Ransom Wilson

Reich, Glass & Becker


© GlassPages, 1998

Cover Picture

LP Cover (Marvin Schwartz)




    1. Steve Reich "Vermont Counterpoint" (8:42).
    2. Claude Debussy "Syrinx" (2:29).
    3. Philip Glass "Façades" (9:33).
    1. André Jolivet "Ascèses (I)" (4:07).
    2. Frank Becker "Stonehenge" (15:43).


  • Ransom Wilson writes:
  • My first encounter with "minimalist" music was at the Metropolitan Opera House on November 28, 1976. I was in the audience for one of the sold-out performances of Einstein on the Beach, the opera by Philip Glass in collaboration with dramatist Robert Wilson. As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored, very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a "stuck needle." I was first irritated and then angry that I'd been taken in by this crazy composer who obviously doted on repetition, I thought of leaving. Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seems monumental.

    There were no intermissions. The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house. Suddenly, at a point some four hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level. People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my entire body was covered with goose bumps. I left the theater regretting the performance was over, and so excited that I remained awake far into the night.

    In the next few years, I went to every Philip Glass concert I could get to, and even dabbled in my own "minimalist" composition. I learned that other composers were writing music of this school, notably one Steve Reich. One night I turned on the strange and wonderful New York City radio station WKCR and found them in the midst of a 36-hour minimalist marathon. They played a test pressing of the then-unreleased recording of Reich's Octet. I listened transfixed. Using techniques and a philosophy totally different from those of Glass, Reich in Octet immediately engages the listener in a brilliant, shimmering mosaic of interlocking rhythmic patterns and long, bittersweet sustained chords. It is a sonically dazzling creation with rich, melancholy underpinnings that leave the listener very satisfied emotionally.

    I resolved at once to ask Steve Reich to compose a work for me. Though I'd no idea how he could fit his techniques to a flute work, I felt the result could be extraordinary. Reich was not easy to reach -he is in enormous demand all over the world for new works- but eventually we did speak about it, and his answer was a resounding "No." He could not imagine adapting his style to a work for a solo instrument. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted and delighted when a few months later he phoned that he'd come up with an enticing idea for a flute piece. He would start work on it immediately and have it ready for a premiere the following September.

    By the time he'd completed the work, still untitled, our recording of it and its concert premiere were imminent. I travelled to Steve's summer residence in Vermont to work with him on the finer details of playing it. After days of intensive concentration amid Vermont's green hills, the music became inextricably tied to the place. Hence its mutually arrived at title, Vermont Counterpoint.

    I couldn't be happier with it. It is tightly constructed and concise, yet truly "action packed." For a flutist, it is a technical tour de force, and quite challenging to record. It took several long days of recording time. not to mention editing and mixing in which Steve also was involved. The final result is a wonderful whirlwind of a piece, brilliant, engaging and delightful.

    My Angel Records producer Patty Laursen introduced me to Frank Becker's music in 1978 when she sent me one of his recordings on Toshiba, The Eternal Seasons. This is a long work for synthesizer, filled with beautiful sounds and imbued with a spirituality which seems to reflect Frank's long residence in Japan. The music impressed and touched me and, learning of Frank's deep interest in astronomy I asked him to compose a work for flute and synthesizer expressly for performance in a planetarium. He responded with a remarkable 20 minute piece entitled Nebula, based on the first observation of the Crab Nebula supernova explosion in 1054 by Chinese astronomers. It is my fervent hope that enlightened planetarium managers will see fit to allow the use of their spaces for live performance.

    In 1981 Frank composed for me his Celebration III. I performed it in conjunction with a multi-media projection device invented by Marshall Yaeger four times in New York at the Bottom Line, and twice at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, to enthusiastic crowds.

    Frank's joyous Stonehenge, heard here, was originally performed in Japan. For that premiere, he placed four speakers in a circle so that the taped synthesizer music would be symbolic of Stonehenge. The flutist and percussionist symbolized the observer witnessing the passage of the sun through the Stonehenge megaliths at the summer solstice. For our recording, Frank revised Stonehenge, extending the flute part, reworking the role of the synthesizer, and making the piece more concise.

