The DownTown Ensemble
After a recent concert of the DownTown Ensemble a person said to me, “I like them, because they seem to be enjoying themselves. They make the music sound like it’s fun.” Nice observation. I always wish I could do that. Even more, I always wish that everybody could do that, so I would have more fun going to concerts. How did we get the idea that concert music should seem like a job to be done—that otherwise the musicians might be off somewhere else, having a good time?
I don’t know what the answer is. I guess that if you were religious you could blame it on something we got from our religions. Or you could blame it on our popular music of the moment, which keeps a lot of people, who are actually too old to be doing it, writing about how we should take popular music seriously, because it expresses our “depth,” which I suppose they mean some kind of sadness or unhappiness. As if we didn’t take it too seriously already. As if sadness were not enough of a problem. But we are back where we started, because popular music is popular. Sadness is popular.
The DownTown Ensemble does very few sad pieces. In that respect alone The DownTown Ensemble could hardly ever become popular, resulting in millions of records sold. And its members could hardly ever achieve visible celebrity, because they don’t mope around. The DownTown Ensemble has more or less outgrown adolescence. If the DownTown Ensemble is sad, it keeps its sadness to itself. This CD, for instance, is made for adults. This music is different. I can’t beat around the bush, because I have been there. It requires something in the matter of attention that removes it from all realms of public opinion. Popular music is not popular with everybody all of the time.
To continue. The same person and I more recently discussed my obsession with the “form” of a certain piece of prose. I think that the fact that I want so badly to know how the writing is done comes off as a kind of sickness, or at least bad taste. I stayed up half the night trying to figure out the answer for myself, in spite of that it seemed so obvious. The more you know, the more you enjoy. Is this not true?
The problem is that the writing in question is, as much as I know anything to be, unique and original. That is why I can’t decipher it. There is nothing in the history of “prose” to guide me to another level of understanding. Part of the long night of explaining this to myself brought the realization that this is more or less the situation in contemporary music. And has been for approximately fifty years.
When the old systems broke down or had to be abandoned, each and every composer had to make up for herself or himself what was to be done. This is a most unusual time in musical history. On the one hand, one audience wishes it would all go away. On the other, another audience has enjoyed what it must have felt like seeing, say, the Orient for the first time. Alexander the Grape.
“As we came to the top of the pass and the camels were breathing full breaths, steaming, and what looked like all of India lay below, I thought to myself, for a person who doesn’t like to go to record stores, this is the perfect solution. Lovely Music is shipped all over the world. Famed for quality of sound and beauty of artwork. The best in contemporary avant-garde of a serious nature. Since 1978. Usually a real pleasure to have around. If you’re near a record store, drop in. If not, write.”
Lovely Music beat J. Peterman to the corn by ten years. The problem, of course, is that word, “serious.”
The DownTown Ensemble presents its “seriousness” in the loving attention given to every detail. It doesn’t smother the detail with that love. There is a certain casualness in this music that is charm itself.
If the composers’ descriptions of the music seem pretty much to avoid describing what the music sounds like, you are asking too much. You are asking for what cannot be described. So, I will try it.
The various instrumental sounds are “exposed” in a way that we are not accustomed to, except maybe in folk music. And this quality is not just in the musical technique, though it is important there, but more in the recording technology. And in what might be called the composers’ “tastes” in sound. So, the listener is drawn precariously “close to” the music. This closeness reveals the mannerisms of the compositional technique to an unusual degree. I haven’t felt so intimidated by the composers’ self-assurance in a long time. It reminds me in some way of the music of the 1960s. And I mean that as a compliment. As an audience we have “backed off” in some intangible way. We have become conservative. Face it. We hope the music will not intrude. (Oh, the creatures in our small pond, seen only at important events, old dictators of small countries without names, put out to pasture, because, after all, they didn’t do that much damage.)
The closeness makes the compositional techniques sound dramatic and strange, though in fact these techniques have been around for quite a few years, and particularly in the hands of these composers and their musical relatives. This music is the fruit of years of thoughtful composing experience. This is excellence in a genre. I recommend it.
Another characteristic of the compositional technique that perhaps needs comment, if you have not considered this style of music before is the complete absence of any hint of dance rhythm. There are repeated notes and repeated patterns of notes, but the repetitions never suggest that as a listener you should move—whereas, to make you move, repetition in dance-like music is absolutely essential.
It is a curious paradox, I think, that composers—not just these four composers, but more generally American composers working in a lot of different styles—have invented a new kind of music that is deeply in debt to repetition—and in fact is usually labeled as such in one way or another—without using the repetition to a dance-rhythmic purpose. This is music made to be heard sitting down. In this respect in particular it is most clearly music of the late 20th century. It is, in the strictest sense, meditational music. It is music to think about, rather than music to move with. And the meditational demands are very strict. You have to sit still and really think. You can lose the thread by thinking about the wrong thing or by being diverted in your thought.
