The Polyphonic Lais of Guillaume de Machaut : Overview + Recordings


Fourteenth-century France exhibits the effects of an era grappling for an identity through its language, poetry and music. Amidst intellectual rigidity and diurnal despair, this transitional period enfeebled by medieval traditions yet aspired to humanist artistry. Guillaume de Machaut, illustrious poet-composer in the medieval myth, offered a means of embellishing life through a variety of secular songs. In particular, the lay, a twelve-stanza traditional form and predecessor to the “virelai,” “ballade,” and “rondeau,” permitted this versatile artist to musically integrate divergent but equally imposing strains in fourteenth century French culture.[1]

Machaut’s 19 lais mark the final phase of a longstanding tradition. As in the motets there are further indications of his engagement with the Roman de Fauvel, yet although the composition of these works stretches into Machaut’s late years. That the lais in manuscript C are transmitted with miniatures emphasizes their importance in Machaut’s oeuvre. In their integration of the new rhythmic procedures of the Ars Nova into a defined musical structure (generally in 12 sections, of which the last refers to the first, often by way of transposition), Machaut’s lais elevate a now old genre, offering unique solutions for large-scale text-setting in monophony. The expansion of the form into polyphony is a further part of this process: polyphony is indicated in two cases by rubrics (L16 and L17; 11 and 12 in Schrade) and in two more (L23 and L24; or 17 and 18 in Schrade) is implicit in the traditional method of successively notating sections of melody that are to be performed simultaneously.[2]

Machaut’s lais were the most backward-looking of his works, for the form, popular in the preceding century, failed to capture the interest of his successors, who carried forward his work on rondeau, ballade, and virelai. Their appearance in the Ludwig edition was delayed from 1930 to 1954, which made them less accessible to performers than the other works. Their great length (usually lasting over 20 minutes in performance, often longer) militated against appearance on records. It should not be surprising that three of the four polyphonic lais, Machaut’s real innovation with the form, have had the most attention. 

r-1649049-1234484197-jpegThe Le lay de la fonteinne has appeared previously, on Electrola’s Andrea von Ramm is quite good with lute accompaniment in the odd-numbered stanzas, the canonic trio is frightfully insecure in intonation.  The 1750 Arch version (reissued on Musical Heritage Society) is well done by an American ensemble, but the approach is designed to make the piece appeal to the general audience, with constant variations in vocal assignment and choice of instrument and insertion of a spoken English translation at each stanza.

In the L’Oiseaux-Lyre recording, led by Roger Davies and Timothy Davies, the even-numbered stanzas are three-part chaces and is by far better than the two previous recordings.  The newest version uses a tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump, unaccompanied, with three tenors in the chaces, the other two vocalizing without singing the text, since their texts starting later than the leading part, would be incomplete and therefore senseless.

r-2656432-1301856073-jpegThe novelty is the first recording of an important piece, Un lay de consolation, which was the subject of a study by Richard Hoppin in Musica Disciplina (1958)[3]. As Hoppin said:

The clue to the polyphonic character of the “Lay de Consolation“ lies in the provision of a new melody for the second half of each strophe. In all the other lais of Machaut, the metrically identical halves of each strophe are repeated to the same melody. The curious anomaly in Lai 17 led to a comparison of the two melodies of each pair and the discovery that they create two-voice polyphony in a manner that cannot possibly have been accidental.

Rather than have two voices singing different words to the harmonizing melodies, Davies has chosen to use an instrument to provide the second part (he admits that a second voice could have vocalized the part).

This is an important release, then, all the happier for the excellent performances and engineering. The color illumination on the sleeve, Davies’ notes, and the texts and translations come up to the expected standard of presentation that this still obscure music needs, although my copy lacked the insert.[4]

r-5975667-1407843218-7544-jpegOn the Hilliard ensemble’s recording of La Messe de Nostre Dame, Paul Hillier has included two of Machaut’s French compositions, the first, a major work, the “Lai de la fonteinne” (repeating the Davies’s recording), sung by three tenors, and finally, his famous rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement with its retrograde canon. You can’t go wrong with either this one by Hillier or the L’Oiseaux-Lyre recording.  Some cite Rogers Covey-Crump as having a more delicate singing style which delivers the music in a more appealing manner, while Mary Berry writing in Gramophone admits preferring the Hilliard recording: “The Lai is pure delight—food here for the heart as well as the intellect. It is the treasure of this CD, and my main reason for wishing to buy it.[5]

mi0000957346Le lai de confort the third of the four polyphonic lais has been recorded only once, by the Little Consort with Frans Brüggen on recorder for Channel Classics.  The Lai de Confort, S’onques douloureusement, is rendered here in a strikingly original fashion, each stanza being performed first with text (the singer on one voice line, instruments on the other two), then with instruments alone. Thus a work that is normally twenty minutes long is extended to 39:04, with three anonymous instrumental works preceding the piece on the disc.[6]

Recently there have been two recordings which attempt to bridge the 700 year gap between our time and Machaut’s by creating transcriptions and new works based on his music.

The first recording combines two cycles by the French composer Philippe Leroux, performed by Ensemble Solistes XXI, for digitally treated vocal consort, one with instruments and one without. The five pieces that make up Quid sit musicus? are based on both the text and music of several works by Machaut and his younger contemporary Jacob de Senlèches, all of which appear embedded within Leroux’s compositions.[7]

Follwoing Leroux is Heinz Holliger, whose multi-movement Machaut-Transkriptionen alternates works by Machaut with ‘transcriptions’ based on them with a greater or lesser degree of audible freedom.

