The Horizon of Barry Lopez

In December 2019 I finished
Horizon by Barry Lopez – what some say is an update to his landmark Arctic Dreams and other essays about the natural world. Ultimately, a testament of hope in the face of the crisis of climate change, the book points the way to an r/evolutionary change that could save us all.

Dear Mr. Lopez,
One day during my high school years I picked up and read Loren Eiseley’s “The Immense Journey”, which had been kicking around our house for as long as I could read, the title often scanned but never acknowledged. Eiseley’s essays transported me into an alternative reality, phase-shifted from our day to day, the pulse of time slowed enough to hear the voices we don’t stop to hear, to see the colors we don’t imagine, to absorb the wisdom that is there for our benefit.
On the morning after I finished Horizon, long before sunrise, I watched a star makes its way from the branches of a pine tree across the road into open sky as it followed the ecliptic, where it finally gave up its light to the morning sun. I thought about orreries, astrolabes, the elaborate celestial mechanics designed to explain the geocentric universe – with their complex errors to explain retrograde motion, and the simple correction of placing the sun in the center of our solar system. I thought about the complex orreries we have constructed to defend predatory mercantilism, and how a simple basic change in perspective could alter our precipitous path.

We spend half our lives facing the light, the other half facing what is obscured by the light. For the first time in my life, thanks in large part to you, I feel gratitude for the night wakefulness that makes visible what would otherwise be unnoticed. You have been one of my cherished companions since I first read Arctic Dreams. Horizon has given me hope, inspiration, strength and direction: start by taking the time to see what is in front of my eyes. Thank you so much.
with gratitude, Theodore Mook

Lee Hyla’s Trans, from New World Records Program notes

Program notes from Lee Hyla’s 2004 New World Records release, Trans. The worst reviews commented on the excellence of the music, recording, performances and the terrible program notes (written by Y.T). My friends and colleagues were far too polite to be so critical, and I am forever grateful to them.

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things: --
We murder to dissect.
Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves.
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
--William Wordsworth

I met Lee Hyla for the first time sometime during the fall of 1981 when he came to my apartment to go over the cello part of his String Trio, which I was preparing for a performance with the Boston new-music ensemble Dinosaur Annex. I had been given the part earlier that summer, and had been pecking at it for weeks. Barely out of music school, armed with too many opinions, I had concluded that Lees trio was unplayable; that his notation was an inexact approximation of wild and aimless improvisation, and that my job as a cellist was to approximate his approximation.

Until the moment Lee sat down and played through the piece on the piano, I had believed it was beyond human capability to even imagine, much less notate, such pandemonium. Until he pointed out to me some phrasing and various connections between pitches, I had remained oblivious to the intrinsic order of the piece (despite the obvious clues like dotted lines in the score – oh … THAT dotted line.). Even though I sensed the essence of order in what I had previously presumed to be chaos, I lay beached and gasping, striving to master the clarity and control required to play the piece well. I couldnt think, play, or count fast enough.

Once I realized that Lee really meant what he wrote, it slowly dawned on me that what he wrote meant something – something that could be parsed, understood, and felt, just like the music I had been playing all my life. This was a galvanizing experience for me.
So, my aim here is to describe why I think music in general is important, and why the music on this disc is important music. Acquiring a taste for a piece of music can be a highly personal experience, but it is also a social experience, shared by a composer, the performer(s), and a listener. Although it is seldom mentioned in the company of polite new-music enthusiasts, there must be a certain level of consensus among these three parties or things get all out of whack and the whole musical enterprise becomes entropic – check out a few new-music concerts and you will know what Im talking about. I am eliminating from this essay the discussion of flash, fashion, eclecticism, iconoclastic behavior, and other superficial properties because they are merely decorative and completely irrelevant to the music on this disc. Since a shared musical experience requires both time and magic to achieve a consensus of greatness, a. k. a. Masterpiece (more time and magic than is allotted to anyone but vampires), Im taking any arguments about Great-Works-of-Art-Throughout-History off the table as well. Instead I will concentrate on how these pieces work, and whether their language and logic are valid. After all, in an evolved social order like ours (no … really), culture is (among other things) a repository for the promotion and preservation of shared intelligence. Music is architecture freed of its earthly mass; syntax, grammar, and logic without concepts; both container and contents; noun and verb; breath and bone; and can be, in the right hands, a primary vector of species intelligence. Good music can keep an undetected spore of intelligence alive for centuries.

