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Between Rock & Hard Places (A Musical Autobiodyssey) Tom Constanten Copyright 1992 by Tom Constanten Published by Hulogosi, P.O. Box 1188, Eugene, Oregon 97440 ISBN 0-938493-16-7 excerpts 1617w

-page 23-28- ...BMI was sponsoring a contest for student composers. Dr. Chase 'helped' me prepare an entry, a stupefyingly cerebral (no oxymoron, this) Double Quintet, matching modern instruments with their Renaissance counterparts. Cast in an overwrought serial idiom, it never stood a chance in the competition. But I found out who won and got in touch with him. Since known and feared as "Blue Gene" Tyranny, Robert Sheff did me the honor of playing some of my Sketches for piano in concert in San Antonio. An amazing talent. I know he'll go far. He in turn put me in touch with Philip Krumm, and then with La Monte Young.

La Monte Young was one of the prime movers in a very exciting New York scene--a group later called 'Fluxus' -- that included Ray Johnson, Dick Higgins, and Yoko Ono. When I told him that my college plans involved going to the San Francisco Bay Area, he suggested I get in touch with a composer/pianist who was playing ragtime at a nightclub called Gold Street in North Beach. A guy named Terry Riley.

I believe that if you were around Terry long enough your soul would get a tan. His is an exothermic, solar personality--he radiates positive energy, and has an ever active imagination. I love the way his mind works. Visiting him at his Butchertown (an area of San Francisco) digs, I heard a recording of his String Quartet ("Don't wait for the fast part," he told me), and then I remember the two of us experimenting with Bach at the upright piano in his studio downstairs. The word 'wise' fits him, but it's not the wisdom of accumulated years of experience. He was always that way, 'least as long as I've known him.

I'd come from Las Vegas to U.C. Berkeley in the fall of 1961 with dutiful intentions, but my first(and only) semester of college was rainy and unfulfilling...

One thing that kept it from being an unqualified washout was the opportunity to hear so much exciting music in live performance. The Merce Cunningham Dance troupe came to the University of California in late February, 1962. On tour with them to provide music were none other than John Cage and David Tudor! I found their Wheeler Hall performance of Antic Meet lovably zany. Elsewhere on campus, at Hertz Hall, I watched William Bolcom perform his flamboyantly Boulezist Fantasy-Sonata; an ensemble including Morton Subotnick on clarinet perform Henri Pousseur's Quintette a la memoire d'Anton Webern, a scintillatingly colorful glose.

...Meanwhile, across the Bay, the Tape Music Center was giving its first presentations at the San Francisco Conservatory, where I was treated to the remarkable electronic tapestries of Richard Maxfield.

There were also the terpsichorean adventures of Ann (later 'Anna') Halprin. Her Three- and later Four-legged Stool was a highlight of my first year in San Francisco. With musical assistance from Terry Riley, it was a marvelous indulgence in Non-Sequi Tourism. It was mounted at a theater at the foot of Hyde Street, at the end of the cable car line. Their intermittent bells colored the soundscape.

...I got caught up in a conversation about music in general with Margie Panofsky (yet to attain distinction in Early Music). A rather intense discussion was joined by a third party. When I said, with teenage conviction, that music might've stopped in 1750, but it started again in 1950, this blond-haired guy spontaneously reached across and heartily shook hands with me. He subsequently invited me to share his apartment, a block off the U.C. campus. Compared to my humble room in a house in the Berkeley hills, it seemed too good a deal to pass up. His name was Phil Lesh.

Phil introduced me to a fascinating array of music and people. As a volunteer at KPFA, he had access to the latest tapes of European festival performances of Stockhausen, Boulez, and more. Accompanying him to the peninsula (I had the car) I met Characters like Bob Hunter, Willy Legate, and Jerry Garcia...