The DownTown Ensemble is devoted to individualistic, peculiar music. So this is a special kind of CD. I don’t think you can listen to it while you cook or while you do the dishes, whichever comes first. Put everything aside. Turn off the telephone. Get comfortable. And just listen.
— Robert Ashley, 2001
The DownTown Ensemble was formed in 1983 by co-directors, Daniel Goode and William Hellermann. The Ensemble has several points of focus: music for open (unspecified) instrumentation, emerging composers, commissions, graphic scores, ritual/intermedia music, and large ensemble works. While the Ensemble has a consistent core of players, performances always involve a variety of other artists over fifty such collaborations since the group’s inception.
Nod Drama is a kind of sonic ritual piece in which the unsynchronized pulses of the players are controlled by their nodding with eyes closed. Synchrony of pulse is established and broken several times in the course of the piece, and a melody is superimposed over these pulses. The drama of the nodding heads can only be intuited on a recording. But the players’ dispersion to various parts of the Great Hall of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and their return to the center is quite noticeable in this documentary recording made December 21, 1993. The piece was composed as a kind of “slow-pulse” companion piece to his oft-performed Wind Symphony.
Performers on this recording are: Daniel Goode, clarinet; Peter Zummo, trombone; Bill Ruyle, marimba; Jeffrey Berman, vibraphone; Jon Gibson, saxophone; and Guy Klucevsek, accordion.
The recording was made by Peter Zummo at the December 21st, 1993 concert, “Reverberant Non-Sectarian Meditations for the Holiday Season,” and was edited by Tom Hamilton in 1999.
Daniel Goode’s music is available from Frog Peak Music, and from Theodore Presser. Recordings are on XI, Tzadik, Musicworks, Folkways, and 8 Thrush Music (BMI).
DANIEL GOODE, composer and clarinetist, was born in New York, studied philosophy, and then music with Henry Cowell, Otto Luening, Pauline Oliveros and Kenneth Gaburo. Innovative music for solo clarinet includes Circular Thoughts and Clarinet Songs, released in 1993. Performer and composer with Gamelan Son of Lion since 1976 his gamelan works are recorded on Folkways (Gamelan in the New World, Vols.1 & 2; New Gamelan/New York, GSOL). He has published a book of writings, From Notebooks, and of music, One Page Pieces. Solo, ensemble and intermedia works have been performed throughout the U.S., in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Western and Eastern Europe, and Japan.
Goode’s scores and essays are published in many anthologies and magazines of new music. The Thrush From Upper Dunakyn for solo bass recorder is recorded on Opus One records. He was the Director of the Electronic Music Studio of Rutgers University (1971-1998) and is co-director of the DownTown Ensemble, which he co-founded in New York in 1983. Tunnel-Funnel, a 34- minute piece for 15 instruments was performed at the New Music America 1989 Festival and again at the 1996 Bang On A Can festival. He was represented in the 1991 (with Fiddle Studies) and 1992 Bang On A Can festivals and at the 1994 Pfeifen im Walde festival in Berlin. In July of 1996 he was part of Gamelan Son of Lion’s tour of Java, playing in his Eine Kleine Gamelan Music at the Second Yogyakarta International Gamelan Festival, and in other concerts in Java. As an ArtsLink Fellow in 1996, he performed with musicians of the Belgrade Philharmonic and traditional folkloric musicians of Serbia, his thirty-minute piece, Eight Thrushes, Bagpipe and Accordion. He received a Meet the Composer Choreographer’s Commission for his collaboration with the Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, Re:Sound for gamelan orchestra and seven dancers, New York, 1999. He was guest composer/performer at the 1999 Alternativa Festival, Moscow.
Last things first. I don’t know why it’s called Post/Pone. It’s a curious phrase for a curious piece. Perhaps that’s why this CD has taken so long to come out. The piece began as an idea (impulse) for a chamber guitar concerto, where the guitar played material that is difficult, but doesn’t really sound very difficult, often very softly so that the lead part almost can’t be heard. As the piece evolved, it became more and more of a concerto of simultaneous cadenzas, in which all the instruments are asked to play their parts very freely as individual solos, with no apparent regard for precise coordination with the other parts, despite the fact the score is completely notated. Frequently, or occasionally, depending on your point of view, the performers interact tightly and beautifully. These moments are intended to be unique and not necessarily to happen again. In other words, the players are asked to cut loose, interpreting the notes and rhythms very freely much as a 19th century virtuoso might approach a cadenza, and to let the chips fall where they may. This means listeners will most likely find themselves hearing the piece differently every time they listen to it.