The cycle begins with three such pairs, Machaut being represented by members of The Hilliard Ensemble and Holliger by three solo violas. The Swiss composer’s contributions become progressively lengthier and the second half of the cycle consists of more substantial pieces, first for all four Hilliards, then for the violas, and finally for both groups together. The cumulative quality of this scheme is formally effective, as is Machaut’s progressive dissolution (in a positive sense) into an idiom that incorporates both him and Holliger.[8]

[1] Turcic, Patricia A., “Words and music in communion: an analysis of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Le Lay de la Fonteinne” in cultural context” (2001). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 486.
[2] Arlt, Wulf, “Machaut, Guillaume de.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <;.
[3] Hoppin, Richard H., “An Unrecognized Polyphonic Lai of Machaut.” Musica Disciplina, vol. 12, 1958, pp. 93–104.
[4] Weber, J.F., “Review: Machaut Le lay de la fonteinne. Un lay de consolation. The Medieval Consort of London, directed by Peter Davies, Timothy Davies. L’Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 705 PSI.“ Fanfare Magazine, Issue 07:5 (May/June 1984). Fanfare Archive. Web 17 Jan. 2017.
[5] Berry, Mary, “Review: Machaut Choral Works.” Gramophone Magazine (02/1990). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[6] Weber, J.F., “Review: Machaut Le lai de confort. Little Consort; Frans Brüggen, recorder. Channel Classics CCS 0390 [DDD]; 46:25. Produced by Kees Boeke.” Fanfare Magazine, Issue 14:4 (Mar/Apr 1991). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[7] Fitch, Fabrice,“Review: Leroux Quid sit musicus? Cinq Poèmes de Jean Grosjean.”  Gramophone Magazine (01/2016). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[8] Fitch, Fabrice,“Review: Holliger Machaut-Transkriptionen.”  Gramophone Magazine  (01/2016). Web 17 Jan 2017.

Taking Liberties : Björn Schmelzer & Machaut’s “Messe de Nostre Dame”


The La Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut has been called the most important polyphonic composition of the 14th century.  There are at least 35 recordings dating back to 1951, although most of those pre-1980 are hard to find and if found only available on vinyl.

There appears to be general agreement now that the production of the six-movement composition preserved by the manuscripts was not stimulated by mere whim or fancy on the part of Machaut, but was generated either by the incidence of some occasion of specific ceremonial or celebration, or by the appearance of some specific opportunity for ongoing performance.

portrait-of-charles-v-rom-the-coronation-bookThe notion that Machaut composed his Mass specifically for the coronation ceremonies of Charles V goes back at least as far as a library catalogue of 1769, which does at least qualify the claim: “Messe mise en musique a 4 parties, et que Ton pretend avoir ete chante au sacre de Charles V” [Mass set to music in four parts, which is claimed to have been sung at the coronation of Charles V].   It is a natural assumption to make since the Reims Cathedral had been where French kings had their coronations.  But despite the consensus that the mass was written in the early 1360s, there is no firm evidence for the coronation theory.

However, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (1990) and Anne W. Robertson (1992) have provided strong evidence that the mass was composed for a foundation made by Guillaume and Jean de Machaut for the commemoration of their deaths. [Lawrence Earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research (Routledge Music Bibliographies).]

When musicians thought the mass was written for the coronation of King Charles V the mass was performed with large choirs and brass.  Now that we have come to learn that this supposition was incorrect the mass is done in either of three ways:

  • Performing only the six polyphonic mass sections, back-to-back, and lasting about 30 minutes;
  • Performing the work as a functional mass, i.e. with liturgical chant inserted (or sometimes organ selections), observing all the appropriate repeats, lasting about an hour;
  • Some mix of the two.

And no matter which arrangement of the mass is used it has been recorded with or without instruments; OVPP or with some doubling, but the doubling does not exceed three to a part and if not OVPP it is usually no more than two per part and not always for every part.

Björn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix take the mass in an entirely new direction based upon a rather imaginative interpretation of the idea of the endowment/memorial.


In the past I have been thrown off by the initial strangeness of the interpretation.  But as I remove preconceptions about the work and just listen, I am struck by the beauty of the sound that is being produced.  I would still like to understand more about what Schmelzer is trying to accomplish with this interpretation, however his essay in the booklet accompanying the recording is not much help.  He says that he is interested in “conjuring up the voices of the past,” and pointing to the contrast between the familiar and the strange – one that emphasizes the individuality of the singers rather than a homogeneous ensemble sound.

His essay is filled with text such as:

bjorn-schmelzer“What, for instance, would have happened in historical musicology and the performance of early music if notions like Warburg’s Pathosformel (pathos formula) or Nachleben (afterlife) had been introduced in the early phase of its scientific development?  As with art history, even if attempts were made to bury these ambiguous and dynamic concepts in favour of more clearly defined notions such as “symbolic form” and the “euchrony of time”, the concepts would still be present, in a “phantom state”, continuing to haunt the further development of historical musicology. Unfortunately for music and its science, these concepts are now only to be imagined.”

I don’t really have a clear idea of what “euchrony of time” means, my best guess is that Schmelzer is getting at the idea of looking back at a cultural artifact such as Machaut’s Messe and positioning it within our modern age and refracting the music through that lens.

He goes on:

“And yet, the two fundamental concepts of Warburg, Nachleben and Pathosformel, might have been enough to save musicology and performance – or at least keep them operating together dynamically. Nachleben traces the fundamental afterlife of repertories, their continuation and mingling, their appearance in places where you would not expect them or in times where you thought them to be extinct. Pathosformel is the organization of affects and animation, how they impact and influence the body, and the conservation and abstraction of these affects within a diagram that regulates the impact of pathos at the moment of execution.”

Schmelzer bases his ideas about afterlife of the work, and everything he reads into this idea, on the conjecture about an endowment either from or on behalf of the Machaut brothers for a regular memorial performance of the mass as the Saturday Lady Mass in Reims cathedral near the altar by the Roelle.

What this amounts to in specifics is:

  • Generally slow tempo
  • Liberal application of accidentals
  • Corsican singers, and a rather large ensemble, applying exotic ornamentation

All adding up to a performance like no other you may have heard, with the possible exception of Ensemble Organum/Peres from 1996.


No amount of creative theorizing should matter when listening to a recording of the work.  The performance will land or it won’t, and people will agree or disagree depending upon their taste.

So, I am of two minds concerning the recording of La Messe by Björn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix.  On the one hand his reliance on the idea that because Machaut may have left instructions and set aside money for the performance of his mass as a memorial for his brother and himself, and intended or at least imagined the mass being performed long after his death by musicians of later generations whose stylistic tendencies would lead to very different performances of the mass than what he was used to – and was okay with that – rests on a shaky foundation.

