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Entering the 21st Century with Kitty Brazelton

In the quest to discover the music of the 21st century, a great place to start is this recording of five works by Kitty Brazelton, even though all of them were composed in the final years of the 20th century. But just as historians frequently state that the 20th century really only began in earnest with the onslaught of the First World War, it also ended earlier than expected with the fizzling out of the Cold War and the subsequent emergence of a world where nothing seems so certain anymore. And just as the music of the 20th century reflected the geopolitics of the 20th century with all its competing -isms attempting to overthrow previous notions of how order could be established, the music at the dawn of the 21st century is a borderless powder keg.

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Unlike any other new music in the past, this new music of the 21st century is being advanced as much by women composers as men composers. A deeper plunge into its origins reveals that the seeds for this music were planted in the 20th century and can be traced back to the Women's Rights Movement in the late 1960s and the subsequent emergence of a generation of women composers not beholden to any of the dogmatic -isms of 20th century music, all of which were created by men. Growing up during this empowering time, Kitty Brazelton started jamming, leading bands (as vocalist and songwriter) and writing chamber music in the early '70s.

Brazelton's past three decades of music creation demonstrate her ability to bypass the "isms": her '70s group Musica Orbis wove medieval plainchant into free jazz, folk song, "George Crumb classical" and acid rock while her '80s band Hide The Babies plumbed arena rock and heavy metal for inspiration, her '90s nine-piece 'rockestra' Dadadah fused charted song structures with improvisation while Hildegurls, her late '90s recasting of a Hildegard von Bingen morality play with fellow women composer/performers Eve Beglarian, Lisa Bielawa and Elaine Kaplinsky, became a Lincoln Center sensation. Brazelton's current project, the "digital-chamber-punk band" What Is It Like To Be A Bat?, employs fixed- and real-time computer-generated materials in live performance.

"Music is a living language spoken between listeners and music-makers," Brazelton says. "Like any language, despite the solidifying effect of notation and recordings, music evolves. We don't segregate our increasingly multilingual music-listening, and we can't primly parse out our music-making, either. We can't say what needs to be said in languages that no longer reflect the way we live."

For Kitty Brazelton and other composers of her generation and beyond, there is no longer an uptown or a downtown, no hermetically-sealed classical music and no must-be-shied-away from pop music, and there's no longer a clear dividing line between the irrefutable will of a composer and the dutiful obeisance of a performer. Brazelton, like many of these new composers, is a composer-performer and is equally at home writing a string quartet or playing in a punk rock band.

Kyle Gann describes the music of these composers as totalist, since it embraces the totality of music-making possibilities. Another appellation, "21st-century schizoid music," implies the unpredictability and volatility of this multiple-personality music. In true schizoid fashion, this music can appear in many guises as it does in the five works by Kitty Brazelton featured on this disc which range from an experimental duo for the unlikely combination of cello and alto sax, to a multi-movement suite for a standard classical brass quintet, which is ultimately unlike anything else in the brass quintet literature.

Brazelton composed Come Spring! for the Manhattan Brass Quintet in 1996 after MBQ hornist Greg Evans, while subbing in Brazelton's Dadadah, asked her what her "serious" music was like. In response she created a work that somehow blends ingredients from Morton Feldman, James Brown, Howard Hanson, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin and even Elliott Carter into a sound world entirely her own.

In Brazelton's description of the "riff-centric" first movement, Dogwood Petals & Hormones, she ponders: "Why doesn't the rock world recognize a wall of brass is as hormonal as a Marshall stack?" "Dogwood Petals & Hormones" is an exuberant challenge to that question featuring the brass instruments in contours that run the gamut from psychedelic trip-out harmonic ambiguity to heavy metal unison blaring.

The "groove-centric" tri-partite second movement, Miles Through an Open Window, begins with an intense extended-technique French horn solo called "what you think you might be hearing," which Brazelton, in characteristic polyglot fashion, describes as a "funk haiku" in the score. It leads directly into "when you were sure it WAS what you heard" in which short polyrhythmic bursts from the other four brass players come across as a West African tuned drum ensemble against the wailing of the horn, which Brazelton in the score, requests to sound like a "snare drum." In the concluding section, "hearing it again later in your mind," the horn and tuba are actually literally transformed into percussion instruments: the players are instructed to quietly tap their nails on the resonant part of their instruments' bells.

