From colonial times to the present, U.S. composers have lived on the fringes of society and defined themselves in large part as outsiders. This tradition of maverick composers illuminates U.S. tensions between individualism and community.
Three notably unconventional composers—William Billings in the eighteenth century, Anthony Philip Heinrich in the nineteenth, and Charles Ives in the twentieth—all had unusual lives, wrote music that many considered incomprehensible, and are now recognized as key figures in the development of U.S. music. Eccentric individualism proliferates in all types of U.S. music—classical, popular, and jazz—and it has come to dominate the image of diverse creative artists from John Cage to Frank Zappa.
This according to Mavericks and other traditions in American music by Michael Broyles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
Above, a portrait of Heinrich, nowadays the lesser-known of the three composers; below, “Victory of the condor” from The ornithological combat of kings, or, the condor of the Andes (1847), which remained his favorite work throughout his life.
In its 1 May 1925 issue The musical times included the following notice in “The amateurs’ exchange”, a regular column that printed free announcements by amateur musicians wishing to collaborate with others:
“A very young man wishes to meet another very young man who has violently ultra-modern tendencies in all four creative arts. M.J. Howe, 185 Marlbro’ Avenue, Hull”
The anonymous editor of the column (perhaps Harvey Grace, who was then the Editor of The musical times) appended a note:
“The above announcement is somewhat beyond the scope of this column. We feel, however, that if this extremely young man has a prototype anywhere, the two should meet, in order that they may go through their artistic scarlet fever together.”
This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the English modernist Roger Fry’s portrait of the English modernist poet Edith Sitwell. Below, Gustav Holst’s Mars, the bringer of war from The planets, an early English modernist work.
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  pp. 32–37).
Above, Morchella (morel), a favorite of Mr. Cage. Below, Václav Hálek composed over 1000 works referencing different varieties of mushrooms.
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.
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.
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 ).
Above, the author records a grapefruit peel with a contact microphone; you can hear the sound here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Performers, 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.