Celebrating Noah Creshevsky
Noah Creshevsky at Klavierhaus,
On November 3, 2005 the Brooklyn College International Electro-Acoustic Music Festival presented a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of New York composer Noah Creshevsky. The concert took place at Klavierhaus in midtown Manhattan and featured performances by Vahagn Avetisyan (piano), Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (voice), Thomas Buckner (baritone), and Beth Griffith (soprano).
A retrospective of works by Creshevsky were presented along with compositions written in his honor. The concert program is reprinted below along with links to play or view selected compositions.
The Institute for Studies in American Music invited colleagues and close friends of Noah Creshevsky to offer their insights on his music and share their experiences with him. These may be found in the Fall 2005 ISAM Newsletter available on their Website at http://www.bcisam.org/.
They are also reprinted below by permission of the Institute for Studies in American Music. The links in the left-hand column may be used to navigate to each article.
14th Annual International Electro-Acoustic Music Festival
60th Anniversary Celebration of the Music of Noah Creshevsky
Thursday, November 3, 2005 7 PM
Hyperrealism in Music:
Trained in composition by Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Luciano Berio at Juilliard, Noah Creshevsky is the former director of the Center for Computer Music and Professor Emeritus at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
His musical vocabulary consists largely of familiar bits of words, songs, and instrumental music which are edited but rarely subjected to electronic processing. The result is a music that obscures the boundaries of real and imaginary ensembles though the fusion of opposites: music and noise, comprehensible and incomprehensible vocal sources, human and superhuman vocal and instrumental capacities.
Creshevsky's most recent hyperrealist compositions explore the fragmentation and reconstruction of pre-existing music in combination with original synthetic and acoustic materials. Moments suggest musical environments of indeterminate ethnicity--simultaneously Western and non-Western, ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar.
Hyperrealistic music exists in two basic genres. The first uses the sounds of traditional instruments that are pushed beyond the capacities of human performers in order to create superperformers--hypothetical virtuosos who transcend the limitations of individual performance capabilities. These are the "supermen" who appeared in a number of my compositions, beginning with Circuit (1971) for harpsichord on tape. The compact disc Man & Superman (Centaur CRC 2126) was largely connected to my interest in the ambiguous borders between live performers and their impossibly expanded electronic counterparts.
The idea of superperformers has numerous precursors, including the violin music of Paganini, the piano music of Liszt, conventional music for player piano, and the fully realized player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow.
Fundamental to the second genre of hyperrealism is the expansion of the sound palettes from which music is made. Developments in technology and transformations in social and economic realities have made it possible for composers to incorporate the sounds of the entire world into their music. Hyperrealism of this second genre aims to integrate vast and diverse sonic elements to produce an expressive and versatile musical language. Its vocabulary is an inclusive, limitless sonic compendium, free of ethnic and national particularity.
Essential to the concept of hyperrealism is that its sounds are generally of natural origin, and that they remain sufficiently unprocessed so that their origin is perceived by the listener as being "natural." Since the sounds of our environment vary from year to year, generation to generation, and culture to culture, it is impossible to isolate a definitive encyclopedia of "natural" sounds, but there are a great many sounds that are familiar to nearly all of us. These are the most basic building blocks in the formation of a shared (if temporary) collective sonic reality.
The development and incorporation of expanded palettes consisting of natural sounds also has precursors, most notably the work of Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henri, and the overall tradition of musique concrete.
Hyperrealism celebrates bounty, either by the extravagant treatment of limited sound palettes or by assembling and manipulating substantially extended palettes.
The fractured sounds of a broken world recover their unity in the kaleidoscope of your music.
Musical ambiguity is doubly mysterious when its surface appears obvious. In the case of Noah Creshevsky’s music, the surface seems cluttered with the obvious—grunts and groans, crashes and scrapes, words and cries, and even ordinary instruments. For this listener, it was first unclear whether to engage in mental association-stripping, or let myself laugh at strings of gargles and snorts. So I laughed.
Not much time passed, though, before my cheap idea of the joke had flattened, and what remained was the sonic detritus of meaning. Yes, the modernists had done that. But they’d scratched away meaning and familiarity at once. Creshevsky’s music instead magnifies the reality of the sounds, creating an unexpected level of integration between the familiar in sound, the familiar in meaning, and the familiar in composition.
Indeed, this composer’s work is compositionally clear, leaning on the erstwhile avant-garde without ever needing it. Stylistically unprejudiced, his work might as easily suggest Dowland or Des Prez or Presley as it would Boulez or Ligeti or Xenakis.
The mystery deepens, though, because Creshevsky in fact rejects compositional, theoretical and even philosophical obligations to predecessors or contemporaries. His work is traditional in structural integrity, postmodernist in sonic plundering, and pan-modernist in its simultaneous expanding and shrinking of expectations.
