The score to Honest Labor, my recent solo piano piece, is now available for purchase. The piece was premièred this past week in New York City by the fascinating and adventurous pianist Robert Fleitz.
Two good things occurring this coming Friday, May 21:
Chris Cerrone’s new album The Arching Path comes out on In A Circle Records. Above, a film we made for the title track with the brilliant fellows at Four/Ten Media. I’m honored to join a cast of real all-stars on the rest of the album: Lindsay Kesselman, Ian Rosenbaum, and Mingzhe Wang (whom longtime readers of this website will remember from his unimpeachable dumpling recipe). Jen Gersten wrote the insightful liner notes, and I designed the bright blue packaging.
Second and more pressingly: I am playing a solo program at Bargemusic that same night at 7; two tickets remain. Invite a friend from whom you’d like to sit some distance, and come hear some Southam, Adams, Schumann, Ellington, Debussy, Rorem, and Andres (Timo—me—the person writing this).
This new film of My Lips From Speaking is the latest episode in my “year of the Wolfe.” Originally scored for six pianos (count ’em), the piece was later arranged for a mere two, which is the version I’ve recorded here, joined by my doppelgänger. It’s a characteristically singleminded piece, based on the opening riff of Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Like much Wolfe, it’s relentlessly methodical in how it treats its musical material, violently deconstructing, reconstructing, and finally transcending it.
I’m indebted to Kettle Corn New Music for commissioning and presenting this new film, which is undoubtedly one of the most complex and difficult I’ve made so far, from both a musical and technical perspective. The two piano version contains most of the notes of the six piano—at times, literal fistfuls of them. The music is also constantly, almost cartoonishly syncopated, the parts lining up, or often not lining up, at unpredictable moments. This means it has to be rhythmically ultra-precise—it’s a delicated illusion that can be destroyed by mere milliseconds of variation in timing, causing the whole thing to sound like a haphazard jumble. What I was striving for in this performance was to supersede the “counting like hell” feeling that can plague performances of such rhythmically intricate music, and give it something of the loose, rolling groove of its source material—leaning into the syncopations, easing off the strong beats.
This piece is also just loud—it tested my recording setup, my poor long-suffering piano, and my physical stamina. It’s a challenge to find and savor the few moments of respite within its structural juggernaut. Playing both parts allowed me to fine-tune the dynamics on a moment-to-moment level and find some transparency in the dense interplay, allowing details to come through that may not be audible in the six-piano version. Of course, you lose some of the wonderfully over-the-top ridiculousness of the original—though the ending comes close, I think.
Here’s a quick heads up: I’ll be doing a teaching residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida from February 13-March 5, 2022. If you’d like to come study with me, please apply! I should mention that everyone gets a full scholarship. Here’s my “residency statement”:
The music world is vast, and it’s important to remember that composers have a special set of skills with which to move through it. Yes, we can sit in our studios and be lone geniuses, but our experience and training are most useful in contact with the outside world. Studying composition must mean studying how to be a complete musician: how to collaborate, interpret, communicate about music, and help others bring not only your ideas but their ideas to fruition. This isn’t just high-flown idealism; it is, in my experience, the surest way to make a life in music.
This residency is open to anyone working in music creation (not necessarily in “Classical Music,” though that is my field), particularly those interested in collaborating with performers, writing for instrumentalists, and communicating with live audiences.
My concert film with violinist Rachel Lee Priday is available to stream from the Phillips Collection this week. Above, our performance of Julia Wolfe’s Mink Stole, a barn-burner from the late 90’s. I’m especially proud to have recorded this piece, which was, until now, impossible to hear online.
Louis Andriessen’s The Only One is out today on Nonesuch Records, available to hear on the platform of your choice. Here’s the liner note I wrote about the piece.
A composer who’s always delighted in thumbing his nose at the establishment, audiences’ expectations, and cultural, political, and aesthetic conventions, Louis Andriessen embodies the urbane, eclectic postmodernist. “Highbrow” and “lowbrow” gleefully collide in his music, sending fragments flying in all directions. He’s lived to see the old cultural divisions break down, his polyglot revolution reassemble the lingua franca.