The "voice-centric" third movement Harmonic Fable, which is also tri-partite, merges a bebop-like riff with a majestic contrapuntal setting of the Gregorian hymn "Pange Lingua." Lest we become misled by this sudden incursion of medieval spirituality, Brazelton, a self-described "21st-century infidel," labels the three inner sections "animism," "the rise of the church" and "we shoot the moon and return to our keen animal state."

Brazelton describes the "party-centric" final movement, First Second Seder at the Knitting Factory as "a rave-up in the truly punky attitude of NYC." The title is a reference to the Manhattan alternative music club originally located on Houston Street, between SoHo and the East Village. In 1994-96, club owner Michael Dorf threw annual "Second Seder" feasts for the musician community who helped tear down the walls that divided various genres of music throughout the 20th century. The movement combines jazz-like improvisation with strictly notated polyrhythms culminating in a euphoric group scream (MBQ's idea).

R, completed in its current incarnation in 1998, has gone through multiple compositional transformations. The original idea dates back to a 1987 MIDI computer improvisation sounding like "stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences." After Brazelton played it for the lead guitarist of her then band Hide The Babies, he was mystified since it was unlike any of the tightly-scripted three-minute ABABCBBB rock songs she had been writing. Seven years later, Brazelton morphed the piece into a Serenade for Viola, Guitar and Bongos premiered by Jay Kauffman at Roulette with Gregor Kitzis and Steven Swartz in 1994. After the premiere, still unsatisfied, Brazelton doubled some of the voicings in the score adding a double-bass to deepen the guitar and a textless vocal line, which she sings on the present recording, making the viola melody (played on a five-string violin by Lyris Hung for this recording) more haunting and mysterious. The result comes across as a bizarre half-dreamed lullaby, halfway between the magic realism of Claude Vivier and surreal exotica of Yma Sumac.

Sonar Como Una Tromba Larga (To Sound Like a Great Waterspout) for trombone and tape (1998) was created expressly for the multifaceted Chris Washburne, a founding member of Brazelton's Dadadah, whose musical passions include Latin jazz and complex microtonal contemporary scores. As a result, this musical answer to what would happen if a Vulcan mind-meld were performed on Mario Davidovsky and Willie Colón is filled with quarter-tones, angular phrases, glissandos, squeals and salsa-like rhythms. The tape part was created at the Columbia University Computer Music Center from the sounds of Chris playing the trombone as well as his in-between playing commentary and even the sound of his breathing (which is electronically transformed into an extraordinarily beautiful chordal sequence at the very beginning of the piece). The result is a four-dimensional sonic portrait of Washburne, one of today's most vital musicians.

The title Called Out Ol' Texas (1994) is an anagram for "alto sax cello duet." Created for another Dadadah-an, saxophonist Danny Weiss, to "prove that these two instruments and their performance practices could co-exist in the New World," Called Out Ol' Texas is the most conceptually-oriented piece included on this disc. Based on four core interactive visual models—a circle pierced by a ray, a figure in a square ground, interlocking angles, and homogeneous and heterogeneous lines—the score uses George Crumb-like experimental notation arranged visually rather than traditionally on the page to encourage an intuitive approach that aurally conveys those four visual images. The resulting "comprov," a term Brazelton borrowed from composer and friend Butch Morris, whose music blurs the line between composition and improvisation, is an exciting interplay of contrasting ideas enhanced by the unusual timbral combination of cello and saxophone.

Sonata for the Inner Ear, a three-movement octet composed in 1999 for the Los Angeles-based totalist music ensemble California EAR Unit and premiered by them at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, is a deconstructive homage to classical sonata form. Brazelton describes the work, scored for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, marimba, expanded drum set and two keyboardists performing on piano, electric organ and sampler, as a "triptych offering a trilateral view of a large oceanic instrumental group as it makes its way through the musical plankton or micro-nutrients of two musical motives." The three movements—Exposition, Development and Recapitulation "can be played in sequence with or without pauses or separately as stand-alone pieces."

Exposition begins with a Bartókian theme initially played by the flute that grows into ensemble polyrhythms. A frenetic chain of sextuplets dissolves into a concertino-like piano passage evocatively described in the score as "rabbit ragtime" which eventually ushers in a quadruple-forte metrically-shifting organum, the bridge and energy center of the entire movement. A quiet jazz-like bass clarinet emerges as a second theme only to be interrupted by cascading descending sequences from the entire ensemble at full blast, drawing the movement to a riveting conclusion.