However, on the other hand, if we divorce ourselves from the rationale he cites in his essay and simply listen to the music he has made, we are stuck by the sheer beauty of the sound he produces with his group.

Caveat: if you enjoyed the recording by Ensemble Organum led by Marcel Pérès, and the kind of throaty singing and “Eastern” ornamentation the Corsican singers embraced, then there is a good chance you would also enjoy Schmelzer’s recording.

Machaut : Messe de Nostre Dame
Graindelavoix | Björn Schmelzer, dir.
Glossa Platinum 32110
Playing time: 73′
Recording date: March 2015 (Antwerp); released: 2016
Performers: François Testory, Paul De Troyer, Marius Peterson, Björn Schmelzer, Adrian Sîrbu, David Hernandez, Tomàs Maxé, Bart Meynckens, Arnout Malfliet, Jean-Christophe Brizard (voices)

Les Escholiers de Paris : Motets, Songs & Estampies of the Thirteenth Century


Ensemble Gilles Binchois, Dominique Vellard
Anne-Marie Lablaude, Brigitte Lesne, Susanne Norin, Emmanuel Bonnardot, Willem de Waal, Pierre Hamon, Randall Cook

In fact, with the royal family’s increasingly frequent visits to Paris and the development of the university, Paris became the focus of a vital flowering that attracted the greatest artists, musicians, scholars, and theologians to Europe’s leading cultural center. From all provinces and all countries “escholiers” flocked to the universities and colleges, hoping to study with the most learned and renowned teachers of their day; thus was the social fabric of Paris enriched by young minds responding to the stimulus of the city’s artistic and intellectual ferment.

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel), Paris, FranceMusic occupied a position of honour in this effervescent atmosphere, having experienced exceptional development at Notre-Dame from mid-century onwards. This school’s influence was so great that its creations spread throughout Europe, and soon music in every form and circumstance became a major aspect of the city’s social life.

In churches : construction work was completed at Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle towards the middle of the century and, counting the royal parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and rich abbeys such as Saint-Victor, Paris boasted countless distinguished locations where musical Chapels and the liturgical apparatus as a whole vied in opulence and excellence for the embellishment of religious rites and processions.

5777c6e0ccd707d1d4ecce6308de6dc2For all public and royal occasions and popular entertainments : music was performed not only by professional musicians – both religious and lay – but also by the bourgeoisie. In his chronicles, Nicolas de Braie tells us that matrons and young ladies from the Parisian bourgeoisie sang chansons and motets greeting Marie de Brabant, wife of Philippe le Hardi, as she entered Paris after his coronation at Saint-Denis on June 24th, 1275.

At court : we learn from the chronicle of Saint-Denis that in the reign of Philippe Auguste (early in the century), jongleurs and minstrels gathered at the courts of princes, barons, and the wealthy where they “chantent et content noviaus motez et noviaus diz et risies de divers guises” (sing and recite new motets and new poems and tales in various styles). Not only 08b7a457327627392e5d18ba115f4e91did the nobility use musical entertainment to enhance its formal celebrations, but also, seemingly, as a background for ordinary domestic life. It was for the latter purpose that singers (children?) were kept on call by the royal family for use as wanted; in order to comply, rehearsals were held “every day after vespers” and also on Sundays, so that a repertory would be in constant readiness for performance.

Contemporary accounts indicate that certain musical forms were confined to specific social groups. The audience for motets and conduits, for example, was made up of the cultivated and wealthy. These were listeners capable of appreciating the innovation and musical and literary complexity of the forms ; connoisseurs eager to cultivate the most sought-after musicians; and thus a major influence in spreading the new music. The nobility, on the other hand, preferred the traditional chanson. Chivalric and mythological themes drawn from the poems of provençal troubadours or from French romans fulfilled the nobility’s desire to respect tradition and preserve the ideals courtly society.


These remarks provide a partial explanation of 13th-century musical reality in Paris, but they should not circumscribe our perception of how amazingly these varied and diverse forms became an integral part of the city’s life. Theorist Jean des Murs underscores the extent to which music nourished all layers of society: not just the cultivated and privileged, but also the common people. It was generally recognized by the close of the 13th century that the role of music and dance had gone beyond mere entertainment to become a factor in the equilibrium and stability of society as a whole.

When this has been pointed out, is it then any wonder that numbers of our own century’s musicians and musicologists are fascinated by late 13th-century Parisian musical life? The formal and stylistic diversity, and the intriguing migrations of musical and literary material (through copies, adaptations, variations) have aroused keen interest among scholars and performers alike.

This situation is an invitation to performers to bring the full diversity of the period to the attention of their audiences – a task made possible by the excellent state of perservation of the major manuscript sources – and to juxtapose works containing common elements, thus revealing to today’s listeners certain features that were “understated” by their creators or that might be “underappreciated” by our contemporaries.

Dominique and Anne-Marie Vellard

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John Luther Adams : The Place We Began


“Last summer in my studio I discovered several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes that I’d recorded in the early 1970s. Using those “found objects,” I sculpted these new soundscapes from fragments of my past.”

Listening to John Luther Adams’s re-workings of his earliest music on his Cold Blue CD, The Place We Began, calls to mind Thomas Pynchon’s Slow Learner. In his introduction to this collection of five early short stories he allowed to be published decades after they were written, the famously reclusive author allows himself a rare moment of personal reflection in public. Pynchon muses about his younger self and decides that he likes who he used to be enough to drink a beer with him but probably wouldn’t loan him money. And despite his reservations from years of hindsight, he presents these early pieces as he wrote them, blemishes and all.

Adams, whom friends and fans alike warmly call JLA, takes a slightly different approach to the four electroacoustic soundscapes collected in this new disc.

This is how he describes the music on this recording:

mi0001192883“in a room” is composed from raw material I recorded on a summer afternoon in 1972. With two cheap speakers and a microphone, I used electro-acoustic feedback to explore the resonant frequencies in a room with hardwood floors and lots of windows. Thirty-six years later (using tools I couldn’t have imagined back then) I shaped that recording’s sounds into a twelve-part motet. 