Despite a riotous mix of influences, Andriessen’s style is often seen as the heir to Stravinsky’s cool, formal detachment. Even at its most intense, his music retains a certain emotional distance. “I need to have emotional experiences to become a better person,” Andriessen has said, “but I never like to express myself when I write music.” That’s not to say his music isn’t personal. In a certain way, Andriessen has always been a character in the background of his own music, both because of its urgent political agenda, and because it so frequently examines the nature of art itself and the people who make it. De Staat (1988) satirizes, or maybe idealizes, Plato’s assertion that the power of certain sounds can disrupt political order; the opera Rosa (1994) kills off its main character, who happens to be a composer; De Stijl (1985) sets manifesto-like mathematics texts against a musical depiction of Piet Mondrian’s bright, rhythmic paintings. All these pieces maintain a brutal objectivity towards their subjects.
In this context, The Only One seems like a curious outlier. These six songs feel jarringly personal, as though Andriessen is subjecting his music to Freudian analysis. Cryptically confessional poems by Delphine Lecompte trap us in the claustrophobic interior world of their narrator’s head. Here is an artist confronting the various indignities and vagaries of her profession: “I dig up my talents/they are yellowed and rendered obsolete,” she repeats in the opening song, helpless in the face of unhappy parents and dysfunctional relationships. Later, she compares her aimless daily routines to those of people with ordinary jobs, “who whistling, cycle to a future that is bright and voluptuous and also merciful, healthy and hospitable.” She’s trying to come to terms with that common dilemma: the artist’s becoming interchangeable with—and mistaken for—her own work, and coming up disappointingly short. Compounding these feelings of alienation is a kind of dysmorphia; she appears to others as an adult, yet does not feel like one. Many of the poems find their narrator caught between a desire for perceived safety—of home, parents, her own bed—and, simultaneously, overwhelming claustrophobia at feeling trapped by these things.
But the tone of Andriessen’s music is hardly self-pitying. More often, his melodies sound like fragments of children’s songs, making light of their singer’s anguish. Bathos and dark humor are familiar Andriessen tropes, that underscore a confrontational, even contradictory, relationship between music and text. The Only One’s orchestra, though tame by Andriessen standards, serves as both co-conspirator and antagonist, sometimes aping the text so closely it feels mocking rather than sympathetic. The singer’s valiant attempt at self-confidence are accompanied by brief bursts of brassy fanfare that dissolve just as quickly into diffident ostinati. At one particularly low point, the trombones indulge in a cartoonish Dies irae. In ‘Broken Morning,’ the intrusion of something halfway between mariachi band and ländler sets the scene of a tavern filled with grotesque characters who welcome the narrator as one of their own. Yet these and other referential moments are mirages, evaporating in seconds, products of a febrile mind examining itself too closely.
The combination of vulnerability and mutability suits The Only One’s soloist and inspiration, the protean young vocalist Nora Fischer. Hers is a performance practice that didn’t exist at the beginning of Andriessen’s career, when boundaries between singing styles were more rigidly enforced. Fischer’s voice has little in common with the bel canto operatic sound typically found in an orchestral context, yet it’s equally far from the studiously affectless “straight tone” voices employed by so much contemporary music. Fischer fuses the hyper-expressivity of a pop singer like Björk with the cabaret tradition of Kurt Weill, unafraid to push her voice into situations that sound awkward, even ugly; it’s easy to see why a composer like Andriessen found it compelling. He responded by writing her songs that sit at the intersection of jazz standard and lied, but weirder and more fragmentary than either. In The Only One’s title song, the score instructs the voice to progress from “elegant” to “scream” over the course of a minute and a half. During concert performances of the work, Fischer wanders through the orchestra, microphone in hand, gently ribbing the musicians and changing costumes during the two instrumental interludes.
