Posts Tagged ‘Ligeti’

Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Intersection

July 11, 2012

Earle Brown conducting his music

In 2007, I was asked to contribute an essay to Contemporary Music Review, a UK publication with the title “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics”. Earle had a huge influence on my work. I wrote twelve short essays called AVAILABLE RECOLLECTIONS. Here is the first one with more to come…

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I met Earle Brown for the first time at the 1985 BMI awards for young composers. I was 24 and had studied his works for many years. If it had not been for Earle, I would not have been invited there. I had composed Pentateuch, a grand divisi orchestral work in quarter-tones, including three choral groups and soprano solo with strong hints of György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. Because of its size, Earle was the only judge who took the time to open it up and understand it. ‘I had to fight for your score,’ he told me. ‘No one else wanted to look at it.’ Earle did not mind ‘rolling up his sleeves’, so to speak. It was serendipity that he was a judge that year. My life changed.

Available Recollections
Author: William Susman
Published in: Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

N.B. What I failed to mention in the original publication was that the score Pentateuch was 6 feet long and Earle told me he spread it out on the floor. The BMI judges were passing around scores and there was not enough space at the table. Back then, I copied this oversize score at a blueprint shop in Palo Alto and it could not be cheaply reduced to a manageable size as it is today.

Opus One Memphis Interview Part 2

February 24, 2012

First page of Anton Webern's Variations for Piano Op 27 (1937)

You’ve written works for an assortment of instrumental combinations in varying genres! How did your schooling and musical experiences contribute to your compositions? How different is it to write seemingly unrelated genres, like film scores to piano concertos?

Before I arrived at University of Illinois I spent a year and half at Tulane. I had a wonderful piano teacher there named Robert Zemurray Hirsch who introduced me to all the great 20th century composers and I most connected with Webern and his Opus 27. It was truly an epiphany for me to study and play Webern’s music. Since that time, my process has always included ideas of structure, symmetry, cycle, isorhythmhocket and the like. Today, though, my musical language could not be more different than Webern’s. It’s the sheer brilliance and beauty of his constructions, as if he created these immense crystals, that I so admire.

After Tulane, I transferred to Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to completely focus on music. I was 19 and majored in music composition and piano. I used to love to browse through the stacks of scores in the music library and happened across Pithoprakta by Xenakis (coincidentally, also a string orchestra work). I fell in love with his sound world and also that of Ligeti’s. I was deeply attracted to large divisi scores where each member of the orchestra played a different part. Ligeti called it micro-polyphony. I liked large-scale constructions and “clouds” of sound. A few years later at Stanford, I wrote a grand scale divisi orchestral work with almost a 100 solo parts in some sections. It was reminiscent of Ligeti and Xenakis. This was the piece that caught the attention of Earle Brown at the BMI awards.

Listening to my music today you may not be able to tell that I had such a strong interest in the European avant-garde, yet it was that early experimentation for me that helped mold and discipline my process today.  However, it was also not my language and I was lucky to realize this early on. I was mesmerized by their style but the ideas that created their music were not mine. My sound has gradually evolved over many years by trying to imbue each piece with my own ideas. I’ve written everything from piano pieces, string quartets, and wind quintets to vocal, chamber ensemble, choral and orchestral pieces. With each new commission, I feel I am developing my voice. I cannot say that about my pieces from my early 20s yet they somehow helped me get recognition.

The difference between writing a film score and writing a piano concerto is that I am working with a director and serving the needs of the film as opposed to working for myself. I have written many scores for documentary films. When scoring, I always try to give the music an organic connection with the film whether it’s using an instrument or borrowing a folk melody seen or heard in the film. For example, with the silent documentary Native New Yorker (which won the Tribeca Film Festival) I scored it with instruments you see buskers playing. With my recent piano concerto as with other concert works, I can focus solely on the abstraction of sound.

It’s only fair to ask: do you have a musical hero?

Schoenberg without a doubt.

Read the whole interview at Opus One Memphis

Opus One Memphis Interview Part 1

February 23, 2012

At a mixing session for OCTET at The Site in San Rafael, California

MSO’s Opus One will be performing William Susman’s Zydeco Madness in the upcoming performances with Marcela Pinilla on March 1 & 2 at the Rumba Room. William Susman lives in the San Francisco area. His composition, Zydeco Madness, was dedicated “to the forgotten of Hurricane Katrina” in Louisiana. With the recent Mardi Gras celebration, and the fact that it’s awesome to be able to interview a living composer, I thought you would all enjoy hearing what William Susman has to say about being a composer and particularly about the piece the MSO musicians will be performing next week.

