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

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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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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Henri Dutilleux’s evolving aesthetics

Henri Dutilleux

Henri Dutilleux was a unique musical figure of the 20th and 21st centuries; his music is defined by his great sense of lyricism and meticulous control, which underwent much thought and a gradual sense of change over the course of his career.

Dutilleux inevitably acquired a wide mix of contemporary influences, which added to his poetic vision. His music appears to be a sophisticated understatement, yet at the same time there is an expressive depth and mystery that sets his works apart from any particular musical movement of his time.

This according to “Remembering a musical era: Henri Dutilleux in conversation” by Janet Obi-Keller (Tempo LXIX/273 [July 2015] pp. 12–19).

Today would have been Dutilleux’s 100th birthday! Below, Renaud Capuçon performs his violin concerto L’arbre des songes (1985).

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Morton Feldman’s “The viola in my life”

Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman’s four compositions with the title The viola in my life comprise a series-like cycle.

Unlike his earlier Intermissions, this series is constituted less through compositional and representational procedures than through small pregnant melodic objects that are assembled montage-like in the solo viola part over a homogeneous sonic background; these formal strategies show parallels to the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg.

This according to Morton Feldman: The viola in my life (1970–71) by Oliver Wiener (Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verlag, 1996).

Today would have been Feldman’s 90th birthday! Below, a performance of The viola in my life 2.

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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