Dmitri Tymoczko’s “Fools and Angels” includes four works for voices and ensemble that demonstrate a wide range of approaches to vocal writing and genre. With nods to 70s progressive rock, Early Music, and minimalism, Tymoczko borrows and imports stylistic elements at will to serve a larger aesthetic vision that is unbounded by category. The album features performances by Newspeak, Illinois Modern Ensemble, Collide Trio, and a number of leading New York musicians, including vocalists Caroline Shaw, Mellissa Hughes, and Martha Cluver, drummer Jason Treuting (So Percussion), pianist Pascal Le Boeuf, and many more.
Fools and Angels
|Anne Hege, soprano, Mellissa Hughes, alto, Neil Farrell, tenor, Gabriel Crouch, baritone, Geoff Vidal, saxophone, Daniel Lippel, guitar, Pascal Le Boeuf, piano, Jason Treuting, drums|
|01||1. Fie My Fum|
1. Fie My Fum
|02||2. Strawberries and Cream|
2. Strawberries and Cream
|03||3. Bop Lyrics|
3. Bop Lyrics
|04||4. The Dressing Room|
4. The Dressing Room
|Martha Cluver, soprano, Mellissa Hughes, soprano, Caroline Shaw, soprano|
|07||2. Your Head|
2. Your Head
|08||3. First Interlude|
3. First Interlude
|09||4. I Have|
4. I Have
|10||5. Every Five Seconds|
5. Every Five Seconds
|11||6. We Can Ignore|
6. We Can Ignore
|12||7. Second Interlude|
7. Second Interlude
|Dmitri Tymoczko, narrator, Christian Bök, narrator, Collide Trio, Jonathan Sanford, saxophone, Jade Simmons, piano, David Skidmore, percussion|
|14||1. First Dream|
1. First Dream
|15||2. Second Dream|
2. Second Dream
|16||3. Third Dream|
3. Third Dream
|17||4. Fourth Dream|
4. Fourth Dream
|18||Let The Bodies Hit The Floor|
Let The Bodies Hit The Floor
|Jack Hitt, recorded voice, Rob Miller, recorded voice, Newspeak, Caleb Burhans, violin, Mellissa Hughes, voice, James Johnston, synthesizer, Taylor Levine, electric guitar, David T. Little, drums, Eileen Mack, clarinets, Brian Snow, cello, Yuri Yamashita, percussion||11:35|
Dmitri Tymoczko, member of the prestigious music department at Princeton University, writes a wide range of music that often lives at the intersection of popular and composed genres. But categorizing his music as "indie classical" would be insufficient and inappropriate. If one was compelled to cite a more compelling and appropriate term to capture the source of inspiration behind his work, “progressive-classical” might do the trick, as his music seems more closely aligned with the ambitious music of the progressive rock of the 1970s than with jangly lo-fi efforts of indie bands touring the country in overstuffed Ford cargo vans. With this album, Tymoczko, who writes his share of straight ahead contemporary chamber music as well, showcases his interest in elaborate song cycles that defy categorization, integrating elements of pop, progressive rock, jazz, musical theatre, minimalist and maximalist new music, and electronics.
