Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Ives Stamp1997

All hail the Charles Ives commemorative stamp!

Study the life of Charles Ives. Learn about his father’s musical experiments and ear training exercises. George Edward Ives (Charles’ father) would tune a piano a quarter tone off-key for playing duets with a “properly” tuned piano. He’d make young Charlie sing a song in one key while playing it in another. He marched brass bands towards each other while they were playing different songs in different keys and different meters. From a distance, Young Charlie observed and listened.

EXPERIMENTING WITH IVES

One day, I decided to recreate Ives’s father’s experiments. I set up two boom boxes on opposite sides of a large room, and blasted recordings of two contrasting Sousa marches simultaneously.

Try it! Walk around and explore that world of clashing dissonance.  Enjoy the synchronous moments that sound like the two bands are musically responding to each other.

Eventually, this experiment became an annual event in my Music Studies for Dancers seminar at the Juilliard School. I’ll never forget the expression of pure ecstasy on one Juilliard dancer’s face as he found that sweet spot midway between the two stereos. Oh, the bliss of those disparate sound waves colliding upon you with ineffable synergy!

THE HEAVY METAL IVES EXPERIMENT

Tonight, while studying a post about classic electric bass lines, I stumbled into a similar experiment. A hidden window on my computer would not stop playing Tool’s “Schism” after I had started Metallica’s “Orion.” [Do try this at home, kids!]

Unfortunately, everything was coming out of the same lousy built-in Macbook speakers. (Because these speakers lack bass, volume, and spatial distance, internal speakers severely reduce the inherent antiphonal, polymetric potential of this musical collision). Nevertheless, the effect was powerful enough to made me wonder. . .

What if George Edward Ives had lived in the late 20th century and had liked heavy metal?. . . Instead of two brass bands, what if he had employed Tool and Metallica in his experiments?

Run and get yourself two equally loud audio systems and a room big enough to handle them. Then, go nuts with this idea and share what you learn. Apply what you discover.

-Doc Wallace, 7 January 2016

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Reaching Out with the USCG Band

Thankfully, the U.S. government is back in business, and I mean that from the bottom of my pocketbook. A week ago, the shutdown threatened to cancel today’s workshop with the wonderful musicians of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

For the past two years, I have coached USCG ensembles on audience engagement skills. From a purely selfish perspective, I enjoy working with the USCG Band because their live performances replace my everyday, string-centric reality with fresh sounds and musical perspectives. In that regard, I am no different from the fourth grader or senior citizen attending their community performances.

Finding Entry Points with the USCG Band

This morning, the USCG band rehearsed an interactive concert designed for middle-school students. The program reveals how musical compositions can emerge from almost anywhere. The chosen repertoire’s far-ranging inspirations include historical figures (John Mackey’s Xerxes), the focused inner state of a dancer  (Warren Benson’s Solitary Dancer), and a Saturday Night Live punchline (Scott McAllister’s More Cowbell).

Although audience-interactions are still being refined and tested, the script definitely provides active engagement. Middle-schoolers will sing themes, clap rhythms with the ensemble, provide improvisational input for USCG performers, and visualize solutions to compositional problems posed by composers. Each segment aims to give the young listeners entry points or “hooks” to focus their ears and minds on the musical materials.

Unlocking a Modern Masterpiece

In the afternoon, I led the USCG chamber ensembles through the design process for creating activities that deepen listeners’ perceptions. Because I had worked with the USCG musicians before, I wanted to give them a challenging piece. I settled on György Ligeti’s Ten Pieces for Woodwind Quintet III. Lento, a slow, intense, atonal movement. Here’s an excerpt:

Click here to purchase or download the full awesome Ligeti album!

At first, many musicians struggled with Ligeti’s contemporary material, which could confuse or bore a typical audience member. By the end of the workshop, however, all five groups presented successful strategies and approaches for intriguing first-time listeners. One group focused on the delicate, subtle shifts of color and developed an activity where an onstage color spectrum would provide a basis for interpreting the sound at any particular moment.

Another group focused the audience’s ears on the organic blending and seamless shaping of the instruments’ pitches. Other musicians helped listeners to form personal narratives or make real-time artworks in response to musical details. Yet another group explored a movement activity simulating Ligeti’s diverse orchestrations of limited thematic material.

Barring any further shutdowns, in February, I’ll return to coach USCG chamber ensembles on their own original programs. Meanwhile, today’s work gave me some great ideas this Thursday’s New York Philharmonic workshop. After all, if the USCG Band can get middle-schoolers excited about Ligeti’s Ten Pieces, I can do the same for Krzysztof Penderecki’s dissonant, modern Concerto Grosso.

Peace & Prosperity!

-Doc Wallace, 22 October 2013

PS Enjoy a playlist of some of my interactive concert presentations!