In fact, it’s during these two interludes that the orchestral music sounds freer to express genuine emotion. In place of the raw power of Andriessen’s usual “terrifying 21st-century orchestra” are more subtle gradations of light and shade. The instrumentation still skews to his preferences, with the inclusion of saxophones and guitars and a reliance on the clean attacks of piano, harp and percussion, but the sound is far from the hard-edged snarl so characteristic of his style. Here, harmonies are softer and simpler, the usual triads refracted through hazy mid-afternoon light. This is Andriessen stripped down to his essence, all the component parts of his language laid bare. There’s much in this music that brings to mind the idea of “late style,” that mysterious sense of maturity shared by many otherwise dissimilar artists. There is undoubtedly an autumnal quality from the very outset of The Only One, a sense of its composer having come to terms with the past, present, and future. The willful stubbornness that gives Andriessen’s earlier works their single-minded power is no longer the governing force. The Only One is not a manifesto; there’s nothing left to prove. Instead, Andriessen seems freed to express the most concentrated form of an idea, then move on to the next one.
But The Only One still brings tremendous focus to its brief forms. The piece enjoys the same obsession with its own materials as a late Beethoven quartet; simple, familiar-sounding scraps of music are constantly being transformed and scattered across the score. The main musical motto of the piece is a dotted rhythm, a musical iamb (short-long, short-long) which grows out of a brittle marimba and piano toccata at the beginning of the piece. This rhythm reappears in different guises throughout, ranging from elegant baroque overture to sing-song playground chant to sickly limp. In ‘The Early Bird’ the iambs straighten themselves out for a moment, taking on the rhythmic stolidity of a hymn or anthem, as the narrator idealizes the simple lives and optimistic outlook of the “strange workers” around her. But the music turns uneven again as her own efforts at optimism are rudely rebuffed (“grains of sand and used condoms are spat in my face”).
Later, ‘Twist and Shame’ opens with a jagged, dissonant fanfare, a nearly-complete 12-tone row. (It’s missing one note.) If this is a coincidence, it’s a striking one. Andriessen composed using the 12-tone method for a brief period in his early 20s, and never looked back. Are these bars a reminiscence of youthful folly? Another nose-thumbing reference? The narrator, at any rate, seems unable to overcome her regrets. “Shame is a wasted emotion,” she repeats to herself, to no avail. She takes a train (through time, it seems) to sit with her ancestors, but finds nothing in common with these people, who absorb themselves in pedestrian concerns: work, sex, minor aches and pains.
In fact, the narrator finds no comfort in the corporeal. Her sexuality is instead just another chance for humiliation. In the final song, ‘Grown Up,’ a symbolically coded encounter on a nudist beach quickly leads to loss of innocence—puberty, pregnancy, “outrageous waltzes with masked men” (accompanied by cartoonishly Viennese music, of course). Though she longs for the safety of her house, her bed, her own thoughts, the womb—by the end of the piece, she seems to have reconciled herself to becoming “the grown-up that betrayed my inner child.” That this betrayal isn’t accompanied by musical histrionics makes it all the more shattering. Andriessen ends the piece with a Stravinskian shrug, a gently clashing chord repeated eight times at medium volume, as if to say: “that’s life.”
–Timo Andres, November 2020
As promised, my first concert film for San Francisco Performances is now available to watch at their website. The Youtube video above is just a preview of the full program, which includes two matched pairs of Glass Etudes and Schubert Impromptus.
A second program for SFP is currently in the works, set to premiere on February 25. That one will be pithier and more eclectic, and feature music by Meredith Monk, John Adams, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Duke Ellington, François Couperin, Alvin Singleton, Francis Poulenc, and Sir Roland Hanna.