If the listening process is a step-wise sequence of an ears registering musical events, it follows that a certain amount of forward motion in music is automatic. Unfortunately, certain composers have over-utilized this property as their pieces grind forward. The music starts, the clock ticks, the music stops. Voila – a piece! The composers real challenge is to organize the musical information into something more than a line connecting two points labeled start here and stop now. Not for nothing have composers been obsessed with form and idea, and the great difficulty in inscribing their hard work on the thin shaft of times arrow.

Once the ideas are presented, organized, and marked with enough contrast to be perceptible, the final hurdle is to touch the listener. The music of Beethoven, with all its formal integrity, would just have lined birdcages but for its optimism, deep faith, and humanity. After all, we dont drink the wine for the shape of the bottle.
In the music of Lee Hyla, without exception, I have always felt that the jagged, honking, barking, raucous, strongly articulated rhythmic layer patrols and protects an inner layer of timeless, crystalline beauty, almost too fragile to survive on its own. His obsessive recycling of material, subtly transformed over the course of the piece, rude interruptions, and unexpected glimpses of an internal radiance, all add to a sense of uneasy striving toward a kind of transcendent experience.

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! 
suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul ! 
	 -- from Howl, Allen Ginsburg

The three works on this disc are intelligent, but not intellectual. They are obvious siblings, though each piece sustains its own strong character. Lee has chosen, in all of these works, to tell a tale, to work within a musical space whose boundaries consist of wildly contrasting elements. Bluntly cut transitions range from slow to fast, soft to loud, classic and contained to raucous rock-and-roll – with an almost bizarre use of Beethovenian techniques exercised on poached riffs. The source materials diverge wildly, from The Art Ensemble of Chicago to Alban Berg. While at first it may seem like putting mustard on ice cream, such use of contrast maps out a large space and plants markers – very bright markers – at the boundaries. These are the unforgettable flags, made indelible by their very contrast, that articulate a large musical space. As in many works of Beethoven, the material is tightly controlled, but the scope of the pieces is vast.

Form and Memory

The composers objective is to construct a discernible form to contain his/her ideas. Now that physics has evolved from ordered Newtonian space to Mandelbrothian chaos, todays frozen music/melted architecture (apologies to Goethe) may not necessarily describe a grand or even comfortable physical space. The concert music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resembled the salons and halls in which it was performed: boxy spaces, classic sonata form, simple binary forms, variation form, the golden mean, and so forth. Even as the classic symmetries of the sonata form began to stretch and contort, musical space still adhered to the laws of Newtonian physics. Today nested, self-similar patterns can be infinitely generated by one equation; wormholes and folded space have altered our concepts of time and dimension. Musical space can now be a habitat for the mind alone, liberated from our Newtonian-based self-images, which breathe air and move through space at a human pace. Its difficult to describe the shape of the pieces on this disc, because they dont fit in the boxes we have traditionally used to describe music. Symmetry (to borrow from Cage and Feldman) is crippled by slight alterations, and the form is coeval with the material.

My grandfather, who advanced far into the Terra Incognita of geriatric senility before he died, kept a murder mystery next to his bed, which he would take up and read at random, wandering from page to page, floating free and unfettered within the narrative space.
I cant remember anything, anyway.

Without memory there is murder, but no mystery; surprise, but no suspense. Form, regardless of its shape, creates suspense, fulfills (or confounds) expectations and prolongs, truncates, or completely withholds established patterns retained in the listeners memory. Even though form may be liberated from its box, it remains the partner of memory.