Development incorporates semi-improvised solos by each of the players in various instrumental combinations. Opening with an unaccompanied drum set improvisation, the tension then shifts for a violin improvisation with a fully-notated accompaniment from the drum set and the keyboards followed by an accompanied bass clarinet improvisation introducing the cello and marimba. An electric organ improv, reminiscent of Procol Harem and other late '60s proto-prog rock bands dissolves into a "rabbit ragtime" piano cadenza homage to the late jazz pianist Don Pullen. Two short fugues surround an intense unison run between the marimba and drum set that ought to move fans of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the edges of their seats. A mostly-notated cello solo filled with agitated multi-stops is ultimately succeeded by a peaceful flute solo embellished with improvised whistletones.

Recapitulation opens with an improvised solo for sampler featuring samples drawn from the California EAR Unit's out-takes, which creates a historical portrait of the group. The remainder of the movement, following true sonata form, reintroduces the themes established in the Exposition but slightly altered. Comments in the score—such as "Mislead your audience: cross the wrong bridge—or is it?"—reveal the fun Kitty Brazelton must have had composing this.

Philip Glass has said that while in the past you'd always know what to expect from a so-called "new music" concert, nowadays anything is possible. In the new "new music," the infectious pulses of minimalism are reconciled with the angularities of serialism, the rigors of old-fashioned counterpoint co-exist with the spontaneity of improvisation and indeterminacy, and the catchy tunes and grooves of rock are woven into a musical language that is too unsettling to be dismissed as crossover. This is the music of post-post-modernism where elements from different sources are no longer pitted against each other to create new contexts, but rather where elements from different sources are absorbed as equally valid parameters within a new, larger musical thesaurus. Kitty Brazelton's music is essential to defining our 21st-century lexicon.

—Frank J. Oteri


 Come Spring! (1996)
  1. Dogwood Petals & Hormones [6:40]
  2. Miles Through the Upstairs Window [5:40]
  3. Harmonic Fable [6:04]
  4. First Second Seder at the Knitting Factory [3:48]
The Manhattan Brass Quintet: Wayne duMaine & Kevin Cobb, trumpets; Gregory Evans, horn; Michael Seltzer, trombone; Stephen Foreman, tuba. Recorded at Sorcerer Sound June 1998, by Silas Brown. Edited & composited by Silas Brown with the help of the quintet. Produced by Lyris Hung.


 R (1989-1998) [6:13]
Lyris Hung, 5-string violin; Jay Kauffman, guitar; Kitty Brazelton, voice; Mat Fieldes, double bass; Danny Tunick, bongos. Recorded at Master Sound, Astoria, April 1998, by David Merrill & Hugo Dwyer. Mixed by Kitty Brazelton & David Merrill. Edited & composited by Hugo Dwyer.


 Sonar Como Una Tromba Larga (1998) [10:34]
Chris Washburne, trombone; soundtrack created by Kitty Brazelton at Columbia University Computer Music Studio in 1998. Recorded at Joe Music, August 2001, mixed & edited by Hugo Dwyer.


 Called Out Ol' Texas (1994) [7:32]
Danny Weiss, alto saxophone; Dan Barrett, 'cello. Recorded live in concert at Roulette Intermedium, December 1994, & edited by Hugo Dwyer.


 Sonata for the Inner Ear (1999)
  • Exposition [4:35]
  • Development [11:16]
  • Recapitulation [5:52]
The California EAR Unit: Dorothy Stone, flute; Marty Walker, bass clarinet; Robin Lorentz, violin; Erika Duke, cello; Vicki Ray, piano, organ & sampler (samples are taken from EAR Unit out-takes); Amy Knoles, extended drum kit; John Magnussen, marimba. Recorded by Scott Fraser at his studio in Glendale, CA, July 2001. Mixed, edited & composited by Kitty Brazelton & Scott Fraser.
Mastered by Hugo Dwyer.
Produced by Kitty Brazelton.

Design: Lost in Brooklyn Studio
Photos: Ebet Roberts
Additional art (sculpture and drawings): Jon Isherwood

Funding for these recordings has been made possible through the Aaron Copland Fund for Recording and the Mary Flagler Cary Trust. All rights reserved © 2002, Catherine Bowles Brazelton and Snicim Vinahel (ASCAP).
Kitty speaks with her hands

Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the editor of NewMusicBox, the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award-winning Web magazine from the American Music Center

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