For the final event of Third Angle Ensemble’s 2014-15 season, the beloved contemporary classical alliance is putting a focus on works that originated on the West Coast of the U.S. The performance, entitled Hearing Voices, features six representative works from some of the region’s most important composers—Henry Cowell, John Luther Adams, Harry Partch, John Cage, and Lou Harrison—as well as a piece from Steve Reich, the composer best known for his work with the minimalist movement in New York.
To help Third Angle tell the story of the West Coast avant-garde, they’ve invited Alex Ross, the New Yorker critic and author, to join them. The evening will feature performances interspersed by Ross reading selections from his incredible 2007 book that surveyed the history of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise.
To whet our appetite for Hearing Voices, we caught up with Ross during a stay in Lexington, Kentucky to discuss some of the work being presented tonight at the Alberta Rose Theater and to learn how the West Coast may have inspired the work of these esteemed composers.
MERCURY: Is there a particular mindset or thread that connects the composers of the West Coast avant garde?
ALEX ROSS: I think if you look to the origins of this style, it’s better thought of as a sensibility than a tendency. These are varied composers each with a very distinct voice that I don’t want to put them in a box together. But something that distinguishes them is a lineage that goes all the way back to the years before the first World War. The early cultural atmosphere of the West Coast, especially California, there was a great consciousness of Eastern spiritual and cultural traditions. And of course from the late 19th century, there was this movement of people escaping from the East, to reinvent themselves on the West Coast, and establish a new identity and explore alternative ways of life. I think what you can say about all of these composers is that it’s hard to imagine this music being invented anywhere else. The openness and spaciousness of it. You don’t want to stereotype and impose platitudes about West Coast and California culture but I really think there’s something to that.
I think Harry Partch is a composer that really speaks to the nomadic spirit that brought people out to the West, especially in the work that Third Angle is going to be performing a piece of, Bitter Music, which feels so radical in his attempt to blend classical with folk and blues.
That's a great way to think of it. It's a good reference point for what Partch was doing as well as from a more purely classical background. He was classically trained but was very much an outsider. He dropped out of college for periods and was thinking about this musical language, this musical system that stemmed from the ancient Greek modes of music being part of the body corporeal. Music that is tied in with the rhythms and tonality of speech. This was actually played with by other composers but Partch got rid of the bel canto artifice. There was a raw and organic and natural goal he had in mind.
That use of natural speech patterns leads me to think about the Steve Reich piece It’s Gonna Rain , that’s going to be part of the program.
That's another application of the same idea, taking a recording and listening for the tones and the rise and fall of the voice and extrapolating this electronic piece from it. It emerged almost by accident. As Reich tells the story, you have these two tapes lined up on tape decks and he was going back and forth cutting from one to the other, when he happened to hit them both simultaneously. They started to go slightly out of sync and he started hearing these patterns emerge, this rippling effect. This is where minimalism in the really classic form emerges.
One of the pieces that I'm especially interested in on Friday's program is Lou Harrison's Bowl Bells, which uses the titular instrument as a real driving force of the piece. What can you tell me about that?
Actually I don’t know that piece that well. But we can talk about Harrison in general. He loved the music of various world traditions and he loves their instruments. So, there’s this very strong orientation towards non-Western cultures and especially towards Japanese gamelan. That’s one of his great contributions to 20th-century music. He used the instruments in an asymmetric, natural way that doesn't feel forced and doesn’t have this display of exotica to it.
The program also features a piece by John Luther Adams, a composer that doesn’t feature in your book but that you’ve written about extensively. What is about his work that draws you to it?
He’s another West Coast composer that has a sensitivity to the natural environment, that seems to be edging away from urban space. From density, from clutter, from noise in the sense of frenzy. Adams made this radical gesture of moving to Alaska and working for environmental groups to save the wilderness. He really fell in love with the environment and though he’s moved on to other spaces, he keeps a studio outside of Fairbanks. You don’t want to get too caught up in this idea of the music of far North with glaciers and wide open expanses, yet it’s there. The gradualness with which these pieces unfold, they create their own world. You can’t rush into them and rush out. You have to be patient with them. At the same time, there are very strict mathematical patterns at play. Something like Become Ocean, his big orchestral piece that won the Pulitzer Prize, there’s a romantic atmosphere in the rich reverberance of the strings and brass at the same time there’s a strict structure in terms of how it’s put together. You sense the beguiling surface of nature, of the ocean and the powerful, kind of relentless forces at work. It’s a metaphor giving us both the beauty of nature and its scary power.