American Composers Orchestra

 

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Related Essay:
Digging the Nuggets
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Buy Tickets Online:
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Program Notes
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Related Essay:
Digging the Nuggets
by Daniel Felsenfield


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Roll Over Bill Haley, Tell Frank Zappa The News...

by Frank J. Oteri

Back in 1956, Chuck Berry suggested that Beethoven should roll over to tell Tchaikovsky that classical music was dead and rock and roll was the new sonic landscape. Little did he or anyone listening at the time realize than only 4 years after the Beatles' were poised to become the most famous rock and roll band and covered "Roll Over Beethoven" in 1963, they'd include a picture of Stockhausen, a self-appointed heir to Beethoven, among the portraits of notable personalities collaged on the cover of their 1967 watershed album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As Berry proclaimed, rock did emerge as the world's new sonic landscape, but in so doing it would quickly appropriate the aspirations of classical music in terms of timbral variety, compositional complexity and extended duration. At the same time composers would emerge, who, infatuated with the visceral energy of rock, would breathe new life into classical music.

While Sgt. Pepper's is frequently cited as the album that codified a path for rock's higher aspirations, it was not the first and by no means the only such ambitious endeavor. Only two years after the roll over, the idiosyncratic Raymond Scott had already recorded a Rock and Roll Symphony (1958). A year earlier than that, the tragically short-lived Buddy Holly was already thinking beyond the standard rock instrumentation of electric guitars-bass-drums in songs like "Everyday" (1957) which ought to have led to glockenspiels in every college dormroom. Extended orchestration became a hallmark of the so-called "girl group" sound of the early 1960s fashioned by auteur producers like George "Shadow" Morton and Phil Spector who even famously dubbed his efforts "symphonies for the kids." This orchestral layering of pop singles continued through the rise of Motown and oversized rock groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears that became standard radio fare by the end of the decade. But the single most ambitious rock creators of the 60s were probably two Los Angeles based iconclasts, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys and Frank Zappa.

Not satisfied merely with the highly complex choral voicings he devised which made the sound of his family's band instantly recognizable, Wilson went on to experiment with timbre and recording techniques in his 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds whose recording sessions were rumored to have been attended by Beatle Paul McCartney who responded to Wilson's rock challenge with Revolver. Wilson's ever more ambitious response to that was the legendary Smile—never released allegedly due to Wilson's deranged melancholia triggered in part by the release of St. Pepper's! However, advance singles released from the Smile sessions which include "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations" as well as other tracks which Wilson's brothers later pieced together for release as an LP provocatively-titled Smiley Smile give a good hint at Brian's aural vision: rapid transitions, unresolved harmonies and dense orchestration including unusual sonorities ranging from clarinets to an electro-theremin (a keyboard-driven electronic instrument with sensitive pitch-sliding capabilities which has been mistaken by many listeners for a theremin).

Frank Zappa MoustacheWhile in many ways it is a misrepresentation to describe polystylistic autodidact Frank Zappa as a rock musician, it is in the rock genre that Zappa was able to get his complex compositions performed and heard, and where he was able to establish his identity as one of America's most original composers. Finding no success with his compositions through the traditional concert music world routes of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Zappa formed The Mothers of Invention, which was virtually a rock Group for Contemporary Music to navigate through his complex musical ideas. Hidden and frequently not so hidden beside the cynical humor and doo-wop vocalizations are complex layers of atonal counterpoint, rapidly-shifting irregular meters and stopwatch defying interactions with musique concrete.

In one of his most cohesive records of the late '60s, We're Only In It For The Money (a response to Sgt. Pepper's complete with mock-album cover), the connections between "pop"-like songs and experimental transitions are so seamless, it begs to be heard as a unified composition. In later years, Zappa went on to create a large body of compositions for more officially sanctioned classical ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, his groundbreaking work with the Mothers will always count amongst his greatest classics.