By using strongly identifiable rhythmic patterns, Lee can prolong or truncate a listeners expectations by altering the phases of repetition. For example, a simple reduction in the number of a riffs repetition accelerates the feeling of motion, intensifies the arrival. In a sense, these riffs are the bricks out of which each piece is built. Gil Rose, the conductor of the three spectacular performances on this disc, says:

I would say that the key to performing and preparing Lees music is finding the rhythmic gesture that is implied by his very specific notation… For me, in performing Lees music, focusing on gesture seems to get you precision, not the other way around.

The phasing of various patterns (riff, gesture, phrase, or section) over time gives each pattern a kind of ground- swell rhythm, which organizes the structure of the piece as a whole, even though, like a body of water, there may be several different wave systems occurring at once. In the last movement of Trans, for example, two opposing thematic structures pass through each other, like a slow-motion collision of two ectoplasmic creatures. Another very clear example of this use of contrasting patterns can be easily heard in the very opening of the Bass Clarinet Concerto, which divides into three roughly symmetrical subsections. The differences between the subsections expose Lees compositional processes, and in many ways establish the dramatic ideas that propel the piece forward. In detail: The first section opens with the flute outlining a perfect fifth. The sonority and texture of this subsection gradually thickens, and a high-register violin melody adds a sparkling upper boundary, all of this moving toward an exclamatory, punctuated chord. The process starts over with the second subsection, only this time with a tremolo in the strings. More textural and harmonic enrichment leads again to another high register violin solo, this time even higher by one half step. Bang! Another exclamatory chord punctuates the second subsection. The piece begins again, for the third time, with the solo bass clarinet outlining a very wide span of intervals. The section builds again, like the others, but pours itself out into a two-bar rest without an exclamatory chord. These three subsections grow progressively shorter, more intense. The two-bar rest that bridges into the rest of the piece is packed with a kind of latent energy that gives the piece a hyper-ventilated power, energized by the differences contained in the three opening subsections.

Pitch, Register and Harmony

Music is a flow of information over time, like water flowing through a pipe, or digital information delivered by a cable. Composers, very early on, devised techniques in which several contrasting channels of information were delivered simultaneously. In opera, for example, five characters could tell their story with every voice heard and every message heartfelt.

In Lees pieces, pitch trumps pitch class, which makes register very, very important. Its a three-ring circus, where concurrent messages can be delivered in the high, middle, and low registers. Not exactly counterpoint, since in traditional counterpoint the voices are locked into codependent relationships – this is counterpoint on steroids. The utilization of registration, combined with augmented or diminished note values, permits music in different registers to progress at different speeds. It is important for a listener to be acutely aware of register as more than just instrumental coloration. The very first gesture of Trans (movement 1), played by the clarinet, is a widely spaced, three-note motive that spawns three threads (middle, high, and low registers) that weave through the first section of the piece. The first thread, a middle register murmur, alternates half steps. The second, a discreetly woven gold thread articulated only by the high pings in the flute and violin riffs, obsessively alternates half-steps in the highest register at a much slower speed. The third starts a ferocious melody shared by the cellos and bassoons, which crashes into the end of the eleventh measure, ending the section.
Pitch begets intervals, and intervals beget harmony. Lees harmonic language is fundamental, organic, and tonal, based upon the power and identities of the intervals contained within a sonority, both vertically (in chords) and horizontally (in melodies). Intervals are not equivalent: There is a distinct hierarchy of consonance, and yet a freedom from the tagged diatonic structures of nineteenth-century chromaticism. Almost without exception, even complex harmonic sonorities, once parsed into their component intervals, behave predictably, with each interval resolving according to its own gravitational weight. The opening of the Violin Concerto, which moves into and out of a radiant D-major chord is a study in intervallic conflict resolution and voice- leading, yet cannot be meaningfully scanned as a chord progression.

The Natural World

All the pieces on this disc pull from the outside world, quoting from other pieces, birdsong, and reminiscences, which may or may not be completely subjective to each listener. (I keep hearing echoes of O Alter Duft from Pierrot in the Violin Concerto, but then again, I hear Theres a Place for Us in subway brakes.) Source material is directly quoted (the bass line from the 1970 Art Ensemble of Chicago tune Theme de Yoyo from Les Stances a Sophie in the Violin Concerto) or mined for its pitch content and subtly injected into a pieces genetic fabric. (Longest Train I Ever Saw, an old country song, is used in the Bass Clarinet Concerto, which to my ear infuses the entire piece with a very subtle bluesy feel, like the apparition of an ancestral trait passing through a childs face.)

