For today’s post we have a 1983 collection of contemporary classical pieces produced by the Minnesota Composers Forum. We chose the first piece on the album, which is by Eric Stokes, who founded the University of Minnesota’s electronic music laboratory and taught in the music department for 29 years. Stokes is also the composer of seven operas, several of which debuted here in Minnesota.
Stokes passed away in an auto accident on Interstate Highway 94 in 1999. He was remembered by a colleague as “a rebel … but also one of the least cynical people I’ve ever known. He was very positive and I think his music showed that too.” Stokes counted Charles Ives, John Cage and Harry Brandt as his primary influences as a composer, and his music was often highly percussive as in this piece and a performance at the Walker Art Center’s old stage titled “Rock and Roll (Phonic Paradigm 1).” In that work rock were rolled around the stage and hit together by several performers.
These Minnesota Composers Forum records are really interesting, and there are four other pieces on this particular one. Here’s an excerpt from the notes to Tintinnabulary (Phonic Paradigm IV) by Stokes, which you can hear below. The performers are Stokes and Jay Johnson.
In composing such a piece, several orders and types of struck, reverberant objects were used. The resulting sounds were recorded. By means of simple procedures, unique properties of these recorded sounds found distinctive places in the compositional plan. Composition therefor, in this instance, was and is a function of foresight & afterthought.
The New York Times has reported the passing of Batman star Adam West under the headline “A Sad Day for Gotham.” West, who was eighty-eight, would have appreciated the wry humor. His portrayal of Bob Kane’s caped crusader was a world apart from any other interpretation of the comic book hero. In the Times obituary, he described his approach to the role:
What I loved about Batman was his total lack of awareness when it came to his interaction with the outside world. He actually believed nobody would recognize him on the phone when he was Bruce Wayne, even though he made no attempt to disguise his voice.
The short-lived series was a masterpiece of clever camp, with West at its center. As Batman (and, spoiler alert, millionaire Bruce Wayne) he encouraged the young citizens of Gotham to eat their vegetables and wear their seat belts. He hoped his adversaries could be redeemed.
Hefti and Riddle each released LPs of music from Batman. In line with the television show’s camp approach, the theme (a hit for the Marketts and Hefti himself) credited “Words and music” even though there was only a single word in the song.
His album, fairly rare today, contained the theme and eleven additional tunes with fun titles like “Evil Plot to Blow Up Batman” (heard below).
The Nelson Riddle LP contains the actual television score, or at least a sampling of songs from its three seasons. It also has hilarious clips of dialogue which feature West at his best.
Here are a couple tracks from the soundtrack LP in honor of the actor, who couldn’t ever really escape the role he played so well but came to embrace it. We grew up watching re-runs of Batman and we never really outgrew the show.
The first thing which caught our eye on this sleeve inside a copy of the Jackson 5’s Looking Back LP was the mail-in opportunity to be “Jermaine’s Personal Soul-Mate,” since by most accounts Jermaine had a lot of ‘soul-mates’ in those days. Michael, on the other hand, was too little for that. As he famously said in an interview years later when asked about whether there was an actual Billie Jean:
Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60s. They would hang around backstage doors, and any band that would come to town they would have a relationship with, and I think I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers.
Anyways, the best thing about this sleeve is the word “Tito-riffic!” Unfortunately, our search online didn’t turn up the Tito poster advertised in this sleeve, so we’ll have to imagine what “Tito-rific!” looks like.
We did, however, come across this poster for a City Councilman in Boston. Tito Jackson, who is about twenty-two years younger than the third oldest member of the famous Jacksons, is of no relation. He has successfully made a name for himself in his district, and is running for Mayor of Boston this fall.
This LP celebrated the 15th anniversary of “Dial-A-Poem,” an artistic endeavor inaugurated in 1968. Long before you could do your banking from the convenience of your kitchen through the telephone, you could hear a poem by published writers such as John Giorno (who conceived of the idea in a conversation with William S. Burroughs) or unknown amateurs.
Dial-A-Poem released several LPs of material prior to this collection, but it is no longer celebrating anniversaries having been long ago eclipsed by the internet. The material heard when you called Dial-A-Poem were often recorded with a live audience, and You’re on the Hook draws from live musical performances spanning about ten years.
We set aside this copy for a customer who is a big fan of Patti Smith, but before that we recorded about half of the first side to share with you today. The tracks are by: Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and Frank Zappa.
We have collected enough unconventional concerti to finally give them their own category. You can click the li’l link underneath this post’s title and scroll down to find works such as William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra.
