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

Mushrooms and new music


Can it be a mere coincidence that in many English dictionaries the words mushroom and music are right next to each other? Points of contact between mushrooms and new music go beyond the figure of the self-proclaimed mushroom-lover John Cage.

One fundamental similarity is the fact that both exist in marginal social zones whose inhabitants are often dismissed as other-worldly weirdos. In the early 21st century there is only a difference in degree between the social acceptability of composers and woodland gnomes.

This according to “‘After all, nature is better than art’: Exkursionen ins verborgene Verhältnis von Pilzen und (neuer) Musik” by Dirk Wieschollek (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik CLXXIII/1 [2012] pp. 32–37).

Above, Morchella (morel), a favorite of Mr. Cage. Below, Václav Hálek composed over 1000 works referencing different varieties of mushrooms.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Food

Unperformable music

ligeti etude 14a

Some artworks—works of music, theatre, dance, and the like—are works for performance. Some works for performance are unperformable.

Some such works are unperformable by beings like us; others are unperformable given our laws of nature; still others are unperformable given considerations of basic logic.

Musical works that fit into each of these categories really are genuine works, musical works, and works for performance, and the very possibility of such works is ontologically significant. In particular, the possibility of these works raises serious problems for type-theoretic accounts of the ontology of music as well as certain mereological or constitution-based accounts.

This according to “Unperformable works and the ontology of music” by Wesley D. Cray (British Journal of Aesthetics LVI/1 [January 2016] pp. 67–81.

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above and below, György Ligeti’s Étude No. 14A: Coloana fara sfârşit (Column without end), one of the works discussed in the article.

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Jazz and imaginary folklore

La Marmite Infernale

L’Association à la Recherche d’un Folklore Imaginaire (ARFI) is a musical collective founded in 1977 by six musicians, including three who had previously formed Le Free Jazz Workshop.

The group now consists of 20 full-time musicians and comprises numerous small groups. Its multidisciplinary performances, which may include jugglers, films, pyrotechnics, and feasting, are designed to appeal to all five senses.

ARFI’s largest ensemble, the 12-piece La Marmite Infernale, began in 1978 as a free-blowing big band but has since expanded to perform compositions.  Smaller groups such as the Workshop de Lyon, É-Guijecri, and Apollo are improvising chamber ensembles, in the traditional ARFI style, while the newer L’Effet Vapeur and 32 Janvier perform higher-tech and harder edged pieces with distinctly hip-hop sensibilities.

This according to “Imaginary folklore and the infernal cooking pot: An introduction to Lyon’s ARFI” by Jim Laniok (Coda magazine 300–301 [December 2001] pp. 29, 32).

Above, a performance by La Marmite Infernale; below, an excerpt from a performance by L’Effet Vapeur.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Jazz and blues

Musique concrète with grapefruit


Musique concrète has evolved a great deal since its beginnings in the late 1940s; experiments with musique concrète that are presently occurring within the world of electronic dance music (EDM) and other musical genres are quite different from Pierre Schaeffer’s original work.

In 2013 Brian Speise was composing credits music for a short zombie film and thought that the project would be perfect for experimenting with musique concrète. This was not a work of dance music at all, but it had elements of electronic music that producers of EDM can appreciate. Balloons and a grapefruit were brought into play.

This according to Mr. Speise’s “From grapefruit to plastic surgery: Experiments in contemporary musique concrete” (Dancecult VI/1 [2014]).

Above, the author records a grapefruit peel with a contact microphone; you can hear the sound here.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities

Moondog makes it big


Louis T. Hardin, known to all as Moondog, was celebrated among New Yorkers for two decades as a mysterious and extravagantly clothed blind street performer; but he went on to win acclaim in Europe as an avant-garde composer, conducting orchestras before royalty.

From the late 1940s until the early 1970s Moondog stood like a sentinel on Avenue of the Americas near 54th Street. Rain or shine, he wore a homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape, and a horned Viking helmet, and clutched a long homemade spear.

Most of the passers-by who dismissed him as “the Viking of Sixth Avenue” and offered him contributions for copies of his music and poetry were unaware that he had recorded his music on the CBS, Prestige, Epic, Angel, and Mars labels.

Although many New Yorkers assumed that he had died after he vanished from his customary post in 1974, Moondog had actually been invited to perform his music in West Germany and decided to stay.