I don't believe in miracles. I rely on them. And transcendent skill is no match for dumb luck. Phil and I had just got the recording of Berio's Differences, and the fact of his appearing virtually in our backyard had an air of the miraculous about it. We signed up for his class (at Mills College) forthwith, possibly even thirdwith. And what a class it was! Among the students were Steve Reich--he was into a Gunther Schuller/Lukas Foss (understandable--we encountered both of them at that year's Ojai Festival) third stream improvisation sort of thing--the phase pieces were nowhere in 'sight'; Robert Moran -- that groovy maniac of the pandaemonic scores for dozens of automobiles, dancers, and radio stations...in varying configurations; and Shirley Wong, who joined me in the premiere of my Three Pieces for Two Pianos, and has since become expert at the harpsichord, as well as Chinese classical music as a founding member of the Flowing Stream Ensemble.

Earthy yet exalted, Berio smoked strong cigarettes (Picayunes) as he lectured. Evidently he couldn't find Gitanes in California. I remember him pointing out a part of a student's composition and saying, "You should devil up this here." I thought to myself, "Well, all right! Now we're out in the wild and woolly avant garde!" Later I found that that was the way he pronounced the word 'develop.' He turned out to have his feet more firmly planted than many of the 'traditionalists.' It was as if the same penetrating intellect that broke the surface tension leading to the future would extend equally as well into the past. His ideas were well thought out--he once told me, "Never do something of which you're not convinced." His thoughts on instrumentation were nothing less than a revelation. Still...he never approved of my work 'inside' the piano.

We gave a performance at the Mills College concert hall of the Winter Music of John Cage, using thirteen pianos. Some sort of obscure record, possibly. The score allows for as many as twenty. Berio was joined onstage by Robert Moran, and the rest of us were scattered throughout the building. Phil and I were sequestered up in the practice rooms. I remember in particular figuring out one of the more massive icti and playing it with great gusto -- triple forte. The resulting sound was considerably more remarkable than I'd anticipated, and I thought I'd check how it sounded with Phil. Running out into the hall, what should I see but Phil, coming at me from the other direction, like a mirror image. It seems we'd though of doing the same thing at the same time!Bobby Petersen, who was there, said that he heard the sound in question and saw Berio turn his head and grin -- or wince.

In early May a group of us from Berio's class went down to a "Composers' Symposium" at U.C.L.A. The concert featured a performance of a "collaboration' piece, with a section composed by each of us in the class....

...Tracing the history of twentieth century music year by year, Schuller's radio program, which was carried by KPFA in Berkeley, was a wonderful and illuminating introduction to a broad spectrum of new music...

Meanwhile Phil's and my apartment in Berkeley had become an avant garde music factory. He was working on a piece for four orchestras, called Foci, using the same sixty-stave paper he'd used for his earlier serialist piece for mammoth orchestra that Berio had smiled over as he turned the pages: "Nice!" Over in my corner of the room I was working on a piece for chamber orchestra -- twenty three instruments -- called Phrases. Based on a combinatorial series (much in the manner of Webern's Op. 24, but with three groups of four notes instead of four groups of three), it too won Berio's approval: "A real galaxy!" he called it.

The center of the 'galaxy' was a twelve-note chord about halfway through the piece. Up till then the texture was a network of four note 'phrases,' fashioned out of the patterns in the series. Afterward the instruments were more filtered, more 'arrayed.' Berio put special emphasis on orchestration -- one of his many strong points. New and exciting groupings, startling contrasts, mellifluous transitions -- all marked the Berio style and method.

It was during this time that I wrote my Three Pieces for Two Pianos. Heavily influenced by the piano idiom of Boulez, these pieces represented three different directions in the exploration of twelve tone technique. The first was originally written for solo piano, but was recast as a duet when Berio said something to the effect that I had to be kidding, to expect one pianist to do all that. The second was an eerie, melancholy fugal treatment, with melodic strands lacing the two pianos together. Pitches, rhythms, and intensities were serially determined. In other words, a melancholy lover's lament. In the third piece, precision manifested itself in the form of a stopwatch. Titled Saros, after the cycles of solar eclipses, it represented a deteriorization of the serial factor as a formal element.

There was also a Sonatina for solo piano, which I wrote for Phil's twenty-second birthday. Somehow it didn't go over as well with Berio as the pieces for two pianos, even though I'd taken care to delineate the forms and structures more clearly and objectively, all the while exploring the coloristic effects of extreme registers (a la Boulez). -page 23-28-

Typed by Cheryl Vega 3-18-95


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