Believe it or not, when Mozart composed for the our familiar friend the clarinet, it was in its modern incarnation a fairly novel instrument to be given such serious treatment. Within a hundred years it was a standard part of the orchestra. Albrechtsberger’s concerto for the jew’s harp (actually one of at least a half dozen he composed) may not have had the same uplifting effect on the popularity of its solo instrument, but this is not necessarily so for other stringed instruments. To this end we offer today Johann Hoffmann’s Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra in D Major, written around the same time the clarinet was earning its seat in the pit.
We do not know as much about Hoffmann, a figure so shadowy in German music that his first name is uncertain. He was a mandolin virtuoso, and he may have taken an Italian name, Giovanni, to expand his audience. We know him today primarily because of his two concerti, which are more than mere vehicles for the mandolin and express the influence of Haydn and Mozart.
The challenge in composing a concerto for an instrument such as the mandolin is that it cannot produce sustained notes. The liner notes to this 1978 Turnabout recording point out that Hoffmann is clever in his approach to this problem, in particular in the second andante con variazioni movement of this concerto where the orchestra is assigned the melody and the solo instrument performs arpeggios, producing the chords in rising and falling succession.
Just as the clarinet has a long history before it found its modern form, the mandolin has been our musical companion for millennia. A painting in France’s Trois-Frères Cave, dating to about 12,000 BC, depicts a single stringed instrument from which the lute evolved. These early lutes could have been contemporaneous with the single-reed instruments of India which gave rise to the clarinet.
Historians trace the mandolin as we know it to the eighteenth century, and a family of luthiers, the Vinaccia of Naples. In this early period it was not marked as a “folk instrument” and found a home in the works of great composers, notably Vivaldi whose concerti were certainly widely heard. Beethoven composed four pieces for the mandolin in his middle period, and it also makes an appearance in two of the great operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello. Still, today in the United States the mandolin is mostly heard as a folk instrument.
The other night we finally watched Hidden Figures, which is a really great movie. The scenes which depicted the IBM computer being installed reminded us of this 10″ box set, which includes a book and record on the subject of the relationship between mathematics and music.
The book includes photographs of the computer used at Bell Laboratories to compose the music heard on the record. It’s an IBM 7090, the same $2.9 million machine that was used by NASA at the Langley Research Center to calculate trajectories for the Mercury and Gemini space flights.
Music from Mathematics begins with a history of scientific inquiries into the nature of musical composition, from Pythagoras to Hermann von Helmholtz, who designed a resonator to identify the frequencies in music (an invention which indirectly lead Alexander Graham Bell towards his work on the invention of the telephone). The book also breaks down a composer’s work in strictly mathematical terms, noting for instance that even in Schoenberg’s restrictive twelve-tone technique, a sequence of twelve notes offers 479,001,600 possibilities. A factorial such as this is expressed “12!” because mathematics is exciting!
Another part of the book points to the appeal of the unexpected, using Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel as an example. A popular 18th century game, dice compositions feature sets of alternate sequences of notes depending on the numbers shown when the “composer” throws a pair of dice. The book perpetuates an uncertainty by attributing the work to Mozart, for though published in 1792 and included in the Köchel catalog, it has never been verified as Mozart’s work. Musikalisches Würfelspiel is capable of producing 1116 similar but distinct waltzes.
The book and record contains a number of experiments beginning at this point with Music by Chance, produced at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The second side of the record opens with a remarkable piece composed on ILLIAC computer at the University of Illinois in 1955.
The process began by assigning numbers to notes of the scale from low C upwards. In the beginning sharps and flats were omitted, but in later experiments a full chromatic scale of two and a half octaves was used. The computer then generated random numbers. The numbers were screened through a series of tests representing the various rules of musical composition such as tonality and the standard of counterpoint formalized in the 16th century. If the next number did not conform to the rules it was rejected and a new random number was generated and tested. The numbers which passed the testing were stored in the computer until a short melody was created, and it was printed out and translated into notation for a human performer.
The Illiac Suite produced by this experiment is regarded as the first musical score composed by a computer. The record inside Music from Mathematics contains only a two minute sampling from its fourth movement, but you can hear a performance of the entire work on Youtube here. Although this is certainly the sort of music which gave John Hartford the “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” you’ll find the Illiac Suite no less accessible than Bela Bartok’s quartets, although hardly as rewarding.
The following year a second Music from Mathematics was released on the Decca label. Not a documentary like this set, it presented eighteen performances by the IBM 7090 recorded at the Bell Laboratories. Fans of this album most famously include author Arthur C. Clarke, who later had HAL 9000 the computer sing “Bicycle Built for Two” (ie “Daisy Bell”) as he fades away in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the first song sung by a computer, and appeared on that record.