    I first heard Philip Glass's Façades on my car radio while driving down Southern California's Pacific Coast Highway from a recording session for a previous Angel album. I was immediately excited by it and resolved to adapt its soprano sax solo for flute. Using the simplest of means -the piece is restricted to four of five harmonies only- it manages to evoke a calm, serene feeling I find quite spiritual in its effect.

    At the recording session, when the string players first saw this music they groaned at the many repeat marks. After playing it through several times, they began to be mesmerized by it. After our final take, the air was shimmering with the exhilaration felt by everyone.

    When the idea of including on this recording works by Jolivet and Debussy was first proposed to me, I found it a bizarre notion. What, after all, have Debussy and Jolivet to do with minimalism? The answer is, of course, nothing. Yet in listening to the recording I find it a strangely appropriate combination. These two solo flute pieces seem the perfect foil for the intensity and activity of the other three works and the ultimate result, I hope you'll agree, is a good program.

    -Ransom Wilson

  • Minimalism -a movement which brought music to its simplest basics of rhythm, repetitious melodic patterns, slowly shifting colorations, and subtle harmonic changes- first began to manifest itself in the 1950's as a reaction against the arid academics of America's postwar "modern" composers. Indifference, ridicule and hostility were common reactions to the early works of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and other minimalist pioneers. Riley's In C (1964) was the first minimalist work to receive widespread attention. In the later '60's and 1970's Reich and Glass began to take over leadership in the movement as their involvement with and development of the music became deeper, richer, more innovative and mature. Though their works remained controversial, converts multiplied as more and more listeners felt the impact of this new music in much the same manner as Ransom Wilson has described above. Acceptance of and admiration for the movement and its leading composers today is earnest, vigorous and, in an increasingly widespread and varied audience throughout the world, devout; and the influence of minimalism has begun to be felt throughout a spectrum of musical categories, among them both jazz and rock.
  • STEVE REICH was born in New York in 1936 and had early lessons in keyboards and drums. After graduating in philosophy from Cornell U. in 1957, he studied composition at Juilliard (1958-61) and Mills College (1962-3) where his teachers included Milhaud and Berio. In 1970 he studied African drumming at the U. of Ghana, in 1973 Balinese Gamelan with Balinese teachers in America, and in 1976-7 traditional chanting of Hebrew Scriptures in New York and Jerusalem.

    Reich formed an ensemble of three musicians in 1966 to perform his own music. This group, Steve Reich and Musicians, has now grown to 18, and sometimes as many as 40, members and has performed throughout North America and Europe. Their performances now routinely sell out. Reich himself during this period has steadily emerged to his present eminence as a major modern composer.

    Vermont Counterpoint, dedicated to Betty Freeman, is scored for three alto flutes, three flutes, and three piccolos, plus two solo lines in each of which the soloist plays, one at a time, all three instruments. For this recording, Ransom Wilson taped all nine ensemble parts plus one solo line, and then added the "live" solo line as the final touch. In his concert performance of the work, the nine ensemble parts and one solo are heard in his own multiple-performance-tape while he plays the "live" solo line on-stage. Wilson performed the world premiere of Vermont Counterpoint at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 30, 1982, in a concert by Steve Reich and Musicians which also included Reich's Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979), Tehillim (1981), and Drumming (1971).

    Wrote critic Bill Zakariasen of the New York Daily News of Vermont Counterpoint: "Its breezy contrapuntal writing (a logical extension of the opening fair music in Stravinsky's Petrushka) and Wilson's virtuosity won over the audience, which responded not only with applause but good-natured chuckles when the live soloist put down his instrument while he continued on tape. A thoroughly charming work."

    Steve Reich writes of Vermont Counterpoint: "The live soloist participates in the ongoing counterpoint as well as more extended melodies. The piece could be performed by eleven flutists but is intended primarily as a solo with tape. Though the techniques used include several that I discovered as early as 1967 the relatively fast rate of change (there are rarely more than three repeats of any bar), metric modulation into and out of a slower tempo, and rapid changes of key may well create a more concentrated and concise impression."