Hearing these pieces for the first time can be like a confrontation with a big sack of snakes: a complicated, seething tangle of very active lines. These are big pieces, emotionally rangy, and full of music, devoid of filler. Sometimes the music is taxing, and it is necessary to resort to my emotional compass, trusting that my own internal software can emotionally engage with something that I dont fully understand intellectually. I have known Lee for more than twenty years, and have yet to regret that trust.

The Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra was composed in 1988 for the bass clarinet soloist Tim Smith. It was commissioned by the Fairfield Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tom Crawford, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was first performed on January 14 of 1989, in Westport, Connecticut, and received its second performance with the same soloist and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (conducted by Gil Rose) in 2001, after minor revisions by the composer.

Trans, composed for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, was written at the MacDowell Colony and in Boston, and was completed in March 1996. The title partly refers to the importance of transformation of material as an ongoing concern in the piece. Trans was commissioned by the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust, and given its premiere on May 11 of 1996 by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

The Violin Concerto was composed between February and November, in 2001. It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and written for Laura Frautschi, Gil Rose, and the musicians of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The first performance took place at Jordan Hall in Boston on January 19, 2002.
– Ted Mook

Come Away, Ezra Sims

This was an essay, published by the NewMusicBox, after the death of Ezra Sims.

COME AWAY – EZRA SIMS (1928–2015)



At around 9:30 at night on January 30, 2015, Ezra Sims passed away in his sleep, lovely and soothing (as the Whitman goes), after a heroic struggle against the infirmities that had plagued him for the past few years. His frustration was palpable, his suffering devastating, but still, I couldn’t help but snicker when he would complain to his doctors about his failing mind – which, even at what he felt was diminished capacity, could pull the first sentence verbatim from a book he’d read 15 years earlier. Or remember a theme from a Schumann Symphony or the graceful nuance of a particular turn of line or phrase from, well, just about anything. I always felt like I should have an encyclopedia and a dictionary handy when I talked to Ezra, but it would have taken a staff of ten to keep up with him.

The Sextet (1981) was the first Sims piece I played: a Dinosaur Annex performance in the Spring of 1982, with Janet Packer, Anne Black, Ian Greitzer, Ken Radnofsky, and Tom Haunton. During one of the rehearsals, once I lifted my head up enough to hear what was going on around me, I discovered this was no mere new music piece, as Ezra would say, but a turmoil: churning, vital, sensual, bouyant, joyful, painful – life itself, in sound. This new music seemed to fill its lungs with the same air I did, and changed my circuitry forever.

Only where love and need are one,
and the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
	--Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

His home at 1168 Mass Ave was a nexus for all of us, a place so saturated with airborne yeast (empty beer bottles) that Ezra left his dough on the kitchen counter to rise on its own. Those of us touched by the force of his personality and culture rose as well, lovingly – not always very gently – mentored by this fussy, brilliant man. He touched us all and he kept in touch with everyone: piles of letters written in his heavy hand signed with his graceful initials (the same which adorned his gorgeous handwritten scores), admonishing notes, phone calls, dinner parties, excursions to museums, more admonishing notes, long walks, mushroom hunting, New Year’s cards, lunch invitations – none of his communications ever trivial and always, in later recounting to friends, a glue which held us all together. There were some dubious soups, with mushrooms discovered on some rotting log in Cambridge which would spark conversations about John Cage, Tanglewood, Merce Cunningham, the Judson, John Herbert MacDowell, a tsunami of cultural connections – all the while wondering quietly whether or not you would live to see the next sunrise. Are you sure these mushrooms are OK?

