Notes (2004/04/28)

George Lewis
Virtual Concerto
Born July 14, 1952 in Chicago, IL
Now living in San Diego, CA

Virtual Concerto is scored for 3 flutes (3rd alternating piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd alternating bass clarinet) 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and virtual soloist.

In 18th Century German musical culture, the notion of Begeisterung, routinely translated as “enthusiasm,” denoted a dynamic paroxysm of creative ecstasy. Theorists seeking an understanding of human creativity prized Beethoven’s sketch-books as a primary artifact of the immediacy that was central to Begeisterung.

But Begeisterung was thought to inhere even more centrally in improvisation, which at the time was considered a necessary aspect of a musician’s training. British scientists weighed in with a 1749 attempt to design a piano that would transcribe improvisations, the better to capture the creative process as it was unfolding.

In the 20th Century, improvisation has presaged new models of social organization that foreground agency, history, memory, identity, personality, embodiment, cultural difference and self-determination. The late 19th-Century disappearance of improvisation from Western performance practice, however, has left behind a legacy in which otherwise highly-trained artists routinely profess an inability to improvise. This lack has unfortunately come to constitute a fundamental aspect of the Western classical musician’s identity-matrix.

To break out of the Matrix toward a more integrative conception of musical creativity, we must aim our scimitar squarely at some of the culture’s most cherished critiques of improvisation. The latest version of this conventional wisdom contrasts the heroic, yet inarticulate and mystically ego-driven Romantic improvisor, imprisoned by the will, with the detached, disengaged, ego-transcending artist who simply lets sounds be themselves.

But if we disconnect ourselves from reactions to European romanticism, we find that creating within the conditions of the moment, based on one’s history, culture, and practices, is what being human is really all about. In this way, we are all improvisors, each moment of our lives. This definition of improvisation, all the more powerful for its prosaic assertion of ubiquity and necessity, animates the sonic and interactional world of Virtual Concerto, a work for piano and orchestra in which the pianist is a computer program.

The orchestral score is more or less conventionally notated, but the computer’s “score” is specified in terms in terms of “behavior sets” that condition the real-time algorithmic production of music. The computer program playing the solo piano part uses its real-time analysis of aspects of the ongoing performance to guide a process that generates complex responses and independent musical behavior. The behavior sets establish structural relationships between the computer soloist, the orchestra’s previously written part, and the improvised music of key players in the ensemble.

One important section of the piece is improvised collectively by the orchestra, according to a compact set of verbal guidelines designed to foster relationships between players. The concerto tradition of the secondary soloist is articulated via short improvisations by trumpet, trombone, violin, and clarinet, in dialogue with both the orchestra and the pianist. The penultimate section of the piece, just prior to the final cadenza (created in real time, as called for by tradition), features this group of players in a collective improvisation.

My work with improvising computers embodies a kind of technology-mediated animism, recalling my conversations with the late Malachi Favors Maghostut, contrabassist and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (to whose memory the piece is dedicated) about “this African brother who had instruments that played themselves.” At the same time, there is nothing in the score that mandates its performance by a computer. As with my other technological works sine 1979, Virtual Concerto spotlights the liminal case where the computer is faced with a task that brings us as listeners closer to an understanding of what it means to be human.

George Lewis, improvisor-trombonist, composer and computer/installation artist, studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2002, a Cal Arts/Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, and numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lewis has explored electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, text-sound works, and notated forms. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis’s work as composer, improvisor, performer and interpreter is documented on more than 120 recordings. His oral history is archived in Yale University’s collection of Major Figures in American Music and his published articles on music, experimental video, visual art, and cultural studies have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and edited volumes. His forthcoming book, Power Stronger Than Itself: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians will be published by the University of Chicago Press. In Fall 2004, Lewis will become the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University.