More than with other elements of composition, vocal writing tends to strongly define genre. Tymoczko wades fearlessly into this complicated world of stylistic signaling without capitulating to the orthodoxy that tends to surround it: early music choral singing, light cabaret sing-storytelling, dense vocal jazz ensemble harmonies, straight tone delivery, soloistic classical singing, and spoken narrative textures all live side by side in these works. Combined with the scope of instrumental writing, from through composed sections, to conventionally improvised pitch material in various styles, to studio produced improvised effects, the result is an album that has the scope of large forms without being restricted by existing structural templates. The album opens with a burst of kinetic energy in the title track, marrying a space-age backing texture with vocal parts that suggest experimental musical theatre. Tymoczko sets the poetry of Allen Ginsberg for two of the movements here (Jeff Dolven’s texts are set in the others), capturing the quirkiness and irreverence of the beat poet deftly. The accompanying instrumental ensemble vacillates between providing a propulsive pad to painting a vivid sonic picture, as in the layered texture in the second movement. Sheila63 is a larger scale work, written for the Illinois Modern Ensemble plus three solo female voices, and plunges the listener into vast, fantastical textures. The emphasis here is on thick, rich harmonies and Tymoczko’s colorful orchestration and the work stands out as the least stylistically hybridized on the recording. Four Dreams is a work for narrator and jazz trio that is driven by the retelling of the dreams, with the ensemble in support of the evolving narrative. There is a cult underground quality to this piece, as it doesn’t shy away from the absurdities and occasional inappropriate turns of story that show up in one’s subconscious, instead presenting them tongue in cheek, with humor and a touch of self-deprecation. The final work on the recording, Let The Bodies Hit The Floor written for the ensemble Newspeak, turns the subject matter towards war, combining texts from Robert Frost among several others to create a commentary on the disconnected nature of modern warfare. Tymoczko includes pre-recorded voices recounting a battle from a soldier’s perspective, creating moments of cognitive dissonance between the soldier's words, the tenor of the musical material, and thoughts of the destruction of battle. Eventually, the horror catches up with us, as the music becomes increasingly outraged, culminating in violent hits in the drums and electric guitar that close the piece. From this politically charged work merging a traditionally sung soprano part with fragmented spoken recordings, to the stylistically diverse approach in the title track, to the humorous unveiling of the whims of the subconscious in Four Dreams, to the more conventional vocal soloists with ensemble work Shelia63, Tymoczko demonstrates a wide ranging palette of approaches to modern song, guided always by his vision of how to set the texts and not by an adherence to a pre-existing aesthetic. The ambition of this album and the music on it recalls the larger than life efforts of prog rock bands such as Genesis; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and King Crimson with one crucial difference - while those bands looked towards classical music’s sophisticated forms and local complexities to fulfill their expanded visions, Tymoczko looks in the other direction towards popular styles to satisfy his interest in a broader expressive range, importing those elements into a concert music milieu.
- D. Lippel
Recorded at Taplin Auditorium (Princeton), the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (Champaign), and Mission Sound (New York City). Recorded by Andrés Villalta and Christopher Ericson.
Mixed by Andrés Villalta and Dan Art Nichols.
Mastered by Dan Art Nichols.
The recorded voices in Let the Bodies Hit the Floor come from a radio interview between Jack Hitt and Rob Miller, first broadcast on the episode “In Country” of This American Life. Thanks to Christian Bök, Jeff Dolven, Jack Hitt, Rob Miller, Dexter Palmer and the estate of Allen Ginsberg for their kind cooperation. Permission to use Ginsberg’s poetry was generously granted by the Ginsberg estate.
Publication is made possible in part by a grant from the Barr Ferree Foundation Publication Fund, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
Design & Typography: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
Cover image: The Fool’s Cap Map, Anonymous 16th c.
Dmitri Tymoczko was born in 1969 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He studied music and philosophy at Harvard University, and philosophy at Oxford University. He received his Ph.D in music composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a Professor of Music at Princeton, where he has taught composition and theory since 2002. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Elisabeth Camp, who teaches philosophy at Rutgers University, their son Lukas, who was born in 2008, and their daughter Katya, born 2012. His compositions are polystylistic and mercurial, drawing on genres from the Renaissance to rock. His music has been commissioned and performed by groups including the Amernet Quartet, the Atlantic Brass Quintet, the Brentano Quartet, the Corigliano Quartet, Flexible Music, Gallicantus, the Gregg Smith Singers, the Illinois Modern Ensemble, Janus Trio, the Kitchener/Waterloo symphony, Network for New Music, Newspeak, Pacifica Quartet, Synergy Vocal Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion Quartet, and Ursula Oppens. Among his awards are a Guggenheim fellowship, a Rhodes Scholarship, the Leonard Bernstein fellowship from Tanglewood, a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Block lectureship from the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics. His book A Geometry of Music (Oxford) has been described as "a tour de force" (The Times Literary Supplement), a "monumental achievement" (Music Theory Online), and, potentially, a modern analogue to Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre (The Musical Times). His three CDs, Beat Therapy ("far reaching yet utterly entertaining," Newmusicbox), Crackpot Hymnal ("ebullient … polystylistic … kinetic … vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced," Sequenza21), and Rube Goldberg Variations ("foot tapping," "sassy," the product of "an intriguing musical voice that should interest anyone in search of a new auditory experience," Limelight), are available from Bridge Records. He is completing an album of rock-inspired pieces that mix electronics with acoustic instruments. In addition to composing concert music, Dmitri enjoys playing rock and jazz and writing words. His articles have appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, Berfrois, Boston Review, Civilization, Integral, Journal of Music Theory, Lingua Franca, Music Analysis, Music Theory Online, Music Theory Spectrum, Science, Seed, and Transition. His article "The Geometry of Musical Chords" was the first music-theory article published in the 130-year history of Science magazine. He has been invited to speak to audiences of musicians, philosophers, cognitive scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and the general public; articles about his work have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including Time, Nature, and Physics Today.