    PHILIP GLASS was born in Baltimore in 1937 and began his musical studies as a flutist at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1945 with Britton Johnson. Glass later studied at the U. of Chicago, at Juilliard (1957-61), with Nadia Boulanger (1964-6), Ravi Shankar (1965), and Alla Rakha (1967). The latter two teachers had so profound an effect that Glass withdrew some twenty conventional works he'd had published to that point. Settling in New York, he began to produce compositions that reduced music to a rhythmic structure using a minimum of notes and thus soon placed him prominently among the minimalists. Glass's recent works, like those of Reich, have matured to so rich a complexity that the term "minimalism" no longer applies. In both Reich's and Glass's composing, Ransom Wilson observes "a larger vision-something intangible one feels only from great composers."

    Façades was originally part of a score Glass composed for the I.R.E. film Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance"), produced and directed by Godfrey Reggio. The film is a portrait of America in images and sounds without characters or dialogue, and Façades was to have accompanied a sequence of shots of New York as an empty city, depicting Wall Street and other locales devoid of people. The sequence was cut from the final print and so Glass's Façades made its debut on his Columbia Records album GlassWorks in its original scoring for soprano sax and strings.

    Philip Glass provides this commentary on the present version: "Façades opens with a harmonic pattern in the strings, chord figures which repeat five times. We hear first solo flute, and then duet flute, and then back to solo. We hear this five times altogether in a kind of melodic invention over a ground -rather like a chaconne in the strings alone- till at the very end there's a two-measure coda."

    Born in New Jersey in 1944, FRANK BECKER attended Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio (1962-66), studying with Joseph Wood, Wilbur Price and Franz Bibo. In 1964 he took a graduate course in composition with Robert Palmer and he pursued, additionally, private studies with Richard Lane in composition and with Elston Husk in jazz improvisation. After he graduated from Oberlin, a Ford Foundation grant took him to Wichita for two years where everything he composed was immediately performed by local orchestras and ensembles.

    Becker then spent 14 years in Japan, thoroughly immersing himself in the artistic climate and culture of the Orient-and becoming as famous on the Japanese avant garde music scene as Reich and Glass were in America's. His works were performed by leading Japanese musicians, he in turn performed on synthesizer works of modern Japanese composers, and he produced concerts and festivals of music. Since Becker's return to the United States in 1981, he has composed more than a dozen scores for television and films.

    Becker's Stonehenge, notated traditionally with indications for the sound settings, is written for flute, synthesizer and percussion including marimba, vibraphone (played with mallets and bowed), gong (bowed), and wood blocks. At the sessions for this recording, Ransom Wilson and percussionist Tom Raney performed to the synthesizer tape accompaniment which composer Becker had prerecorded on a Digital Analog Synthesizer System.

    Frank Becker writes: "Stonehenge opens with a low drone, an environmental sound on synthesizer suggesting insects at night. Out of this grows a pattern in eighth notes which keeps evolving, expanding and contracting, commencing with tape, adding percussion, and then bringing in flute on top. The music proceeds into a sequence of sustained notes after which the sound relaxes as though catching a breath. The phrases then become elongated and finally climax at a point where the music goes into fast tempo. The harmonic structures now too change more frequently and rhythmically extending through many variations. Slowly the music returns to the opening material, with the drones carrying the work to its conclusion. Stonehenge is a celebration of the Summer Solstice, depicting night and dawn followed, at the climax of the piece, by the key image of the actual moment the sun shines gloriously through the Stonehenge circle of megaliths on Midsummer Day".

    Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed his Syrinx for Unaccompanied Flute (1912) as incidental music to Gabriel Mourey's drama Psyché. The celebrated flutist Louis Fleury played it offstage at a private premiere performance of the play on December 1, 1913, in which the music represented Pan's last song.

    The Ascèses of André Jolivet (1905-1974) comprises five pieces for flute of which the first is heard here. The score bears the inscription "That the secret may live, we shall quiet ourselves to silence," borrowed by Jolivet from Max Pol Fouchet. The title Ascèses ("askesis" in Greek) signifies asceticism, discipline and exercise-and extremely difficult the Jolivet work is for the flutist.

    -Rory Guy


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