After his move to Hurley Street, things were much the same. Ezra was amused by a neighborhood fool dog, the crazy landscape innovations next door, the abundant spring flowers, the fish place, and cockles, and we were satisfied by the musty comfort of the same old books, the art, and Ezra himself at the table In the days to come, perhaps we lost a little in the indirectness of email as opposed to his handwritten postal notes, in the brittle replication of computer scores instead of the nuanced calligraphy of his older ones, but we were older, too, with families and jobs. The world changed: a harsher, glancing light that grates against the Turneresque glow of Ezra’s harmonies. Not so much dissonant as nostalgic, mourning the loss of a civility that now seems archaic rather than heroic.

Ezra leaves us each with set of quotes. On the occasion of peeling off his sarong at a dinner gathering: “I hope no one minds a naked host.” On the occasion of being served brown rice at a Japanese restaurant: “Had I known it was that sort of place, I shan’t have come.” At a rehearsal of Lee Hyla’s String Trio at his house, popping his head in the door: “That intonation will not leave this house!” While he was reviewing recording takes, the successive phone calls: “How could you?”, “What on earth happened? How could you?”, “What happened?” He worried about us, gossiped about us, complained, criticized, corrected, and over time for me, became a refuge.

All of the characters from one of Ezra’s favorite books, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – Feckless the cow, the spooky aunt, the oversexed farm boy Seth, the crazy preacher father who takes off to spread the word (“you miserable, crawling worms….”) – have counterparts in Ezra’s Birmingham childhood. No, not an exact match to the Sims family, but outrageous overtones which made the description of his Birmingham life more vivid, like the music he would come to write years later. His boyhood cow, an “improving” aunt (in that she was bent on raising the cultural standards of those around her), preacher-grandfather AJ Sims, Sister (always Sister, I don’t think I ever knew her name), and the youthful Ezra – bass player, guzzling milk out of the pail, the passionate discoverer of Stravinsky in the local record shop – all fashioned the deep Southern gentility, culinary habits (salt in the coffee?), food preferences (How much milk does he drink? Salt in the coffee? Really?), embedded into the Ezra we grew to love. Together with his friend Arthur, lapping up the pot liquor, feeding the iron pig, savoring the overcooked greens, and exuding an erudite southern poise which, however scandalous the conversation, was expressed with an eloquence that made our young Yankee sensibilities seem cold, lumpy, and crude. And though they knew the difference between Dutch and Polish rudders, the unexpressed secret was all the funnier.

Ezra’s early musical experiences – playing the bass in the school orchestra (because he was big for his age), singing in the chorus – may have taught him his harmonic subtlety, but I’m inclined to be more mystical. He went from Birmingham, through steel mills, Chinese language school, Yale, Mills, and New York encountering a cast of characters and circumstances powerful enough to derail even the most individual soul. But he ultimately came to a place so uniquely his own that it has no siblings, no cousins, no counterparts. His ear made the demands, and once he found the sound his ears sought, he drew the map for us to retrace his steps back to the music traditions he loved. He was not an iconoclast, but a logical evolutionist, who ironically arrived at his destination by a leap of faith.

He did not compromise, and went for years without a performance. It was not easy to find performers willing to undertake the work, but by some miraculous alchemy, Rodney Lister, Scott Wheeler, Toby Armour, Richard Pittman, Boston Music Viva, Ian Greitzer, Janet Packer, Kathy Matasy, Ann Black Diane Heffner – and the loyal cohorts they spawned – brought Ezra’s music to life. And not just the notes, but the music underneath, with its radiance and warmth. Despite his crankiness, and the harshly direct statements he could make, we celebrated his steadfast individuality and his courage. And if we couldn’t quite create our own universe like he did, he inspired us to try. He is a center, a focus, a force of gravity, and will always be so.

But we will miss him.