“at the still point” is a tempo canon that sustains the relationships 13/14/15/16 throughout. The piece is made primarily from two tapes I recorded in 1974 on my Fender Rhodes electric piano. The first was a through-composed piece I eventually withdrew. The second was an improvisation in the spirit (if not the sound) of Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos—a piece that changed my musical life. The opening of at the still point incorporates a moment from another 1974 recording, this one of a small tam-tam I bought for $50 dollars. Today, the Rhodes is long gone. But I still own that tam-tam. 

“in the rain” begins with fragments from a recording I made in 1973. That tape was made in a gentle spring shower, during which I set pots and pans out in the yard, adding their metallic voices, one by one, to the sounds of the rain and blue jays. I’ve now re-used those sounds and their spectral after images to create “veils” that rise and fall, revealing and concealing the taped traces of one of my early ensemble pieces recorded in 1974. 

“the place we began”, a second twelve-part motet composed from the 1972 recording used for in a room, closes this cycle of works. Where the first piece rises, the place we began descends into subsonic depths, revealing previously inaudible quavering harmonics.

Obviously, many listeners will claim that this is not music at all, but I imagine that they have stopped reading this review by now, so we can safely ignore them. If you don’t like calling this “music,” then perhaps “organized sound” works better, and to the extent that sounds can be just as beautiful or interesting as music (which is, of course, just another type of sound), then why not work with them just as one might work with a musical phrase? This, in effect, is what I think that Adams is doing in these four works. Another clue is given in the quotation from T. S. Eliot that appears in the booklet and gives this CD and the fourth piece its name: “. . . to return to the place we began and know it for the first time.” Adams’s rediscovery of more than 30-year-old tapes, and the feelings that this rediscovery awakened in him, apparently was, in itself, an act of artistic (re)creation.

Adams’s use of the word “soundscapes” is wholly appropriate, and suggests how listeners might want to approach this CD. This isn’t music with melodies, rhythms, and harmonies in the traditional sense. (One might argue that they are present in a non-traditional sense, though.) Instead, these are sonic environments in which one can wander, much as one might explore the coastline on a foggy day. In each piece, there is a pervasive mood and color, and one might almost call these works static, except for the fact that they are never at rest. Neither “beautiful” nor “ugly,” they held my attention primarily as explorations of hue and texture. Your mileage may vary. Like everything I’ve heard by John Luther Adams (no relation to John Adams), they both hold and repay my attention. (Fanfare, Raymond Tuttle, 2009)

Pauline Oliveros : May 30, 1932 – November 24, 2016

Pauline Oliveros At Merkin Concert Hall

Pauline Oliveros was an American composer, accordionist and a central figure in the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music.

She was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, and served as its director. She taught music at Mills College, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros authored books, formulated new music theories, and investigated new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of “Deep Listening” and “sonic awareness”.

In 1988, as a result of descending 14 feet into an underground cistern to make a recording, Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening”, a pun that has blossomed into “an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation. This aesthetic is designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations”.

Von Gunden names a new musical theory developed by Oliveros, “sonic awareness”, and describes it as “the ability to consciously focus attention upon environmental and musical sound”, requiring “continual alertness and an inclination to be always listening” and which she describes as comparable to John Berger’s concept of visual consciousness (as in his Ways of Seeing).

sonicmeditations2Oliveros discusses this theory in the “Introductions” to her Sonic Meditations and in articles.

Von Gunden describes sonic awareness as “a synthesis of the psychology of consciousness, the physiology of the martial arts, and the sociology of the feminist movement”, and describes two ways of processing information, “attention and awareness”, or focal attention and global attention, which may be represented by a dot and circle, respectively, a symbol Oliveros commonly employs in compositions such as Rose Moon (1977) and El Rilicario de los Animales (1979). Later this representation was expanded, with the symbol quartered and the quarters representing “actively making sound”, “actually imagining sound”, “listening to present sound” and “remembering past sound”, with this model used in Sonic Meditations. Practice of the theory creates “complex sound masses possessing a strong tonal center”.

Oliveros’ album Accordion and Voice (1982) and her Stuart Dempster and Panatois collaboration Deep Listening (1989) are considered landmark ambient records. At the time of her death, she was the Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Darius Milhaud Artist-in-Residence at Mills College. A distinguished explorer of sound, she shared thoughts on deep listening, tape improv, and teaching with Pitchfork in 2011.

“I feel that students always learn more from each other than they do from their professor,” she said. “They learn by doing.”

Oliveros talks about John Cage and how his composition 4’33” was influential for her work.

703248530-300x200It was August 19th, 1952 when “4 minutes, 33 seconds” was premiered at the Maverick Music Hall in Woodstock. David Tudor, who was the premier pianist in the world at that time–he could play all of the most difficult music that there was, including all of Stockhausen and Boulez and so on–was working very closely with John Cage, and he did the premier of “4 minutes, 33 seconds.” It was of course greeted with sneers and unrest at the Maverick Music Hall. People were obviously focused on the framework of what a typical concert was supposed to be like, and here was David sitting at the piano with a stopwatch and to indicate the different movements of this “4 minutes, 33 seconds.” 

He opened the piano lid for 30 seconds, which was the first movement, then closed it and opened it again– not the piano, but the keyboard, the lid for the keyboard. The second movement was 2:23 and again, the last movement was 1:53. In those 4 minutes and 33 seconds, one could hear the most beautiful sounds coming from the outside, because it was summer, and it was a beautiful time for frogs, tree frogs and so on. So that if you were listening, there was something to hear. However, it was presented and taken up as ‘the silent piece’, which of course it was. 

fifteen-questions-pauline-oliveros-281Cage had been inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s white canvases. He had been thinking about this so-called ‘silent’ piece for a long time. I think that was probably one of the most influential pieces of John Cage’s, and it’s a direct link between his study of Buddhism and music and the understanding that you really can’t have sound without silence or vice versa. Cage really liberated the notion of what could serve as musical material; the silent piece, I think, is very important and I respect it greatly. 