–George Lewis


Earle Brown
Event: Synergy II
Born December 26, 1926 in Lunenburg, Massachusetts
Died July 2, 2002 in Rye, New York

A leading composer of the American avant-garde for more than fifty years, Earle Brown was associated with the experimental composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff who, with Brown, came to be known as the New York School.

Earle Brown’s generosity to his fellow composers and his broad musical outlook continued throughout his life. Stemming from the intimate friendship he and his second wife, Susan, had with the music patron Paul Fromm from the 1970s onward, Brown served as president of the Fromm Music Foundation from 1984 through 1989. In that role, he organized the Fromm concerts at the Aspen Music festival and commissioned works by composers such as Henry Brant, Ornette Coleman, Carson Kievman, Todd Machover, Steve Mackey, Steve Reich, James Tenney, and Joan Tower, among many others.
The composer provided the following note about the work:

Spontaneous decisions in the performance of a work and the possibility of the composed elements being “mobile” have been of primary interest to me for some time; the former to an extreme degree in Folio (1952), and the latter, most explicitly, in Twenty Five Pages(1953). The mobility of the elements was inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder, in which, similar to this work, there are basic units subject to enumerable different relationships or forms. The concept of the work being conducted and formed spontaneously in performance was originally inspired by the “action-painting” techniques and works of Jackson Pollock in the late 1940s, in which the immediacy and directness of “contact” with the material is of great importance and produces such an intensity in the working and in the result. The performance conditions of these works are similar to a painter working spontaneously with a given palette. These comparisons extremely dangerous and I emphasize that it is to the nature of the working process and the mobility of the formal possibilities that I refer, not to the quality or effect of the results.

One of the works in Folio is an “open-form”, “graphic” score called November 1952, and is subtitled Synergy. This score, and December 1952 are the two most extreme examples of performer determination from minimal scored information from the composer and represent an extreme point of “improvisation” which no longer interest me greatly. Since Folio (1952-53) my scores have been almost completely determined by myself as to sound-material content, despite the frequent case of the form being left open. Synergy, as I have worked with the concept, means the result of a collaborative process-relationship in the performance itself . . . inherent in the score but not in detail foreseeable before the act of performing and perceiving.

In Synergy II I have increased the degree of control which the conductor may have over the individuals and groups within the orchestra and over the over-all form. Also, because of the opportunity of writing for the fine musicians of the “Domaine Musical”, I have increased the degree of self-determination of sound details by the musicians themselves in approximately 50% of the score, but not to the exclusion of accuracy and responsibility to the precise scoring of many areas or the “graphic” scoring of trajectories and textures in other areas. It is a balance between the open-content, open-form Synergy of 1952 and the composed-content, open-form works such asAvailable Forms I and II.

I have felt that the conditions of spontaneity and mobility of elements which I have been working with create a more urgent and intense “communication” throughout the entire process, from composing to the final realization of a work. I prefer that each “final form”, which each performance necessarily produces be a collaborative adventure, and that the work and its conditions of human involvement remain a living potential of engagement.


Anthony Davis
Wayang V
Born February 20, 1951 in Patterson, NJ
Now living in San Diego, CA

A biography of Anthony Davis appears here.

About the work, the composer writes:

Wayang V (For Piano and Orchestra) premiered in 1984 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and was performed and recorded by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra in 1988. Wayang V is one of a number of my compositions inspired by the Balinese Gamelan. Each of my Wayang pieces employs polyrhythmic repetition and improvisation. In Wayang V, after a sustained texture with a piano improvisation, the opening section explores a polyrhythmic texture dividing the orchestra into choirs which accentuate the repeating rhythmic cycles in the piece. The underlying rhythmic texture employs an ostinato which can be perceived in 3/4, 6/8 or 12/8 in a 48 beat pattern which is juxtaposed by an 18-19-17 (54) beat pattern primarily in the winds. A fragmented melody appears in opposition to the pattern and culminates in a 7/4 ostinato in the low brass. The section culminates in a rhythmic finish. The piano in this section functions as part of the rhythmic apparatus and emerges in the second section in an improvisational solo. The rhythmic themes of the first section re-emerge as the piece develops in fragmented and more developed versions.