Harry Partch, Richard Powers & Orfeo

In 2014, I finished Richard Powers’ spectacular Orfeo – a novel with a composer as the protagonist. Not a sickening Mozart-in-the-Jungle zoo observation about music, this book was emotionally symphonic and structurally like a late Beethoven quartet. It, like all Powers novels, seemed like it was dictated from my own subconcious. Each of his successive novels has been a milestone, memorializing a deepening awareness of the world around me, and my place in it. The accumulation of detail in each novel comes close to my experience of life itself, a virtuality indistinguishable from reality. So, I wrote him, and he wrote back:

Dear Richard:

For starters:

I was re-reading Plowing the Dark, along with Burton’s One Thousand and One Nights late at night on September 10, 2001 in my home in NYC. The next morning, a crisp, clear blue sky with a crescent moon and the morning star in close conjunction, was my daughter Sophia’s second day in nursery school, up in the Medical Center Nursery School in Washington Heights. We heard the first plane head down the Hudson, and watched the Towers go down from an empty classroom while our kids played in the room next door. Somehow, the image of Adie and Taimur meeting in the virtual Hagia Sophia has stayed with me, permanently linked to this day: the alchemical creation of hope from horror.

I’m a cellist, played new music, including much of Partch’s music on his original instruments with Newband. Barstow was one of my favorites. I’ve had a relatively marginal life, helped by an IT job at Pfizer for many years. I left my wife and girls in NYC to move to the country (RI) – mostly for health reasons – and though my circumstances are different than “Peter’s”, I still hurt. I am an adjunct professor. I have the music of Palestrina, Bach, Foo Fighters (my daughters…), Partch, and god knows what else swirling around in my head, music which somehow mediates between the logic and the emotions that influence me to stagger forward in my erratic way. My cohort of composers and performers, slowly diminishing (Dean Drummond, Bob Ashley, Lee Hyla, Fred Ho…), draws closer together, still puzzling out the mysteries that you describe so perfectly in your book.

You, through your work, have been a kindred spirit, an inspiration, and a part of my cohort of companions since the day I finished the first of your books (Goldbug). I don’t know how you do it, but your voice is clear, life affirming and a comfort to me.

Thank you.

Sincerely Yours:

Ted Mook

Dear Ted Mook,

Your remarkable letter reached me yesterday, and I have lived with it quietly for a day before replying, just savoring the encouragement and satisfaction of your words before sending you my thanks. My circumstances, too, are not exactly Peter’s, but all his uncertainty and qualification and sense of shortfall along the way are certainly drawn from life. So when I hear from someone for whom the music meant something, I feel a gratitude way beyond words. Know that your letter helps to keep me going.

As Greil Markus put it, music seeks to change the world, the world goes on, the music is left behind, and that’s what we have to talk about. I’m so glad you felt like reaching out and talking. The comfort cuts both ways.


Richard Powers

Summer Cobwebs

I’m dusting off summer cobwebs by sparring with a worthy adversary.

Popper 6: It’s fast, it’s got all kinds of string-crossings and finger-combinations which demand careful attention to moving slow fingers faster and more efficiently, repairing sloppiness in the bow (roll and yaw), and clarity of memory & focus.  The etude goes through the awkward adjacent finger double-stops in minor sixths and tri-tones (especially 3rd and 4th finger tritones) which rarely exist in nature, and pushes me into an uncomfortable space which I, in my day to day life, strive to avoid. It goes deep deep deep into my gremlins’ lair: generalizing, rounding off, and  usually leaving-off at good enough.

Always the larger questions loom up and drag us into the koan zone. What is lost if I don’t go deeper into this uncomfortable space of my own limitations? What is lost by aural compression algorithms and slow sampling rates if you simply discard frequencies above the threshold of human hearing? What is lost when you simply round-off the nuances of pitch to fit within the mathematical grid of half-steps described by the 12th root of 2. Or succumbing to other computer rounding: octal, decimal or hexadecimal systems? Or submitting our 3 dimensional ecstatic selves to algorithmic manipulation in which we are a mere point on a curve? Is it just good enough? Do you want a doctor that is good enough? At what point does healthy body maintenance veer into obsession and narcissism? At what point does institutional administration begin to administer in its own behalf at the expense of the institution? At what point does process overwhelm data? 

What is the ratio of greater good to good enough? The answer is plain in all our ecologies, personal, political, social and environmental. Artists and monks are simultaneously censured for their withdrawal from the society that supports them, and admired for their discipline, exactitude and rigor. Risking themselves for the greater good, to preserve us from the mere good enough. 

To answer the first question: that is what is lost.