As a matter of fact, the Deep Listening Band did a trope on “4 minutes, 33 seconds” at Mills College in September 1996, which resulted in a recording, which is called “Nonstop Flight.” It’s on Music and Arts. Our trope was that we expanded the time of 4 minutes and 33 seconds to 4 hours and 33 minutes. 

We had a group of 27 people participating. There were three ensembles, the Deep Listening Band plus the Able/Steinberg/Winnant Trio at Mills and the Hub, which was a computer network group. Then there were 12 soloists and an ensemble of musicians wandering around the hall. We used the time structure of “4 minutes, 33 seconds.” We began the piece with a traditional performance of 4 minutes, 33, and then continued for the 30 minutes. 

Then, the next performance of 4 minutes, 33 seconds occurred at the start the second movement and on to the third movement and then finally at the end. So that was the time structure, and it was optional for any performer or any group to perform 4 minutes, 33 seconds at any time during the 4 hours and 33 minutes. It was a wonderful time structure, and as I said, resulted in a really interesting recording, which had to be of course, edited down to 70 minutes I believe.

Francis Dhomont Turns 90 : Le cri du Choucas


I missed it last month, when on November 1st Francis Dhomont celebrated his 90th birthday.

Francis Dhomont studied under Ginette Waldmeier, Charles Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger. In the late 40’s, in Paris (France), he intuitively discovered with magnetic wire what Pierre Schaeffer would later call “musique concrète” and consequently conducted solitary experiments with the musical possibilities of sound recording. Later, leaving behind instrumental writing, he dedicated himself exclusively to electroacoustic composition.

An ardent proponent of acousmatics, his work (since 1963) is comprised exclusively of works for fixed media bearing witness to his continued interest in morphological interplay and ambiguities between sound and the images it may create.

Acousmatic, or how it is usually called, electroacoustic music utilizes electronic sounds exclusively, sometimes including field recordings.  The term acousmatic was first used by Pierre Schaeffer who defined it as, “referring to a sound that one hears without seeing the causes behind it.”

le-cri-du-choucasDhomont’s most recent recording is Le cri du Choucas (empreintes DIGITALes IMED 16138 2016).  It is a album of settings of texts by Franz Kafka.  Conceived in 1997 and left to mature slowly, Le cri du Choucas is the third and final installment in Dhomont’s “Cycle des profondeurs” [Cycle of Depths], the first two parts of this long triptych (about three hours) being Sous le regard d’un soleil noir (1981) and Forêt profonde (1994-96), of which a few reminders are included in this installment. All three are “electroacoustic melodramas” (Michel Chion) inspired by a psychoanalytic approach — Marthe Robert’s in this case, especially an insightful essay by this literary critic, translator, and psychoanalyst entitled As Lonely as Franz Kafka (1979).

Dhomont describes the work in the liner notes:

Before the Law, a famous section of The Trial, serves as the red thread of my piece, the Law being a metaphoric representation of the impenetrable realms the human mind hits, and not — as what the Vulgate and the adjective “Kafkaesque” usually reduce Kafka’s complex thoughts to — a portrait of bureaucratic aberrations. It is mostly “what you cannot possibly escape from”: a doorway to knowledge is open especially for the man who gets to it, although he is also forbidden to pass through it. Which means that his — metaphysical — question remains unanswered. Symmetrically, a crucial message is addressed to him, although it will never reach him. “In The Penal Colony,” writes Marthe Robert, Kafka “reduces the law to nothing more than an inordinate power of coercion whose sole function is to automatically enforce punishment” [our translation].

Gavin Bryars : Two Experimental Masterpieces


Richard Gavin Bryars (1943) is an English composer and double bassist. He has been active in, or has produced works in, a variety of styles of music, including jazz, free improvisation, minimalism, historicism, experimental music, avant-garde and neoclassicism.

Bryars’s first works as a composer owe much to the New York School of John Cage (with whom he briefly studied), Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and minimalism. One of his earliest pieces, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), is an indeterminist work which allows the performers to take a number of sound sources related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and make them into a piece of music.  Another well-known early work is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971), which has as its basis a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the old man had improvised.

The Sinking of the Titanic was inspired by the story that the band on the Titanic continued to perform as the ship sank in 1912, it recreates how the music performed by the band would reverberate through the water for a period of time after they ceased performing. Composed between 1969 and 1972, the work is now considered one of the classics of British experimental music.

The work was first recorded in 1975 when it became the first release on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records. It was subsequently rerecorded in a much longer version in 1990. A third version was released in 2007 in a collaboration with Philip Jeck and Alter Ego.

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a 1971 arrangement a composition by an unknown composer. It is formed on a loop of an unknown homeless man singing a brief stanza. Rich harmonies, comprising string and brass, are gradually overlaid over the stanza. The piece was first recorded for use in a documentary which chronicles street life in and around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo, in London.

When later listening to the recordings, Bryars noticed the clip was in tune with his piano and that it conveniently looped into 13 bars. For the first LP recording, Bryars was limited to a duration of 25 minutes; later Bryars completed a 60-minute version of the piece for cassette tape; and with the advent of the CD, a 74-minute version. It was shortlisted for the 1993 Mercury Prize.

Let Us Now Praise Great Bluesmen : Blind Willie Johnson, who died today, 1947, in Beaumont, Texas

blind-willie-770 Biography by Joslyn Layne

Seminal gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson is regarded as one of the greatest bottleneck slide guitarists. Yet the Texas street-corner evangelist is known as much for his powerful and fervent gruff voice as he is for his ability as a guitarist. He most often sang in a rough, bass voice (only occasionally delivering in his natural tenor) with a volume meant to be heard over the sounds of the streets. Johnson recorded a total of 30 songs during a three-year period and many of these became classics of the gospel-blues, including “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed,” “God Don’t Never Change,” and his most famous, “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground.”