Improvisation has always been central to my aesthetic conception not so much as an appropriation of a musical tradition but as a revolutionary idea which allows for the creativity of the performer within a dynamic musical structure. As composers, we are still learning the lessons of Ellington, Strayhorn, Mingus and Monk as we traverse the dialectic of the notated and the improvised.


Alvin Singleton
When Given A Choice for Orchestra

Commissioned by The Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Inc. and American Composers Orchestra, with additional support from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Singleton was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 28, 1940, and is now living in Atlanta, Georgia. He composed When Given A Choice in 2004.

When Given A Choice is scored for 3 flutes (3rd alternating piccolo)2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (2nd alternating Eb clarinet, 3rd alternating bass clarinet) 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

Alvin Singleton has emerged over the last two decades as one of the most accomplished and sought-after American composers of symphonic and chamber music. When Given a Choice is the composer’s article of faith in the possibilities of improvisation. This faith is not blind, since the composer has long-time experience with the approach from the jazz he admired and played in his youth to some 10 major “classical” works he hass created utilizing the written/improv interface over the years. Of his youth he writes:

Growing up in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York, where my heroes were jazz musicians, I thought that a musical score was some sort of blueprint or map designed by a composer/ arranger to be developed by the musician during a performance. As a teenager, I was impressed by how improvisation influenced the inner workings of a song and added to its spontaneity and excitement.

Singleton’s early study and admiration of such jazz masters as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman has clearly guided his compositional experiments with an appreciation of the immediacy and freshness of the performer’s artistic imagination. Singleton has approached the challenges of improvisation in many different ways (all at the service of making good-sounding music). The challenges of improvisation in such traditionally classical settings are many, not least of them the fear of failure often felt by even world-class “reading” musicians and singers. Good performers always hew to a commitment to fulfilling the composer’s scored wishes. But some musicians have more of a gift for improvisation than others. Moreover there is the aesthetic question “what if we make a wonderful performance we can by definition never duplicate?”

When Given a Choice is a one-movement work, written-out traditionally for most of the orchestra, with “improvisation boxes” affixed to the parts of various soloists and ensemble groupings within the orchestra. In those boxes are series of stemless notes and verbal instructions guiding the chosen players as to the specifics of their improvisation challenges (or “opportunities” as Singleton might have it). Indeed, the work’s greatest performance demands probably lie with the conductor, who must not only keep the baton moving a tempo for the main orchestra, and call in and cut off the improvisers at the right times, but also make musical sense of it all.

Singleton’s experience with performers assures him that they can all make contributions of power and beauty to a score of his that is set up for anticipating problems and maximizing the probability of positive results. He even delights in the fact that no two performances will ever be the same. Singleton is saying “When Given A Choice, take it.”

Alvin Singleton attended New York University and Yale. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied with Goffredo Petrassi at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy. After living and working in Europe for 14 years, Singleton returned to the United States to become Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (1985-88). He subsequently served as Resident Composer at Spelman College in Atlanta (1988-91), as UNISYS Composer-in-Residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1996-97), and was the 2002 – 2003 Composer-in-Residence with the Ritz Chamber Players of Jacksonville, Florida. In addition, he has served as Visiting Professor of Composition at the Yale University School of Music. He is the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. His awards also include the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis by the City of Darmstadt, Germany, twice the Musikprotokoll Kompositionpreis by the Austrian Radio, the Mayor’s Fellowship in the Arts Award by the City of Atlanta, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Singleton has composed music for theatre, orchestra, solo instruments, and a variety of chamber ensembles. His music is published by European American Music Corporation and Musica Mista, and is recorded on the Albany Records, Elektra/Nonesuch, and Tzadik labels. In Autumn 2003, Singleton joined American Composers Orchestra as Music Alive Composer-in-Residence and co-curator of Improvise!.