One might expect this to present the more typical modern music problem of grammatical misunderstanding—where the listener must learn a composer’s grammar before grasping a composition, and then must re-hear the work with that grammatical understanding: That is, the how-do-I-listen? / just-listen! dichotomous dialog between composer and potential listener is anticipated.
And here is where Creshevsky’s use and amplification of familiar sound sources clarifies that dialog. The sounds—noises, even—that are part of the listener’s environment help to internalize the music’s substance before the disassociation from meaning takes place. In other words, the metaphor exists before it is heard, and long before it is grasped. The double mystery again.
Once this amplification has begun, it magnifies itself. The composition’s melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, architecture—indeed, all the traditional elements of composition that Creshevsky uses freely and unabashedly—step forward over the clutter of noises. And on a further listening, the piece becomes familiar and the noises step forward over the musical formalities.
Rather than a struggle ensuing, the magnification is synergistic, melding so that the composition may no longer live in an independent, orchestration-free world of the Renaissance consort or the Baroque keyboard. The grunts and groans must be where they are; the subsequent noises inherit their positions from the previous. This magnified realism becomes unique to each composition in the underground and over-flight views.
It is not a way of composing that enchants the critical world. To the careless, Creshevsky’s music can be seen as a one-trick pony—here comes that string of noises again, outlining and then invading traditional forms.
If that were so, then this music would not find its way into dreams. We whistle the cheap and analyze the obscure, but suspect the engaging. How is it we can like this music? Why do we awaken with Noah Creshevsky in our minds?
I spend my life singing, and presenting new music. People often ask what are my criteria for choosing a composer with whom to work. The best answer I have come up with is this: You can teach almost any musically talented person to make music that sounds like music; what interests me are people who make music that sounds like themselves. Noah Creshevesky is certainly a composer whose music sounds like no other.
Noah is working on a new piece.
Noah sends in the list of courses he would like to teach next term. Without looking I know ear training will be there. He believes in its importance in training young musicians and is our ace ET teacher.
One year I decide to commute to school in my minivan. Noah and I ride back to Manhattan together twice a week. We gossip about everything under the sun.
Someone calls the music office with an invitation to a filming at the Kitchen of a documentary on John Cage. Noah and I round up a bunch of students, pile into my van, and head uptown. Following performances of several works, Cage is joined by Merce Cunningham to answer questions from the audience. I bought a copy of the documentary, which I show every semester in my intro to music class, pausing when the camera pans over the audience to point out my friend Noah who is sitting in the middle of the first row.
Noah is working on another new piece.
Noah gives me a copy of his latest CD. I add it to my already impressive Creshevsky collection. He tells me that one of the pieces, Talea, came out of a conversation we had about a medieval compositional practice of organizing a borrowed melody. For Noah, the whole world of ideas, sounds, and experiences is a potential source of inspiration and he encourages the same openness in his students. Two annual awards that recognize student composers whose works exhibit cross-cultural influences and continue the experimental traditions of John Cage were established and anonymously funded by Noah.
We are on winter break. I join the hordes heading to the sunny Caribbean where the competition for lounge chairs on the beach is fierce. Noah goes for a cruise through the Norwegian fjords and returns to describe scenes of majesty and timeless tranquility.
One of the worst days of my life. On Friday the chancellor has announced an early retirement incentive. On Monday Noah submits his letter of resignation and by Wednesday has emptied out his office.
Noah occasionally comes out to the college for a concert, but we mainly keep in touch by phone and e-mail. I have saved all his e-mails and periodically re-read them when my spirits need lifting. Like e.e. cummings, he never uses capitals.
Noah is coming by for lunch and to visit my cats. He arrives with a bag of goodies from Balducci's. He totally charms my antisocial but glamorous cat Sophie, who lets him carry her around in his arms.
Noah and I encounter each other at a concert. We catch up on things and he asks about my cat Sophie.
I talk to Noah on the phone. He reports he is in his studio all day working on a new piece.
I came to know Noah Creshevsky in the very best way one composer can encounter another – through his music. Reviewing one of his CDs, I discovered a world I had never before experienced, even imagined. Here were sounds that hadn't occupied the same musical space, now somehow co-existing, and creating an integrated music that seemed to transcend style, time, and place. It was one of the most imaginative and natural uses of technology for aesthetic aims I’d heard, and it gave me hope that electro-acoustic music was not forever doomed to be a marginalized subset of the art music world. And there was pleasure, athletic joy, and a sly wit throughout; the music never took itself too seriously, even when carving out new territories for all of us to follow.
arly on after meeting in the flesh, Noah mentioned to me that he was a hermit. Well, if he is, he’s certainly one of the most sociable around. I find him a man of enormous good spirit, generosity, and life-loving kindness. I'm honored to be a friend, I am so happy to wish him a happy 60th birthday, with perhaps the greatest pleasure being I know that he is just warming up, to astonish us further with his upcoming work.