It is generally agreed that Johnson was born in a small town just South of Waco near Temple, TX, around 1902. His mother died while he was still a baby, and his father eventually remarried. When Johnson was about seven years old, his father and stepmother fought and the stepmother threw lye water, apparently at the father, but the lye got in Willie Johnson’s eyes, blinding him. As he got older, Johnson began earning money by playing his guitar, one of the few avenues left to a blind man to earn a living. Instead of a bottleneck, Johnson actually played slide with a pocketknife. Over the years, Johnson played guitar most often in an open D tuning, picking single-note melodies, while using his slide and strumming a bass line with his thumb. He was, however, known to play in a different tuning and without the slide on a few rare occasions. Regardless of his excellent blues technique and sound, Johnson didn’t want to be a bluesman, for he was a passionate believer in the Bible. So, he began singing the gospel and interpreting Negro spirituals. He became a Baptist preacher and brought his sermons and music to the streets of the surrounding cities. While performing in Dallas, he met a woman named Angeline and the two married in 1927. Angeline added 19th century hymns to Johnson’s repertoire, and the two performed around the Dallas and Waco areas.

On December 3, 1927, Columbia Records brought Blind Willie Johnson into the studio where he recorded six songs that became some of his most enduring recordings: a song about Samson and Delilah called “If I Had My Way,” “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” (often understood as “motherless children”), “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Jesus Make up My Dying Bed,” ” I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” and Johnson’s single most-acclaimed song, “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground,” which is about the crucifixion of Christ. But after this session, Johnson didn’t return to the studio for an entire year. The second visit (which took place on December 5, 1928) found him accompanied by his wife, Angeline, who provided backing vocals. The two recorded four songs, including “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge” and “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’.” Songs from these first two sessions were also issued on the Vocalion label. Several months later, Willie and Angeline Johnson met Elder Dave Ross and went with him to New Orleans where Blind Willie Johnson recorded ten songs for Columbia. From this December 1929 session came a few more of his best-known songs, including “God Don’t Never Change,” “Let Your Light Shine on Me,” and “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond.”

Although Blind Willie Johnson was one of Columbia’s best-selling race recording artists, he only recorded for them one more time — in April 1930 — after which he never heard from them again. This final session took place in Atlanta, GA (again, Johnson was accompanied by Angeline who actually sang lead on a few numbers this time), and consisted of ten songs, including “Can’t Nobody Hide From God,” “John the Revelator,” and the slightly altered “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond.” These last two songs were issued on one record that was withdrawn shortly after its release. Despite the fact that Johnson did not record after 1930, he continued to perform on the Texas streets during the ’30s and ’40s. Unfortunately, in 1947, the Johnsons’ home burned to the ground. He caught pneumonia shortly thereafter and died in the ashes of his former home approximately one week after it was destroyed. Purportedly, Angeline Johnson went on to work as a nurse during the 1950s.

Over the years, many artists have covered the gospel songs made famous by Blind Willie Johnson, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder (“Dark Was the Night” inspired Cooder’s score for the movie Paris, Texas). Johnson’s song “If I Had My Way” was even revived as a popular hit during the 1960s when it was covered by the contemporary folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. Several excellent collections of Blind Willie Johnson’s music exist, including Dark Was the Night (on Sony) and Praise God, I’m Satisfied (on Yazoo). Johnson’s music also appears on many compilations of country blues and slide guitar.

The String Quartets of Krzysztof Meyer : a major achievement of the second half of the 20th century


Krzysztof Meyer (born 11 August 1943) is a Polish composer, pianist and music scholar, formerly Dean of the Department of Music Theory (1972–1975) at the State College of Music (now Academy of Music in Kraków), and president of the Union of Polish Composers (1985–1989). Meyer served as professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne from 1987 to 2008, prior to retirement.

In his own music Meyer has shown a keen awareness of the stylistic paths in music after 1945 and a conviction in using them for his own ends. Serial and sonorist as well as aleatoric means have informed his compositions, yet, as he himself stated in an interview four decades ago.

“Applying various techniques is for me only a means to composition, and it is by no means an exaggeration…to say that I enter some regions of my inner soundscape using any technical means available and I will still arrive at a result that I had aimed at from the start, regardless of the means applied”.

Although his output takes in the broad spectrum of genres, the ongoing series of seven symphonies and thirteen string quartets stand at the center of his achievement—with the latter covering 42 years (thus far) of his composing.

Where does Krzysztof Meyer’s fascination with string quartets come from?

“When I was a little boy, I had a chance to listen to chamber music concerts that were regularly organized at my home. Probably these first impressions fundamentally shaped my interests and principles…My musical homeland is the chamber music of the Viennese Classic, extended by the most splendid of twentieth-century musical worlds—Bartók’s”.

1234-711mam2en4l__sl1430_It was with his First String Quartet (1963) that Meyer made his Warsaw Autumn début. Although its musical idiom is strongly influenced by the sonorist language then being advocated by such as Penderecki, its three-movement design of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis points to an underlying formal evolution which in itself looks forward to his later works. The first movement opens with intensive col legno playing, to which are added harmonics, then sul ponticello and finally pizzicato techniques, before a sudden pause on a cluster which expands across the quartet and brings about a febrile burst of activity that persists until the lower instruments unfold a sequence of glissandos; these latter then persist as the music gradually winds down to a restive close. The brief second movement centres much more on consistency of texture, as the contrasting techniques sounded by each player are channelled towards a laconic close. The third movement attempts an amalgamation of its predecessors, as slowly undulating glissandos are countered by diverse gestures and the music gains in expressive intensity prior to reaching a heightened climax featuring aggressive interplay between the four instruments: this gradually falls away to leave a more tentative dialogue which then disperses until an uneasy chordal truce is attained.

By the time of the Second String Quartet (1969), Lutosławski had written his only work in the genre and its methodical yet never predictable evolution of its salient musical ideas is reflected in Meyer’s piece—though in contrast to the senior composer’s preference for ‘introductory’ and ‘main’ movements, the present work unfolds as a single and unbroken span. The stuttering initial gestures (redolent of the opening of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet) quickly extend to all four instruments as the music’s harmonic density expands accordingly. The texture gradually thins out to reveal a more individuated dialogue with pizzicato and col legno playing to the fore, and which is succeeded in turn by attempts to rekindle the initial impetus until a mingling of strident unison and pizzicato gestures is reached. The music then passes through an intensive burst of free harmonies (akin to ‘tuning-up’), before its continuation of stark chordal gestures leads into a more inward and even reflective passage that only gradually loses its poise as the stuttering gestures at the very opening are recalled. These do not round off the work, however, which instead closes with restive chords as the music heads towards an uneasy calm.