Name: Dmitri Tymoczko
Occupation: Composer/musical theorist
Current Release: Fools & Angels on New Focus
Recommendation: Eunoia by Christian Bök. Five chapters, each using only one vowel, not repeating the larger words: “Awkward grammar appals a craftsman …” It is very musical, as structured as Milton Babbitt but much funnier.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing in high school, by way of progressive rock and jazz. I loved the Rite of Spring and a few other twentieth-century pieces. I was a fan of Yes and Mike Oldfield. When I was a freshman in college someone played me a Brahms intermezzo and I was blown away. I had a similar feeling a few years later when I first heard Art Tatum; and then again Nancarrow when I was in grad school. Basically, my home turf is complex, kinetic tonality—music where you feel like you’re chasing a train that is always just a little out of your reach.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
One of my first pieces is a string quartet called “This Picture Seems to Move”. It appeared on my second CD, Crackpot Hymnal. When I wrote it, I felt that composers had moved on too quickly from the early twentieth-century sweet spot: that magical moment when modernist ideas collided with more traditional music; when many composers had mastered both languages.
I like that piece but it is much more “in the pocket” than some of my other music. I wanted to prove to myself that I could really write tonal music, that I could use familiar chords and rhythms to express something sincere that didn’t sound like quotation.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
There was a social and aesthetic challenge. I am old enough that when I started out, atonal composition was still the dominant language: many of my teachers were twelve-tone composers, and there was not a lot of interest in the music I was most drawn to. Even in graduate school, many of my professors were open about their belief that my music was too tonal.
Coupled with this was an intellectual challenge, which is that the mechanisms of sophisticated tonal music were not well understood. In many ways, tonality is an embodied language, a matter of non-theoretical know-how. I think a lot of that knowledge got lost over the course of the twentieth century, to the point where my generation (and the generations after) were in the position of reinventing the wheel, rediscovering techniques that were once widespread. This is one reason I wrote my book (A Geometry of Music).
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I usually compose at home, at a large, old, wooden schoolteacher’s desk with a digital piano next to it; it’s what I’ve used for about 20 years. Actually, now that you ask, I have suddenly started thinking that it might be time for a studio makeover. I am relatively insensitive to environment, and have composed in a variety of places (e.g. the airplane). In general, though, the feeling of being at home is helpful to me – so I’ve never really understood the idea of an artist’s colony.
In terms of mood, it is helpful to get into one of two psychological states, more about that below; though when you have kids you don’t always have that luxury. I remember hearing a story about how the creators of the “Loony Tunes” cartoons would have “yes meetings” where only positive feedback was allowed. Ever since then I have tried to have days that I declare to be “yes days”: days where I am relentlessly positive and compose very quickly, sending the critical faculty on a small vacation. I have to constantly remind myself that I can always fix things later. So, I generally have “creation days” and “fixing things days.”
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My work time is basically divided into teaching, composing and thinking about music theoretically. These activities all tend to reinforce each other, with theory suggesting compositional directions, and compositional interests helping to direct my theoretical ideas. I mostly work in the morning and early afternoon when my brain is fresh—I am a bit of an insomniac and so if I work too late I have trouble sleeping. Fortunately, I have a job that leaves me a lot of time for research and creative work.
The actual day itself is pretty boring: coffee, get the kids to school, answer emergency emails, then start composing …
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Honestly, the best state of mind for me is blind panic. Deadline coming, no ideas, too much procrastination … sometimes this is enough to dampen the critical faculties just long enough to allow fresh ideas to flow.