By the late 1960s, Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa were far from alone in trying to stretch rock's boundaries. After performing with minimalist-founder La Monte Young in the legendary Theatre of Eternal Music, Welsh-born classically-trained composer and violist John Cale teemed up with Lou Reed to form the Velvet Underground, a band whose late '60s recordings are clearly influenced by the sonic assaults of composers associated with Fluxus and the incessant drones of early minimalism. (Cale would eventually return to contemporary classical composition with a beautiful oratorio based on the poetry of Dylan Thomas in the late 1980s.) Another Fluxus conceptualist turned rock star, Yoko Ono, began the '60s composing confrontational chamber and orchestral compositions and ended the '60s showcasing her extended vocal techniques in music that foreshadows the No Wave pandemonium of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks fronted by Lydia Lunch in the late 1970s.

The goal of psychedelic rock (1965-69) was to make music as mind altering as LSD (though much of it sounds more like music created by people who took too much LSD). Psych's legacy is a plethora of experimental rock repertoire including music with Baroque suggestions (while some bands used recorders, for some reason the harpsichord was ubiquitous), non-Western instruments (not just the North Indian sitar and tabla, but Turkish saz, and even the Chinese pi'pa make cameos on singles of the era), prominent use of live and pre-recorded electronic sound manipulation (from simple feedback experiments to idiomatic use of electronic instruments and musique concrete) and extended durations (often free-form jamming but sometimes more-structured multi-movement suites). Music of the two most long-lived psych-era bands that were spawned by psych--the San Francisco-based Grateful Dead, and the U.K.-band Pink Floyd--exhibit most of the qualities.

As psych sobered in the U.K. it morphed into the even more ambitious—detractors would say pretentious-progressive rock sub—genre, a music which frequently demanded the same attention span as classical music. Some pre-prog era bands had already flaunted grandiose opuses: The Who's "opera" Tommy (1969); The Kinks' even earlier "opera" Arthur (1968); a Concerto for Rock Band and Orchestra (1969) by a pre-heavy metal incarnation of Deep Purple (featuring orchestrations by noted British symphonist Malcolm Arnold); and a "Mass in F Minor" by The Electric Prunes (1968)...don't ask! But these were all one-off projects, whereas the heart and soul of bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes were either the side-long suite or a concept spanning a complete album (sometimes a double-album). While much of this music sounds dreadfully dated and naive in its appropriation of 19th century harmonic idioms artificially grafted onto amplified instruments with an occasional rock beat, the best music of this period remains exciting because of its awareness and incorporation of the vocabulary of contemporaneous avant-garde music: bands like Gentle Giant (whose merging of electronic sonorities and canonic form is staggering), Van Der Graaf Generator (whose harmonic language frequently borders on atonality), and the still-active King Crimson (who have explored metrical complexity over the decades in styles ranging from pointillism to post-minimalism). Some U.K. bands with an even greater propensity for experimentation like Soft Machine and Henry Cow (after Cowell), functioned more like composer collectives than rock bands.

On the European continent, prog's merger of rock and classical music seemed much more comfortable than it ever did in the United States, where classical music was never completely embraced as a indigenous tradition. Often the only thing separating European classical and prog rock composers was the pedigree of their training, although members of the German band Can studied with Stockhausen. The more experimental albums of bands like Amon Duul (Germany), Art Zoyd (France) and Zamla Mammaz Manna (Sweden) are almost indistinguishable from albums by contemporary art music collectives like Musica Elettronica Viva (which featured Fred Rzewski) or the ONCE group.

The case of Brian Eno is perhaps unique in that he is arguably a figure of equal significance in the rock and avant-garde music scenes and his evolution in both mediums was concurrent. Soon after a brief-stint in the British art rock band, Roxy Music, Eno simultaneously created new wave rock almost a decade earlier than anyone else and was a chief instigator of British minimalism both through his own ambient compositions and by creating the Obscure Records label who were the first to release recordings of music by Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, David Toop, Christopher Hobbs and a then obscure American named John Adams.