The Third String Quartet (1971) pursues a not dissimilar trajectory to its predecessor, though here the formal design falls into three separate movements—with elements of development and reprise to be detected in the first and third of these. The first movement opens with three detached pizzicato chords, after which the music launches into a headlong outburst which duly subsides into a dense though now more cohesive texture. Intricate pizzicato and searching harmonic writing are now combined, followed by a distant recollection of the earlier outburst and then a more wistful interplay prior to a tensely inward close. The second movement picks up on the later stages of its predecessor, if without a parallel sense of motivation as the music passes through constantly changing textures before it reaches a tentative yet expectant ending. The third movement begins with forceful unison gestures and a densely harmonic interplay between the four instruments that is belatedly silenced by stark repeated gestures. A series of tremolo decrescendos then makes way for pensive unison chords that spread across the texture as the music seems intent on securing some manner of resolution, but any hints at a more decisive close are denied as the activity gradually thins out to leave the fugitive gestures with which the work ends.

The Fourth String Quartet (1974) marks a clear step forward in terms of its three movements contrasting with each other to create a dynamic and goal-directed formal design, though the balance between them is by no means a traditional one. The first movement commences with impassioned chordal gestures that bring with them a sense of meaningful harmonic progression, as underpinned by strident pizzicato writing, until a sudden pause brings a sparser but still cohesive texture which gains in momentum as the music builds towards its powerful culmination. This latter is summarily dispersed to leave fleeting harmonics as the top of the compass, before brief recollections of the opening effect the dramatic close. The second movement begins with repeated gestures, countered by more assaultive chords from the lower instruments as the music gradually takes on greater substance and direction. Over these initial gestures a more agitated motion comes to the fore, with the players drawn into an elaborate dialogue that gives vent to their respective characters and progresses towards a sequence of intensive passage-work which then subsides into elegiac musing that persists through to the close. The third movement starts with strident pizzicato writing, against which the initially spare gestures gradually accrue in prominence without the music gaining in emotional impetus. Instead it heads into a series of plangent monologues for solo instruments over held unison chords, before the impassioned gestures from the very opening re-emerge to guide the work to a conclusion that fades into silence—icy harmonics at the top of the compass gradually receding beyond earshot.  (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

568-71apb1vgjcl__sl1400_String Quartet No. 5 (1977) deserves to be called a chamber sinfonia concertante, with the cello in the foreground. This impression is created by the impetus of this piece, in which the five movements combine into two extended arches, the first and second movements and the fourth and fifth separated by the third movement, an intermezzo.

After that epic work, String Quartet No. 6 (1981) might itself seem restrained, particularly as the music moves away from a clearly outlined beginning. The piece requires perceptiveness and a good memory from the listener, but this concentration is rewarded with a satisfaction that flows from recognizing motives and rhythms that recur in a diversity of shapes, for the composer treats music like a game in which the main idea is to make from a few elements as many various sound shapes as possible. It is no wonder that the finale abounds in quasi-quotations and reminiscences of previous movements.

In String Quartet No. 8 (1985) the instruments are exclusively playing arco and pizzicato. The tonal centre C repeats itself almost obsessively, and is emphatically exposed so that it occasionally suggests tonality, although any relationship with a major-minor system is obviously deceptive in this piece. With its simplicity of rhythm and preponderance of motoric motion, one could have the impression while looking at the score that the quartet is neoclassical in character. The dramatic expression of this “story told with musical elements” is, however, far from the playfulness of neoclassicism. (Naxos release notes by Thomas Weselmann)

folderThe Ninth Quartet (1990) is in five movements which outline a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast format, yet this sequence is anything but predictable in its formal or expressive follow-through, amounting to a cohesive whole in terms of salient motifs and gestures that reappear during its course. A crescendo launches the opening Agitato, which unfolds with angular harmonies and forceful repeated rhythms. Gradually the music opens out texturally, with unison chords endowing a semblance of tonal direction, before thinning out to leave increasingly isolated phrases on violin. The ensuing Calmo stands in direct contrast with its ruminative discourse, the instruments merging from the outset in a meditative dialogue interrupted only by the occasional fugitive gesture on tremolo strings. After the last of these, the music moves steadily on towards its becalmed conclusion. Without pause the Con vigore begins with aggressive pizzicato from the players, other playing techniques being introduced as the music loses something of its initial purposefulness and sustained notes at the relative extremes of the instrumental compass become apparent. From here, a brief though atmospheric Misterioso draws in distinct ideas from each instrument prior to its uncertain close with a flurry of pizzicato. This acts as a springboard for the closing Vivo, which starts with a return to the mood and material of the first movement, now informed by even greater rhythmic impetus. The discourse is thrown into relief by a calmer interlude that cannot prevent an accumulation of energy as the music surges on—capped by another crescendo that this time makes for a decisive ending.

The Eleventh Quartet (2001) is cast in a single movement, a form it shares with several quartets by Shostakovich, while most resembling the latter’s Thirteenth Quartet in a seamless overall trajectory within which diverse contrasts of mood and tempo become absorbed into the greater continuity. A lurching gesture heard on all four instruments is immediately drawn into the sustained texture, from out of which individual entries briefly emerge only to be drawn back into the prevailing inwardness. The music develops an increasingly elegiac demeanour that intensifies as the initial gesture is recalled in passing, threading its way through detached exchanges before suddenly welling up in a passage of greater activity that brings about an impassioned central span with trills and tremolo playing much to the fore. The texture now becomes ever more intricate as the level of activity increases; with the instrumental writing at length coalescing around a chordal complex that, itself a motivic expansion of the work’s initial gesture, becomes rhythmically more streamlined and incisive while the music drives onward to a brusquely conclusive ending.