Happy new year, everyone. Well, new year. Here’s a video I made last week of one of my favorite holiday-themed pieces: Georgs Pelēcis’s New Year’s Music. I discovered this piece on an album by the wonderful pianist Alexei Lubimov when I was in college and have always wanted to program it; well, now’s my chance, I thought. I don’t know too much about the piece other than that it was written in the 1970’s for brass band, and transcribed for piano in 1996. It has an irrepressibly rambunctious spirit to it, an improvisatory shagginess, despite being written in almost perfect couplets throughout. I’ve compared its sound to Russian folk songs blended up with Christmas carols and Keith Jarrett; comments on my Instagram point to George Winston and Joe Scarbury. I think its over-the-top kitschiness is meant in absolute earnest, and I love it for that.
My pace on YouTube has slowed a bit over the past couple of months, but that’s not because I’ve stopped making videos. In fact, I’m making more than ever, just now they’re turning into full concerts. One that I’m particularly excited about is a recital with the violinist Rachel Lee Priday (our Cerrone/Holcomb/Andres/Ives/Wolfe/Copland program) that we filmed and recorded right here in my home studio (living room). That’ll be released March 21. I’m also working on a couple of solo programs for San Francisco Performances; keep an eye out for more about those shortly.
Tonight at 10:30 PM EST/7:30 PM PST on YouTube: violinist Rachel Lee Priday and I present a special concert of American music. Sonatas by Chris Cerrone, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland; Julia Wolfe’s rarely-heard banger Mink Stole; and two solos, Robin Holcomb’s Wherein Lies the Good, and the world premiere of my Three Suns for solo violin, which Rachel commissioned. It’s a good day to celebrate American music, and I hope you can join us.
The impetus for this week’s video, my transcription of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, goes back about a year, and touches on almost every aspect of my musical life. It’s a piece I’ve known for awhile, and I’d turned to it as an example of “modular” form for a couple of my composition students, but in doing so, realized I didn’t fully understand it myself. It’s famously cryptic music, put together from lots of little stylized, angular gestures, which recur and evolve in intricately nested patterns. But the core of it is the last few minutes—a spacious, mournful chorale based around plainspoken minor-7th chords that casts the preceding music in an entirely different light. I think it’s one of the most moving passages in all of Stravinsky—not in a heart-on-the-sleeve way, but more like the feeling of walking from a small room into a vast cathedral.
This music, as it turns out, was composed for an album of short pieces in memory of Debussy contributed by various composers, exactly 100 years ago. Stravinsky expanded and elaborated on it in the first version of Symphonies of Wind Instruments that same year (the word “symphonies” used rather self-conciously in the antique sense, to mean “sounding together”). In discovering this, and playing through those wonderful chords, trying out different voicings, I began to wonder if the rest of the piece would be possible to play on the piano, too. So the transcription began more as a way of studying Stravinsky’s compositional process, trying to figure out how this seemingly unbalanced structure stood up so well.
At the same time, I’d begun writing a piece for flute-viola-harp trio, and Stravinsky’s modular forms began to have an effect on that, too. In my writing, I’m usually quite concerned with the transitions between things—hiding them, blending them, obviating the need for them in various crafty ways—but here was a chance to try something different. The material still develops, moving from thing to thing, it’s just that the seams are exposed, and in fact, become important musical events in themselves.
Over the summer, I started practicing the transcription I’d finished, which had turned out to be quite a thorny nine minutes of music. Stravinsky’s wide chord spacings and unpredictable layerings make for some real pianistic puzzles. At times, this demanded some triage—figuring out which notes to forgo, in which octaves, to retain the greater sense of harmony and orchestration. I thought it would be interesting to see the musical and logistical solutions behind some of these, so I filmed the finished version in the combination “hands-down/score follower” style, which owes a creative debt to Robert Edridge-Waks’s I Still Play videos from this past spring. Between teaching, to writing, to performing, and producing a video recording, Symphonies has been a mainstay of my year, and I can’t think of another 100-year-old I’d have preferred to spend it with.
N.B. if you’re interested in a real Stravinsky scholar’s analysis of the piece, I recommend this Taruskin talk (though the performance in it is a little rough).