Post/Ponewas commissioned by NYSCA and first performed by the DownTown Ensemble, June 7, 1990 at the Greenwich House Music School, New York City. Players for that performance were Daniel Goode, clarinet; William Hellermann, guitar; Joseph Kubera, piano; Gregory Reeve, viola, Peter Zummo, trombone. The personnel are the same for this recording.
WILLIAM HELLERMANN was born in 1939 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His compositions have received frequent performances and by such organizations as The Kitchen, Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Roulette, Sounds Out of Silent Spaces, Creative Time, The Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble, World Music Institute, The Group for Contemporary Music, Evenings for New Music, Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, Utrecht Symphony Orchestra (Holland), RAI Symphony Orchestra (Rome), Nuova Consonanza (Rome), Biennale de Paris, l’Itineraire (Paris), Ensemble Instrumental de Musique Contemporaine de Paris, Festival d’Orleans (France), Studio Musique Contemporaine (Switzerland), and the Instituto di Tella (Buenos Aires). There are several commercial recordings of William Hellermann’s music currently available on Turnabout Records (VOX), “Electronic Music. Vol. IV” with Ariel, CRI with Ek-Stasis II, Nonesuch Records, “The New Trumpet” with Passages 13 – The Fire, and on Edipan Records with At Sea. His works are published by Theodore Presser (Merion Music), Media Press, and American Composers Edition (ACE).
In addition to his work as a composer, William Hellermann is active as a classical guitarist, specializing in the performance of New Music. He has premiered numerous works for the guitar, many employing new instrumental techniques that he has developed. His solo recital appearances have taken place principally in Europe in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Baden-Baden, Stockholm, Bern and Munich. Hellermann is also well known for his work in music sculpture and has exhibited frequently in the New York City area.
Bare Bones (1989) was originally written for four trombones. It received its premiere performance the DownTown Ensemble at Merkin Hall, New York City, during the New Music America Festival in 1989. It was written to take advantage of the trombone’s qualities, both physical (its slide facilitating the use of glissandos) and sonic, letting me bask in its sound. It is one of the few pieces of mine not to use the minor second extensively, creating a more open sound than usual. This version of Bare Bones is for four bass trombones, played by Jack Schatz, Dave Taylor, Steve Norrell, and John Rojak.
Bare Bones was recorded Dec. 28, 1995 at Baby Monster Studio, New York City, Jamie Candilor, sound engineer, Mary Jane Leach, producer. Editing by Tom Hamilton.
MARY JANE LEACH is a composer/performer from Vermont who has lived in New York since the mid-1970‚s. Her work reveals a fascination with the physicality of sound, its acoustic properties and how they interact with space. In many of her works Leach creates an other-worldly sound environment using difference, combination, and interference tones; these are tones not actually sounded by the performers, but acoustic phenomena arising from Leach‚s deft manipulation of intonation and timbral qualities. The result is striking music that has a powerful effect on listeners. Critics have commented on her ability to “offer a spiritual recharge without the banalities of the new mysticism” (Detroit Free Press), evoking “a visionary quest for inner peace” (Vice Versa Magazine), and “an iridescent lingering sense of suspended time.” (Musicworks Magazine). Leach‚s music has been performed throughout the world in a variety of settings, from the concert stage to experimental music forums, and in collaboration with dance and theater artists. She is an accomplished performer in her own right who has been presented across the United States and Europe, and her works have been performed by many eminent soloists and chamber ensembles. In recent years Leach has received considerable acclaim for her choral music, which is featured on two recent CD releases on the XI and New World labels. Drawing on inspirations as diverse as Monteverdi, Bruckner, and 14th century Ars Nova, these pieces “enliven a choral repertoire starved for good contemporary work.” (Village Voice). Several of Leach’s works are published by C.F. Peters. Leach has been commissioned by many notable ensembles, including Relâche, The DownTown Ensemble, Newband, and the New York Treble Singers, and by soloists such as Guy Klucevsek, Shannon Peet, and Libby Van Cleve. She has received commissioning awards from the American Composers Forum, the NEA, Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, and many other funders.
Recordings of Leach’s work are on the New World, XI, Wave/Eva, and Aerial compact disc labels. On the radio, her music has been featured by First Art, John Schaefer’s “New Sounds” on WNYC, CBC (Canada), Radio Cultura in Sao Paulo, and by several stations in Europe. Her scores have been published in Soundings, Ear Magazine, and Logosblad, and she has been featured in articles in Pulse, Option Magazine, Kölnische Rundschau and on German television.
In 1995 Leach was selected for a prestigious grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, which was established by Jasper Johns and John Cage to support innovative artists in the performing arts.