Tell us about your background: where did you grow up, and where do you live now? How did your musical career begin?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and now live near San Francisco. I did my undergrad work in music at the University of Illinois and went to grad school at Stanford in order to work at CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). I’ve lived in the SF Bay area since then. As a teenager in the Chicago area, I studied with a variety of teachers in classical and jazz piano and, counterpoint. I also played in my high school big band and gigged with jazz combos. My influences back then were all the jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane.

My first big break was when I got a BMI award for a large divisi work for soprano, choir and orchestra (Pentateuch) which also happened to be my Stanford master’s thesis. At the BMI award ceremony in New York, I met one of the judges, the seminal American composer Earle Brown. At the ceremony, he said “I had to fight for your score. No one wanted to look at it because it was too big. I was the only one willing to spread it out on the floor!” (that was before you could reduce things cheaply at Kinko’s. I had made copies of the score at an architectural blueprint shop. Not long after BMI, I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and met Virgil Thomson who lived there. He gave me the practical advice of, “The print is too small and the score is too big!”)

excerpt from PENTATEUCH (1983/84) for soprano, 3 choral groups and orchestra

It was very exciting to have a composer of Earle’s stature champion me. He helped secure a Fromm Music Foundation commission. I wrote a chamber orchestra piece (Trailing Vortices) with that commission and it was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival. It was also selected for the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland and was performed by the VARA radio orchestra (now Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Ernest Bour. Bour was a legend with the European avant-garde having premiered many works by Berio and Ligeti among others. Needless to say, I was honored to work with these musicians while in my mid-20s.

Read the whole interview Opus One Memphis

Tempo is the Only Constant

September 9, 2009
Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Thoughts on the Typology of Central African Music:

Melody in Central African music is determined by the tones of the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog Steve Reich uses this approach in his work Different Trains. Also the melodic line can be transposed allowing a wider range of intervals. Often the lines descend in the form of terraced movement resting on “successve levels”. (Arom, 19)

Tempo is the only constant. The speed of a piece of music never varies. Only melody, rhythm and instrumental patterns may change in a musical discourse.

There are different techniques of plurivocality or multi-part singing: Heterophony, overlapping and homophony. André Gide relates his impressions of a ‘tam-tam’ in 1928, “but imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”

Simha Arom aptly describes the features of this heterophony which I will delineate in a list:

  1. A melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo
  2. The voices are slightly unfocused
  3. Minute variants
  4. A coming and going of dissonances
  5. Overlapping between solo and chorus parts (Gide called this ‘brocading’)
  6. Often in the middle of this process a singer will sustain a single note thus creating an intermittent drone. (Arom, 21)

Homophony on the other hand is the most common form of multi-part singing. This form of plurivocality involves parallel movement of the voices. Typically they are in intervals of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. Often certain tribes are known for singing distinctly with these intervals as 8-5-4 tribes and some sing in 3rds. (Arom, 22)

In Pentateuch (1983) a grand divisi orchestra, choir and soprano work written when I was 23 (with influences from Ligeti and Xenakis) the three male choir groups sing for an extended period in 5ths. Each group takes its turn singing a phrase in 5ths while the soprano voice predominates above in a quasi call and response. My intent was to create a very raw, basic and forceful sound in the midst of a constellation of divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections.

The proof of the analysis is in the synthesis

August 25, 2009
Finding refuge in the shade of a Boabob tree, we discover a makeshift board setup of Mancala.

Finding refuge in the shade of a Baobab tree, we discover a makeshift board setup of Mancala.

The title of this blog today appears at the front of Simha Arom’s African Polyphony and Polyrhythm. It is attributed to Levi-Strauss and I agree with this statement. That is what I’m trying to do here. Take Mr. Arom’s analysis of the music of the Banda Linda and synthesize it. By writing about it, talking with friends and looking at my own music and the work of others through the lens of an ethnomusicologist I hope to see and hear sound differently. (more…)

Music & Africa

August 24, 2009
William Susman traveling in Burkina Faso. Just another flat tire...

William Susman traveling in Burkina Faso. Just another flat tire...

This is the first entry of a blog I am creating reflecting on my trip to Africa this summer and how it has affected my work as a composer. We initially went to Burkina Faso in West Africa to visit my son who is in the Peace Corps. We also visited Mali, specifically Dogon Country, Bamako and then traveled to Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa. (more…)