Category Archives: 20th- and 21st-century music

Gunther Schuller and the third stream


The term third stream was coined by Gunther Schuller in the late 1950s to describe the outcome of the merger of the African American improvisational tradition with Western art music.

Since then, the definition has been broadened to view third stream as a process rather than a style, in which the music is primarily improvised and becomes a deeply personal vehicle for soloists or collaborators.

This according to “Third stream and the importance of the ear: A position paper in narrative form” by Ran Blake (College music symposium XXI/2 [fall 1981] pp. 139–46).

Today would have been Schuller’s 90th birthday! Above, delivering the Cleveland Institute of Music’s commencement address in May 2015 (a video of the address is here); below, conducting his Monk, Bunk, and vice versa in 1989.

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Paul Hindemith, visual artist

Apparently Hindemith seized every opportunity to draw, from early childhood until his last December, when he completed that year’s entry in a series of Christmas cards that spanned more than 20 years.

He used any medium that came to hand—including menus, advertisements, and paper napkins—and clearly never considered his drawings to be very important; they were carelessly preserved, and almost never dated or titled.

Most of Hindemith’s drawings are whimsical, often to the point of grotesquerie. He characteristically filled all the available space, often with impossible conglomerations of people, animals, and machines. The richness of his ideas and the skill of their expression bear witness to a truly original talent.

This according to Paul Hindemith: Der Komponist als Zeichner/Paul Hindemith: The composer as graphic artist (Zürich: Atlantis, 1995).

Below, part of Hindemith’s tribute to a great visual artist—the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in Grablegung, the second movement of Symphony: Mathis Der Maler.

BONUS: Hindemith must have rotated the above drawing several times as he worked on it; it can therefore be viewed with any edge on top. Copy it into a picture editor and rotate it yourself to see the four different angles!

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Visual art

Berio’s creative process


Luciano Berio’s sketches and drafts show how he worked with a clear and well-defined core of poetic values and constructive procedures while exploring a wide range of musical characteristics.

His concepts and techniques included redundancy, rereading, alliteration, saturation of the chromatic aggregate, rhythmic cells and their transformation, permutation of tone rows, and harmonic construction from pools of intervals. Many of his compositional devices originated in his serial practice of the 1950s or were designed in direct response to serial problems.

This according to “Berio at work: Compositional procedures in Circles, O King, Concerto for two pianos, Glossa, and Notturno” by Christoph Neidhöfer, an essay included in  Luciano Berio: Nuove prospettive/New perspectives (Firenze: Accademia Musicale Chigiana, 2012, pp. 195–233).

Today would have been Berio’s 90th birthday! Below, the Concerto per due pianoforti e orchestra, one of the works discussed in the article.

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La Monte Young’s cosmology

La Monte Young

For centuries composers have used numinous language to describe the transcendent potential of their art. In La Monte Young’s case, however, one cannot dismiss such lofty claims as hyperbole: A presupposition of ontological contiguity underscores his work, such that what appear to be indistinct musical metaphors play out in surprisingly literal ways within the mechanics of his music.

The highly conceptual works from the early 1960s, with their sometimes baffling transgressions of musical norms, resist traditional musical analysis to such a degree as to expand the composer’s activities well beyond the traditional scope of composition.

In his maturity, Young sees himself as a prophet whose highly specialized tuning systems and sustained sound environments recast music onto a spatial, rather than temporal plane, interface directly with the periodic structures of the universe, and traverse the boundary separating the physical from the metaphysical.

This according to Music of a more exalted sphere: Compositional practice, biography, and cosmology in the music of La Monte Young by Jeremy Neal Grimshaw, a dissertation accepted by the Eastman School of Music in 2005.

Today is La Monte Young’s 80th birthday! Below, the first hour of The well-tuned piano.

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Arvo Pärt and tintinnabuli

Arvo Pärt

In an interview, Arvo Pärt discussed his tintinnabuli style:

“It is a very simple, concentrated, and strict polyphonic harmonic system—although not in the classical sense. Tintinnabuli is merely a name; it is not intended to signify anything specific. And it sounds nice.”