Fast Dream, a 16-minute, modulating instrumental drone with incidental melodies written for mixed ensemble, requires that the musicians watch a clock. Clockwork melds heavy breathing with stable and bending tones. One image is of a humming telegraph wire with occasional messages flashing across it. It’s not fast, but when it’s over can you remember how much time has passed? My idea was to write drone music in which the pitch changed, in this case stepping through a tone row, and which afforded room for intentional detail and even filigree, so that the music we might hear in our minds while listening to a rich drone is confused by the actual played fragments. Each bar lasts one minute; melodies and fragments written within the bar lines are played and repeated at normal tempi during those minutes. Because of this timed structure, it was possible to “line up” recordings of quintet and sextet performances, a sound check, and a studio session. Synchronizing the recordings was not an arbitrary activity; it was a question of artfully lining up the transitions from whole-note to whole-note (the moments when the musicians watched the clock go from 59” to 00”). This allowed the tones and gestures within the bars to “fall where they might,” among the four performances, just as each musician’s contribution was an interjection into a time field, fairly unplanned with regard to the others’ playing. The resulting collage yields a virtual chamber orchestra of 21 musicians with incidental [for this track]. This edited version interweaves takes from two groupings of musicians: Snug Harbor Cultural Center; 21 December, 1993 Greenwich House Music School; 27 March, 1996 (sound check and performance) LRP Studios; 28 March 1996
Performers: Jeffrey Berman, vibraphone; Daniel Goode, clarinet; Bill Hellermann, guitar; Guy Klucevsek, accordion; Joseph Kubera, piano: Bill Ruyle, marimba; Gregory Reeve, viola; Peter Zummo, trombone
Produced by Peter Zummo with additional recording by Ben Manley. Edited with Tom Hamilton. Fast Dream was originally written to accompany a work-in-progress, which later became Newark, for the Trisha Brown Company.
PETER ZUMMO has performed his works for solo trombone and ensemble worldwide. Though his work emerges from the contemporary classical tradition, the physicality of his playing is rooted in early experience with marching band, his later role as a trombone-playing theatrical performer in Andrei Serban/Elizabeth Swados’ play, The Trojan Women, and subsequent work in the space with dancer/choreographers - emerges as a strong motivation of his melodic invention. Zummo has explored this tradition, often adding elements of other styles, such as the or so-called minimal, downtown, jazz, world music, ambient, avant-garde, folk and rock styles. He has pioneered new approaches to, and uses for, extended instrumental technique on the trombone and also uses the valve trombone, didjeridu, euphonium, computers, synthesizers and other electronics. His playing is characterized by a multitude of voices, many the result of non-standard muting, but many more as aspects of open playing, also with voice and lip multiphonics, and singing as well. Plastics, both as mutes and horns, play a role. Zummo’s compositions are built on melodic and rhythmic fragments, which are presented as lists to like-minded musicians who then pursue ensemble at the boundaries of common and extended practice. For example, the notation for Experimenting With Household Chemicals, a 1995 compact disc release on XI records, is a listing of such fragments. The ensemble members proceed through them using herd instinct. All advance more or less together, yet individuals can linger. This puts the musicians into an intense state of listening, as they need to track each other’s progress in the score. If a player is elaborating on a fragment, this listening process can be yet more challenging. Experimenting With Household Chemicals resulted from a 1987 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. In the piece Zummo explores a conceptual diagrammatic scheme for improvisation in which the overtone series and the slide positions of the trombone are combined as abstract overlapping matrices. In 1999 Zummo began work on the large-scale composition Organized Heat in fulfillment of an Original Work Grant from the Cultural Coalition for the Arts and Humanities of Staten Island. Typically, the melodic fragments used arise from daily instrumental practice and other musical situations (walking, writing, listening). The fragments lend themselves to extension and development, either by improvising musicians or in written form by the composer. An ensemble of like-minded musicians, then, can proceed through the list chronologically, which is the least arbitrary ordering of the elements. Suites from Organized Heat proceed continuously for a half-hour or more, shifting from 12-tone vocal and instrumental drones to song-like chord patterns with rhythmic grooves.
Partial funding for this recording has been provided by a grant from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.
The DownTown Ensemble is a project of the SoundArt Foundation and is supported by the New York State Council on the Arts as well as private contributors.
For more information on the DownTown Ensemble, or to be added to the mailing list, call (518) 672-4775 or email email@example.com. A complete list of repertory from 1983 to the present is available upon request.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
CD Mastered by Tom Hamilton
Copyright © 2001 Daniel Goode, William Hellermann, Mary Jane Leach, Peter Zummo
© P 2001 Lovely Music, Ltd.
LCD 3081 [D] [D] [D]