, playing the OOVE, as I will be in these performances, is like being wired to a machine that first generates the music—my own music, composed over many months!—and then registers my responses in real time! It’s a surreal compression of experience for which the conductor’s score gives only one instruction:

"Give in to it."

Special thanks to Bonnie Grossman of the Ames Gallery, Berkeley, for providing images from A.G. Rizzoli’s catalogue and to Oliver DiCicco for use of the OOVE.
Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for SoundBox.




PURCELL (ARR. CABLE)  Fantasia on One Note  1680  |  4 mins

English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-95) wrote his Fantasia on One Note either as a bit of a joke, or due to a not-so-humorous situation of having to accommodate a particularly unskilled musician. Either way, the piece’s titular line is the middle one, which noticeably stays stuck on the note “C” the entire time. The other four players manage to move beyond this pitch prison, with Purcell displaying some impressive harmonic creativity in writing beautifully complex harmonies, key changes, and tempo changes around that stubbornly unwavering note.


STRADELLA  “Queste lagrime e sospiri” from Giovanni Battista  1675  |  5 mins

These days, Roman composer Alessandro Stradella’s (1639-82) notoriety lies primarily in the circumstances of his death: At age forty-two, he was murdered by hit men after sleeping with one too many married aristocratic women. But before he was knifed to death, Stradella was a pioneer in the Baroque genre. A wildly successful and prolific composer with a sparkling freelance career, he ran in circles that included some of the most esteemed artists of his time.

His oratorio Giovanni Battista was written for performance on Palm Sunday in the Holy Year of 1675, and tells the story of the life of John the Baptist (or if you rather, the story of the death of John the Baptist). Throughout the work we benefit from the composer’s distinctive musical inventiveness, with a score infused with operatic vibrancy and impassioned text, detailed and difficult vocal flourishes, and supple, extended melodies.

Stradella’s musical stylings perfectly serve up the drama, especially in “Queste lagrime e sospiri,” otherwise known as Salome’s Aria. This song depicts Salome demanding—and receiving—the head of John of Baptist.


FREDERIC ANTHONY RZEWSKI  Attica  1971  |  6 mins

American composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) studied with some of music’s most pioneering artists, including Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Milton Babbitt. His friendship with experimental composers Christian Wolff and David Behrman, and his acquaintance with John Cage and David Tudor, strongly influenced him as a composer and performer. In the mid-1960s, together with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, he formed the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) group, which quickly gained renown for its pioneering work in live electronics and improvisation. Many of Rzewski’s works are inspired by secular and socio-historical themes, show a deep political conscience, and feature improvisational elements, as demonstrated by the work played at these performances.

The composer offers these comments in the Attica score:

"Coming Together was written in November and December of 1971 in response to a historical event, the Attica prison riots. In September of that year, inmates of the state prison in Attica, New York, revolted and took control of a part of the institution.

"Foremost among their demands was the recognition of their right ‘to be treated as human beings.’

"After several days of fruitless negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to retake the prison by force, on the grounds that the lives of the guards whom the prisoners had taken as hostages were in danger.

"In the ensuing violence, forty-three persons, including several of the hostages, were killed and many more wounded. One of the dead was Sam Melville, a prisoner who had played a significant role in organizing the rebellion.

"In the spring of 1971, Melville wrote a letter to a friend describing his experience of the passage of time in prison. After his death the letter was published in the magazine, Ramparts. As I read it, I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony.

"I read it, reread it and reread it again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical presence of the writer and simultaneously to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment. The text is as follows:

"‘I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now, and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead, but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crises, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate, sometimes even calculating, seldom employing histrionics expect as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.’

"Attica, subtitled Coming Together Part II, was originally intended to follow Coming Together after a short silence, so that the two pieces together would form a pair of dark and light images on the same subject.

"In this case, it is a survivor of the event who speaks: Richard X. Clark, a prisoner who was freed on parole several weeks after the massacre. As the car taking him to Buffalo passed the Attica town line, the reporter sitting next to him asked how it felt to leave Attica behind him. His answer, ‘Attica is in front of me,’ became the text for this piece.

"The compositional techniques employed in both pieces are similar. The basic device for the generation of melodic and rhythmic sequences is ‘squaring,’ a form I first used in 1968 in Les Moutons de Panurge, for an indeterminate number of melody instruments.

"In this technique, a sequence of notes, measures, or phrases is gradually accumulated by adding elements one at a time, then diminished by subtraction. In Coming Together, seven pitches are used to generate eight triangular structures of 28 notes. Each of these melodic sequences is then ‘squared’ to become either large sections of 28x28=784 notes.

"The resulting chain of 6272 notes is played by one or two instruments of the ensemble, while the others add only individual notes or melodic fragments from time to time, according to rules specific to each section. Only in the final section do all of the players join in playing all of the notes.

"In Attica, a 28-beat melody is divided into four bars of seven beats, each of which is ‘squared’ to become the period of 49 beats. The four periods are then themselves ‘squared’ to become a sequence of sixteen periods. These are played over a constant drone, with a long dominant chord at the end.”




ZAPPA  Selections from Yellow Shark  1992/1989/1990  |  14 mins

Be-Bop Tango
Transcribed by Ali N. Askin

Outrage at Valdez

The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat
Transcribed by Ali N. Askin

Frank Zappa, American Composer,fl. 1940-1993


Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.