–Carman Moore


Duke Ellington
Les Trois Rois Noirs

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C.. on April 29, 1899, and died in New York on May 24, 1974. At the time of his death he was working on Les Trois Rois Noirs, but it was left unfinished. With an ending by the composer’s son, Mercer Ellington, the work received its American premiere on the anniversary of Duke’s birthday, April 29, 1976, by the Mercer Ellington Orchestra at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. That summer, on July 7, the Alvin Ailey company danced to the Ellington orchestra’s music at Art Park, in Lewiston, New York, and brought the production to the New York State Theater on August 13, 1976, as part of an Ellington festival. Maurice Peress has adapted the score for performance by a symphony orchestra. Peress’ version calls for solo saxophone (combining the parts that would have been played by five saxophones in a jazz band), two flutes and piccolo, two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba, timpani, drums, percussion, piano, harp, guitar, and strings.
“If it’s good I’ll remember it. If it’s bad, well, I want to forget it, and I’d prefer that no one catches on to how lousy I can write.” Thus Duke Ellington, explained his hesitation to commit his music to paper. One has to wonder what Ellington’s feelings would have been on hearing his music played by ensembles other than those he wrote for. “You can’t write music right unless you know how the man who’ll play it plays poker.”

Yet it was Ellington who forged crucial links between the jazz and symphonic worlds. “I don’t believe in categories of any kind,” he stated, and among his some two thousand titles are concertos, suites, tone poems for symphonic and dance band orchestras (sometimes combined), ballets, two operas Queenie Pie and the unfinished Boola film and show scores, a television musical, oratorios, ballads, blues, spirituals, short instrumental solos, and arrangements of other composer’s works.
Ellington was forming bands in his native Washington while still a teenager. He then established himself in New York in the 1920s, bringing a powerful, distinctive sound with his “jungle music.”

By the time of his years at the Cotton Club (1927 32) Ellington had become a leading figure in jazz. In the early 1930s he began writing extended compositions, such as Creole Rhapsody, Reminiscin’ in Tempo, and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. His Harlem Suite (1950) was commissioned by the NBC Symphony, Night Creature (1956, for symphony orchestra and jazz band) by the Symphony of the Air, and Golden Broom and the Green Apple (1965) was written for the New York Philharmonic. On January 23, 1943, Ellington’s orchestra became the first black swing band to perform at Carnegie Hall, playing his monumental Black, Brown and Beige – a musical history of black Americans.

Throughout his career, Ellington championed the cause of the black man in his music. “…Social protest and pride in the history of the Negro have been the most significant themes in what we’ve done.” The titles speak volumes: Black Beauty, Deep South Suite, My People, Liberian Suite, La plus belle africaine. Still another overarching theme in Ellington’s musical life was his religiosity, which became more prominent in later years, as manifested especially in the three Sacred Concerts (1965, 1968, and 1973). “Now I can say out loud to all the world what I’ve been saying to myself for years on my knees.”
Ellington’s final composition, Les Trois Rois Noirs (“Three Black Kings”), amalgamates these various threads. Mercer Ellington explains: “He intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King and he decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. Primitivity, the opening movement, represents [Balthazar,] the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that, then the dirge for Dr. King. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings Ellington saw in the Cathedral del Mar in Barcelona.”

Concerning his role in the composition, Mercer laments, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy, because he left me no clues.”

The score was eventually arranged, orchestrated, and notated by Luther Henderson in a “concerto grosso” version. It was from this score that Maurice Peress arranged the version heard today. Over the years Peress has edited many Ellington scores in order “to create a body of works that an orchestra can play on its own without competing with a jazz band.”
The result of these combined efforts is full of life, ranging from the highly charged drum calls of the first movement to the sultry and sexy middle movement, to the gospel inflected third. One suspects that Duke would have “loved it madly.”

–Susan Feder ©1988