“The most difficult thing is to find the right spirit. It all depends on that.”

This according to “A quick one while he’s away” by Ben Finane (Listen: Life with classical music IV/4 [winter 2012] p. 96).

Today is Pärt’s 80th birthday! Below, Spiegel im Spiegel, a much-celebrated example of his tintinnabuli style.

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Per Nørgårds skrifter online

Komponist Per Nørgård.

Per Nørgårds skrifter online is an archive of nearly 500 writings, arranged alphabetically by article title. Full text is available for nearly 400 items. A chronological work list, 1949–2012, is included, along with a full biography of the composer.

The site is sponsored by Det Kongelige Bibliotek and edited by Ivan Hansen.

Above, Nørgård in his studio in 2010; below, the finale of his 8th symphony (2011).

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Terry Riley’s moonshine dervishes


The title of Terry Riley’s improvisation template Descending moonshine dervishes  is rooted in several sources.

“Moonshine” may be considered a triple entendre referring to the mysticism of the shining moon, the ecstasy associated with U.S. moonshine liquor, and Riley’s property on Moonshine Road in the Yuba River country of California’s Sierra foothills, which he has dubbed Shri Moonshine Ranch.

Dervishes are adherents of Sufism, and although Riley subscribes to a general spirituality rather than any formal religious orientation the Sufi tradition has clearly been important to him, as evinced by his performances in mosques and with musicians more closely involved with Sufism. Riley has also used the word dervish in reference to his Hindustani music teacher, Pran Nath.

This according to “Terry Riley in the 70s” by Mark Alburger (21st-century music XI/3 [March 2004] pp. 4–7).

Today is Riley’s 80th birthday! Above, the composer earlier this year; below, Descending moonshine dervishes as he performed it in Berlin in 1975 (Kuckuck, 1982).

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A John Cage resource

John Cage 1977

Launched by the New World Symphony in 2015, Making the right choices: A John Cage celebration is a free online resource dedicated to Cage’s music.

In celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday, Michael Tilson Thomas and the NWS presented a week-long festival of Cage’s music in February 2013. That festival was the starting point for the videos presented on the site.

Some of the videos primarily capture the live event. Others take the performances much further, adding layers of visual interpretation that provide deeper insight into the spirit of his works.

Above, Cage at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in 1977; below, one of his orchestral works (the NWS videos are not available for embedding).

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Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music

Braxton Composition no. 228

In a 2011 interview, Anthony Braxton described his recent work as “a trans-temporal music state that connects past, present, and future as one thought component. This idea is the product of the use of holistic generative template propositions that allow for 300 or 400 compositions to be written in that generative state.”

“The Ghost trance musics would be an example of the first of the holistic, generative logic template musics. The Ghost trance music is concerned with telemetry and cartography, and area space measurements.”

Quoted in “Anthony Braxton: Music as spiritual commitment” by Josef Woodard (DownBeat LXXIX/3 [March 2010] pp. 32–37).

Today is Braxton’s 70th birthday! Above, Composition no. 228 from the Ghost trance series; below, a performance and discussion of more works from the series.

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Boulez goes electroacoustic


Répons (1981–84), the first major work to arise from Pierre Boulez’s involvement with IRCAM, is underpinned by a collection of five chords. Surface details interact with the compositional scheme but achieve a certain independence and spontaneity.

Nevertheless, the density of the music, which is sometimes enhanced by computer-facilitated transformation, at times veers towards a phantasmagoric, seamless web that threatens to undermine the articulation of space generated by the configurations of blocks and individual moments. Boulez’s spatial dialogue of system and idea is illuminated by Adorno’s theoretical attempts to turn systematic thought towards the particular.

This according to “Répons: Phantasmagoria or the articulation of space?” by Alastair Williams, an essay included in Theory, analysis and meaning in music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 195–210).

Today is Boulez’s 90th birthday! Above, part of the score of Répons; below, the composer conducts a performance of the work in a film by Robert Cahen.

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