In his later years he produced at least five albums in Europe, and regularly performed his compositions with chamber and symphony orchestras before tony audiences in German cities as well as in Paris and Stockholm.

This according to “Louis (Moondog) Hardin, 83, musician, dies” by Glenn Collins (The New York times CXLVIII/51,643 [12 September 1999] p. I:47).

Today would have been Moondog’s 100th birthday! Below, his 1971 album Moondog 2.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Performers

Meet the gamelatron

The gamelatron, a robotic gamelan built by the sound artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner, has appeared regularly at events such as Burning Man, raves, and exhibitions.

Breaching the conceptual divides between instrument and art installation, performance and recording, sculptor and composer, and prosthesis and robot, the gamelatron is a singular site for investigating imaginaries of the human, machine, and media.

This according to “Atmosphere as a concept for ethnomusicology: Comparing the gamelatron and gamelan” by Andrew McGraw (Ethnomusicology LX/1 [winter 2016] pp. 125–147.

Below, the gamelatron in action.

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Milton Babbitt’s twelve-tone tango


Milton Babbitt’s It takes twelve to tango (1984) has a subdivision series that unfolds in two dimensions: globally in the first beat of the 2/4 meter, and locally in the second beat. Though the eight subdivision series expressed in the second beat mostly proceed at the rate of one subdivision per measure, occasionally a subdivision will be repeated in two consecutive measures.

Attempts to interpret these duplicated subdivisions reveal intersections between the subdivision series and a wide variety of other aspects of the piece, including the pitch-class array, hypermeter, and registral gestures. These non-systematic explanations illuminate the meaning and power of the systematic aspects of Babbitt’s music.

This according to “Duplicated subdivisions in Babbitt’s It takes twelve to tango” by Zachary Bernstein (Music theory online XXVII/2 [July 2011]).

Today would have been Babbitt’s 100th birthday! Below, Edward Neeman does the twelve-tone tango.

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Elliott Carter studies online

carter studies

Elliott Carter studies online, an open-access journal devoted to the music, life, and times of the American composer Elliott Carter, posted its inaugural issue in 2016.

The journal welcomes submissions on a wide range of topics—there are no restrictions on disciplinary perspective or format—and possibilities include history, theory, performance practice, personal essays, aesthetics, biography, criticism, analysis, and media.

Elliott CarterPerformers, composers, musicologists, historians, theorists, and “friends of Elliott” are encouraged to submit full-length articles for anonymous peer review, as well as short essays and notes, commentary, analytical vignettes, oral history, reviews, and media. Submissions may be specifically about Elliott Carter and his music or may focus on broader topics of relevance to Carter Studies, such as music and politics, music and philosophy, music and poetry, or theoretical work that bears on Carter’s music.

Below, Carter’s Variations for orchestra, the subject of one of the articles in the first issue.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, New periodicals

Ginastera and Argentine traditions


Three categories of Argentine traditional elements are evident in Alberto Ginastera’s sonata for guitar, op. 47.

Characteristics of the criollo guitar tradition and of the guitar itself play important roles in the construction of the piece. Elements of the andino cantos de caja, the baguala, and the vidala are used in the development of important thematic material as well. Finally, the malambo and other criollo dances generate the rhythms of the energetic closing movement.

This according to Alberto Ginastera’s use of Argentine folk elements in the sonata for guitar, op. 47 by Mark Grover Basinski, a dissertation accepted by the University of Arizona in 1994.

Today is Ginastera’s 100th birthday! Below, Manuel Espinás performs the sonata.

BONUS: The composer with one of his more temperamental critics (click to enlarge).



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Carl Ruggles’s consistent inconstancy

Carl Ruggles (Thomas Hart Benton 1934)

Carl Ruggles’s œuvre, although small, is powerful, finely crafted, and intensely individual; his compositions are not easily mistaken for those of any other composer. An individuality so audibly recognizable points to distinctive musical characteristics and procedures.

A pervasive theme in Ruggles’s music is the tension between consistent compositional procedures and the composer’s determination not to use them systematically. This consistent inconstancy is integral both to Ruggles’s compositional method and to his aesthetic.

This according to A vast simplicity: The music of Carl Ruggles by Stephen P. Slottow (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009).

Today is Ruggles’s 140th birthday! Above, a 1934 portrait by his friend Thomas Hart Benton; below, Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in his celebrated Sun-treader.

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