I’ve known Noah for more than 20 years and think about him in a few different ways. As a composer/musician, as a friend and as a colleague. First as a composer: Noah integrates that often rare combination of creativity and technique that allows him to achieve his compositional goals with every work he completes. His work is principally in the area of electroacoustic music. Early works dealt with recording sound samples on tape from records, radio or other tape sources. These samples were manipulated by standard techniques of cutting, splicing, looping and changing speed etc. Pieces of tape ranging from very small (less than ½ inch) to very long (several feet) were assembled. There would be several hundred or more of these pieces of tape. All had to be organized and assembled into a coherent whole. This process was always accomplished with great skill and aesthetic integrity. Noah never liked electronic sound i.e. the sound of oscillators. He followed in the original tradition of the Musique Concrete of the French Studios of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri rather than that of the Electronic Music of the Cologne Studios of Herbert Eimert, Robert Beyer and Karlheinze Stockhausen.
When digital systems evolved Noah became interested in sampler technology with computer control. Generally MIDI systems approach music from the starting point of pitch, which for many electroacoustic music composers, or for that matter any composers, that is the last rather than first component in a composition. Therefore, historically MIDI has a greater appeal in popular music than it has in contemporary art music. Sometimes a composer looks at a certain technology and sees it in a way that is not how it was designed. This is the case with Noah and samplers. He assembles several hundreds or more of pre-recorded sounds and imports them into the samplers. Pitch assignments have no relevance e.g. C4 (middle C) could be the sound of a violin glissando (with no connection to middle C) in Noah’s sound world. The focus is on sound not pitch. His approach is one of the most imaginative I’ve experienced in all of MIDI implemented music and, in fact, all of electroacoustic music. The result of this intensive and vast world of samples is the creation of “super” ensembles that can do things that could not be done with acoustic ensembles. This is what Noah has called Hyperrealism.
As a friend, Noah has offered guidance, advice, support and always humor. Dinner in Chinatown is best when ordering is left up to the master and there will never be a disappointment. Discussion outside of music is very interesting. I have not known too many composers who were interested in sports events. However, one time we were talking about nothing in particular and I mentioned something about the Olympics and asked Noah if he liked sports. I expected a negative response but it was not the case. He said, “Yes, one sport”. “Which one?” I asked. He said, “Professional boxing”. I was surprised by this answer for no particular reason that I could think of at the time. But I suppose I thought that composers would prefer games where strategy was central. Not knowing much about boxing, I realize that there may be strategy involved but it seems so violent to me that it does not appeal. I asked him why he liked boxing and he said because of the violence. Noah could always be counted upon for the unexpected.
As a colleague, students came first and his devotion to teaching was unparalleled. If a student struggled with theory or ear training he would offer additional help even to the point of calling students at home. Students always imitate teachers. If a teacher has characteristic mannerisms students sometimes take the imitation to a great degree. Noah has some unique mannerisms. Several years ago three students, Matthew, Mark and Paul were taking a class with Noah and may have been wrestling with a concept. For fun and mischief, these students would call each other at night and, claiming to be Noah Creshevsky, might say, “Mark, this is Noah Creshevsky, and I am calling to let you know that you are not doing well and are failing your theory class which will not be good for your future”. The string of mischief went on for months and since they were quite adept at imitating their teacher’s voice on the phone it was often very convincing to the one receiving the call. One evening Noah called Matthew and said, “Matthew, this is Noah Creshevsky calling and I wanted to discuss your work in the class”. Matthew responded, “Yeah right, I know it’s you Mark, stop fooling around I’m trying to go to sleep”. Noah responded, “But Matthew, this is Noah Creshevsky”. Matthew, “quit f____ing around, Mark, I don’t wanna do this tonight”. Noah, “But Matthew this is Noah Creshevsky”. Matthew, “Screw it…OK, OK NOAH CRESHEVSKY, just let me tell you something…whenever I sit in class I look at you and I think to myself what a beautiful, bald head you have…I would love to get up and walk over to you right in class and rub my hand on your beautiful, bald head…so smooth…I bet it feels great…so what do you think of that?” Noah “But…But…Matthew, How can this be?” Matthew, “What??? This is really Noah. Oh my God, what have I done…?”
Noah was on the receiving end of the unexpected.
Hyperrealism, providing the unexpected, receiving the unexpected…the many years Noah spent in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College were vibrant, exciting, interesting and full of the unexpected for the students, faculty and all of his colleagues. It has been and continues to be a great pleasure to know my friend, Noah Creshevsky.