My colleague Paul Lansky once said to me “you have to find a way to have fun when composing,” and that is something that has stuck with me. I tend to make a lot of jokes in daily life, and I am correspondingly interested in humor in music—not silliness or zaniness, but genuine humor that has a serious edge. I hear this in a lot of popular music, but it is hard to create this effect in purely instrumental contexts.
One thing I like to say to myself is that musical composition is a logical deduction from absurd premises. To me, that captures the way rigor and fantasy are both essential to the enterprise. As I said, I tend to separate these two, so I have days when I am free and spontaneous, balanced with days that are rigorous and logical.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
It is a hard question, because I often take months writing a piece and it is difficult to compress that much time into a short description. As a general rule, I tend to start by getting as many ideas as I can onto the page: I’ll end up with twenty little snippets of music, all individual files on my computer, that have nothing to do with each other. During this time, I am trying to be as uncritical as possible, just amusing myself with ideas I find funny or intriguing. Often, the ideas are generated, at least partly, by computer: little Max patches where I explore a texture or melodic process, typically in an interactive and improvisatory way.
The next stage is thinking about how these ideas might belong together: it might be that ideas 1, 7, and 13 seem to resonate and relate, while 2, 4, and 5 form a similar group. Some of the ideas get thrown away or saved for a different piece. At that point, I have some idea for where I am going: my job is to get from idea 7 to idea 1 for example, or to rework idea 13 so that it uses the same harmonies as idea 9.
The third stage is continuity and narrative, making these various snippets work together to form a dramatic statement. Here is where rigor is important. Often it is at this stage that a title occurs to me—sometimes with a dramatic clarifying effect, a little communication from myself to myself: “oh, so that’s what this piece is about!” Once I realize what I have been doing I can finish the piece.
I have a piano piece called “Missed Connections,” where the middle movement began in a really odd way: I programmed a Max patch to generate random little piano melodies with the sustain pedal held down. Some of these I would save by assigning them to a key on my laptop keyboard, others I would throw away. I could recall the saved ideas by pressing “Q” or “W” (or whatever) on the laptop, layering them on top of themselves.
This struck me as a pretty silly way to spend my time, so I put that “project” away for a while. A little while later, Barbara Montero (who is both a philosopher and a dancer) mentioned that she was looking to create a dance piece about what it was like to be a bat (the subject of a famous philosophy article), and I realized that my strange compositional process was a kind of metaphor for both natural selection (with me alternately saving and killing off these randomly generated ideas) and for the bat’s method of “seeing” by way of echoes. And so, this brought me back to the piece, which I called “echolocation”—a short little etude where all the music is generated by a small number of randomly-generated ideas. The result is a weirdly biological spin on rigorous Webernian counterpoint, the Bauhaus as redone by Gaudi.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
A lot of my sketching starts with Max patches: instead of writing notes on a score, I will imagine a process or texture and turn it into a computer program—usually one I can interact with in a spontaneous and improvisational way. Sometimes this electronic component survives into the final product and I make an electroacoustic piece, but sometimes it is incorporated into notation, computer music without computers.
I also use technology for visualizing and manipulating harmonic structures, for teaching myself to use new kinds of scales, and in many other training-type contexts.
Right now, I think computers (or more broadly: algorithms and theory) are helpful in generating material, leading us to new musical possibilities. Humans are much better at developing material into meaningful narratives.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
I have had great collaborations with a number of writers—including Jeff Dolven, a poet and professor here at Princeton, who has written texts for several of my pieces. When I write vocal music, I feel like the words are in charge—I just read them and suddenly music pops into my head. For me, it’s totally different from instrumental composition. I don’t even think about evaluation: it’s not about good or bad, it’s about finding the music that belongs to the text. It’s not my fault if that music is defective in some way!
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I am really interested in improvisation, where the performer is acting as co-composer. Recently the Sirius quartet recorded Strawberry Field Theory, my improvisational string quartet, and it was an amazing experience—the players added to the notation in ways that I never could have imagined, making the piece much better! It’s hard to write this way because you have to learn to leave space for the improvisers.