The music of Laurie Anderson also hovers somewhere in between new wave rock and contemporary classical music, not quite comfortably fitting in either category. Her tour-de-force United States Parts I-IV (1983) was a large conceptual multi-media opera en par with similar contemporaneous works by composers like Robert Ashley, but it yielded "O Superman" which became a hit single in the U.K. Her recent work, including a tribute to Amelia Earhart (which the ACO premiered in 2000) continues to blur distinctions.

All four of the so-called founders of American minimalism have flirted with the rock world at some point. Philip Glass, whose heavily-amplified Ensemble attracted a rock audience early on and had a couple of LPs released on the rock label Virgin, played keyboards with and produced albums for the new wave band Polyrock and later collaborated with Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, David Byrne of Talking Heads and others for his own "rock album" Songs for Liquid Days. The music of Terry Riley never really fit into any one genre. His 1969 album, A Rainbow in Curved Air, featuring two trippy side-long improvisatory tracks was marketed by Columbia Records as a rock album, inspired The Who's song "Baba O'Riley" and even named the rock band Curved Air. Riley later recorded a bone-fide rock album, well sort-of, Church of Anthrax (currently an unfortunate title but back then who knew) with previously acknowledged genre-bender John Cale. In 1990, after being cited as the guru for two generations of rockers, La Monte Young finally formed his own "rock band," The Forever Bad Blues Band, which in typical Young fashion plays only one tune per gig but it's one that lasts several hours! The most rock resistant of the minimalists, Steve Reich, who once famously declared in the 1970s that the only thing he admired about rock musicians was their bank accounts, later retracted that statement and recently sanctioned a re-mix album of recordings of his music by an eclectic group of international DJs. Many lesser-known minimalist pioneers such as Tony Conrad, David Borden and Daniel Lentz, through their use of amplified instruments and/or keyboard synthesizers, evoked a sound world not far removed from contemporaneous German rock bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.

But by the early 1980s, two New York-based composers were determined to actual fuse rock and contemporary classical music. Rhys Chatham, who as the music curator of The Kitchen shaped the identity of Downtown music, was arguably the first composer to notate compositions scored exclusively for rock ensembles. Emerging from the no wave punk band Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca went on to create monumental hour-long symphonies of multiple electric guitars frequently re-tuned and distorted to create dense microtonal clusters. Two of Branca's sidemen, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, went on to form the alternative rock band Sonic Youth which evokes a similar sound world that demands serious listening. Moore recently received a commission to write for the Bang On A Can all-stars, a so-called "contemporary classical chamber ensemble" whose instrumentation is a classical-rock hybrid. BoaC founders, composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang who each create densely layered contemporary classical music that is also heavily informed by rock. Eschewing genres, Lang likes to call the music he traffics in "other music," a term also favored by a great downtown Manhattan record shop that sells avant-garde classical, jazz and rock with equal enthusiasm. The music of a composer like John Zorn, who improvises jazz, composes string quartets and fronts the punk-metal band Naked City, would be comfortable in any area of the store.

It is no longer shocking for a composer like Christopher Rouse to acknowledge Led Zeppelin drummer Jon Bonham as one of his heroes or for Michael Torke to borrow a riff from a Madonna song. Similarly, the British band Radiohead sampled a work by Princeton-based computer composer Paul Lansky on their album Kid A. I recently heard a bizarre two-minute piece by a young Dutch composer based on three songs by Britney Spears!

Today the influences shuttle back and forth and often the only thing that determines whether something is contemporary classical music or rock is how it is marketed. A classical radio programmer (better left unnamed) paraphrasing a famous comment about pornography once claimed that he couldn't say what classical music was but he knew what it sounded like. I challenge him or anyone who shares his bravado to listen to Mikel Rouse's talk-show opera Dennis Cleveland, which at times sounds like a cross between Talking Heads and the Wu Tang Clan but was released on CD by New World Records and presented last year by Lincoln Center's Great Performers Series. Now, how classical is that?

American Composers Orchestra performs the works of Frank Zappa in Carnegie Hall on Sunday, March 2, 2003 at 3:00 pm. [find out more...]

Frank J. Oteri is a NYC-based composer and the Editor of NewMusicBox, the Web magazine from the American Music Center.


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