The Twelfth Quartet (2005) is Meyer’s most recent such work to date, and provides a fair summation of his contribution to the genre. Although there are nine movements, these are dovetailed into each other to form an overall whole (in a not dissimilar manner to Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet) which is greater than the sum of its parts. The opening Lento acts as an inward prelude to what will follow, unfolding in a texture that gradually becomes denser harmonically and more searching emotionally, before returning to its initial stasis. The ensuing Con ira strikes an abrupt contrast with its forceful rhythmic profile and an intensive dialogue that draws several motifs heard earlier into a volatile as well as an increasingly hectic discourse. Without a pause the demonstrative Vivo strides forward, stealthy pizzicato on cello underpinning a complex texture in which the emotional force of the music intensifies before tailing off uncertainly. Eventually only viola and cello remain, with their long-breathed dialogue marking the onset of the Dolente, the work’s ‘centrepiece’ at least in its expressive weight. Gradually the two violins make their presence felt as a finely wrought polyphony evolves, accentuated by a rocking motion that animates the texture before a gradual return to the initial inwardness. From this haunting close the Furioso now emerges in a welter of colliding phrases and exploding pizzicato, growing more excited before relapsing into disconnected phrases. The Largo that follows serves as a meditative transition to the Adagio, with cello continuing the previous introspection as a recitative to which the other instruments respond with terse and often detached gestures. As the cello fades out in its highest register, the Prestissimo commences with angry motoric rhythms and a propulsive energy which features heated exchanges that are cut off at maximum intensity to reveal the Appassionato. Over a trill-saturated texture, this unfolds as a soliloquy for violin that touches on ideas from earlier in the work, before a brief defiant gesture and a gradual fading out on the violin. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)

mi0003466634The Seventh Quartet (1985) is cast in a single movement that makes repeated and effective use of the contrasts between solo and ensemble writing, in the process setting up a cumulative musical entity which purposefully alternates stasis and dynamism. The work commences with inward exchanges in the middle register such as gradually rise through the texture, before the cello adds its presence while the music gradually becomes more animated with frequent recourse to tremolo writing. The cello continues its rumination then the expressive range intensifies as the whole ensemble engages in heated contrapuntal discourse which is subsequently curtailed as each of the four instruments seems intent on going its own way. Presently the music opens out onto a complex heterophonic texture which slows down into forceful gestures in rhythmic unison, after which momentum slackens towards fugitive gestures in pizzicatos and harmonics. The briefest of outbursts leads to an introspective monologue for unaccompanied viola which rounds off the piece by gradually fading into silence.

The Tenth Quartet (1994), among the most extended of the cycle, is in four movements such as constitute a work that is ostensibly within the classical tradition of quartet writing—notably that of Beethoven (thus the ‘La Malinconia’ subtitle of the fourth movement’s introduction)—albeit filtered through a lineage which draws upon such notable later exponents as Bartók and Shostakovich in what might be described as a synthesis of Meyer’s experience with the genre. The first movement opens with a searching discourse that alternates between livelier and more rhythmic writing, the latter coming into greater focus as the two types are purposefully superimposed and then elaborated. At length the initial music returns to the fore but the earlier momentum is gradually regained on the way to a powerful culmination that in turn loses its impetus as the initial music re-emerges. The second movement then begins in not dissimilar fashion, though here the underlying eloquence is sustained in music of impressive emotional breadth and finely wrought polyphony. Just over a third of the way through, the texture briefly fragments to admit of greater rhythmic variety as the music heads towards an impassioned climax that recasts the earlier discourse in much more intense terms. From here it winds down to a more restrained dialogue that, in time, is further reduced to sparse exchanges against luminous chords in the violins. The third movement is a scherzo whose vigorous initial discourse elicits a correlating momentum which drives forward to impulsive interplay across the ensemble, replete with grinding rhythmic figures in the lower strings, before a methodical return to its opening gestures. The finale starts out somewhat equivocally, though such uncertainty proves to be no more than a foil to the energetic music which soon takes precedence as a spirited dialogue is pursued. Earlier elements return, however, as a forceful climax is reached—after which, calm is quickly and unexpectedly attained. From here the movement seems to be heading to a conclusion of relative repose, but the energetic music returns to see the work through to its capricious close.

The Thirteenth Quartet (2010), Meyer’s most recent such work to date, is in five movements, although these are all played continuously, the second and fourth of them being lively transitions between odd-numbered movements such as chart a steady progression from relative repose to unequivocal energy, with seamless control over the underlying momentum. The first movement opens with curt pizzicatos that then open out onto wistful exchanges over somnolent held chords. Livelier rustling gestures increase the tension only incrementally, with the cello assuming a degree of prominence as a stern climax is reached. All of the elements previously heard are now brought into play, prior to a peremptory close. Without pause the brief second movement fairly explodes with a controlled decrescendo of energy and emotion, in turn heading into a third movement whose emotional fervency unfolds via a series of accompanied solos gradually coalescing into more sustained textures, and from which brusque pizzicato writing brings about a calmer and increasingly inward conclusion. Such poise is presently countered by the brief fourth movement, its trenchant exchanges in the lower strings spilling over into a finale whose rushing motion brings with it fleeting recollections of ideas heard earlier in the work and where a balance between the eloquent and the sardonic is preserved through to a close in which forceful unison chords have the decisive last word. (Naxos release notes by Richard Whitehouse)


Jarosław Żołnierczyk, violin I
Mirosław Bocek, violin II
Lech Bałaban, viola
Maciej Mazurek, cello

Since its foundation in 1998 the Wienawski String Quartet has established itself as one of the leading chamber music ensembles in Poland. The members of this Poznań-based ensemble are all players in the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio, conducted by Agnieszka Duczmal: Jarosław Żołnierczyk, leader of the orchestra, Mirosław Bocek, principal of the second violin section, Lech Bałaban, of the viola secion, and Maciej Mazurek, of the cello section. The quartet’s repertoire ranges from the classical to the contemporary. Recordings include String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 by Karol Szymanowski and Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet No. 4.