I confess that sometimes I feel more conventional performance is less collaborative than it could be. Improvisation was hugely important in the 18th century, but we gradually evolved to a place where composers write down exactly what performers should play, and performers strive for 100% accuracy. A really great performance is magical, but my music is so hard that I often find myself just hoping that my notes and rhythms are played accurately.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
That is a great question. Time and rhythm for me are both very intuitive phenomena. I have so much to say about pitch, but rhythm and time and form are things I have almost no useful theoretical ideas about—and yet I am really interested in them.
I really like the way different composers can convey different understandings of time: the tautness of middle-period Beethoven vs. the expansiveness of Mahler. Lately, I feel that musical time has slowed down: I hear so much minimalist and post minimalist music that older pieces, like Schubert, sometimes feel like they are moving too fast.
One thing I am very aware of is the difference between the composer’s sense of their own piece, and the listener’s. By the time we let a piece go we have heard it (or imagined it) 1000 times, and this puts us in a different relation to the music. It is important to be able to imagine what it will sound like to someone hearing it for the first time.
I wish I had something more useful to say about this, but the best I can manage is that it is a matter of taste—and developing your taste is one of the hardest and most important things you have to do as a composer.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Another great question that I can’t answer! We’ve all had the experience where you’re at a cocktail party and someone says “oh, you’re a composer? What instruments do you write for?” And that sometimes feels like “oh, you’re a writer? What font do you write in, Geneva or Times?” Because we’re taught to think of instruments as inessential, and because our whole ecosystem depends on composers being willing to write for whoever asks them to write. “I write for whoever asks, whether it’s a bassoonist or a rock band.”
But in reality, that question is not so naïve: genre is really heavily determined by instrument. So, if you write for sax people will start to hear jazz; and electric guitar with distortion means rock; and violins will convey classical music; etc. So, in some sense, the most important compositional decision is what instruments you write for. In a way, the folks at the cocktail parties are onto something: instrument is more like content than like font.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the distinction between musical and non-musical sounds has completely evaporated—in no small part due to popular music (where even in the 1960s you could hear alarm clocks and animal noises in songs) and sampling. Or we could talk about how the very dissonance of a harmony depends on timbre and register. Or about how the classical composers were experts at building redundancy into their music, so that it sounds incredibly good even on first reading …
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
When I was younger I was really inspired by poets like Stevens and Ashbery, whose poetry creates the impression of sense without ever settling on definitive meaning; that was a feeling I tried to recreate in my music, typically by alluding to multiple styles … a kind of liquid musical surrealism where you move from one place to another without ever realizing that it’s happening.
Recently, my theoretical work has led me to think about the relation between musical structures and the visual realm; it turns out that a lot of our implicit knowledge of harmonic relations can be translated into a more explicit geometrical form. The most overt use of this idea is my orchestra piece, The Thousand Faces of Form, where live visuals (provided by the artist Nathan Selikoff) mirrored the geometry underlying the harmonic structure. So, what you see and what you hear are in some sense the same.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I am not a composer who gets a lot of performances or public attention, so I have had to come to terms with that emotionally. This has led me to a view of composing as something like a monastic activity—a kind of private devotion or meditation that I pursue for its own sake. Sometimes I think of it more mathematically, as an active way of contemplating (or interacting with) musical structures that are actively beautiful.
I would probably be more interested in politics if I felt more people were listening.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
People once thought that we were surrounded by habitable planets easily accessible from Earth: in science fiction like Star Trek, the air of other planets is always breathable, and the aliens are always basically human—though maybe a little green. And then we learned that we were stuck on Earth for the foreseeable future if not permanently.
I think that the dream of other musical planets is in some ways similar. In A Geometry of Music, I make the case that there are only a small number of ways to satisfy basic musical constraints (e.g. harmonies that sound similar or melodies moving by short distances). So that might be taken as a reason for shifting focus from discovery of other musical planets to something like conservation of this one: just as we’re stuck here on Earth, so too might we be stuck with music that is broadly similar to what we know. In which case our job is to be good stewards of our inheritance.
Maybe that’s avoiding the question though … if you want a prediction I would say that in 50 years there will be serious, well-respected composers who write music that sounds a lot more like Beethoven than anything being written today.