Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Music Feature, Part 2- James Young

It's been a while since I've posted (I'd actually forgotten the log-in, so what does that tell you?), but I thought it was worth commemorating our 15th follower! We've finally expanded to the point where I don't even know each of our followers personally, which is a new level of celebrity for me. I'd like to continue with part 2 of our new music series, featuring three piano pieces by James Young. For those of you unfamiliar with this feature, I encourage you to check out the first part, where I review a piece by Nat Evans. (I could also refer you to the two or three posts wherein I ranted about getting this feature started, but we're here, so why quibble?) 

In the interest of full disclosure, some background. James and I went to U of L together, where I was continually in awe of his intelligence, sensitivity, and musical intuition. We spent many a night ranting over the confining nature of the modern concert space, and I consider him a close friend and one of the best musical minds I've had the pleasure of working with. He's now at the super fancy Peabody Conservatory, and has just finished his first year of DMA work. I'm writing today about three piano pieces he gave me the first summer I taught in college; I thought it'd be interesting to have my students talk to a real live composer (and Boulez has like a three year waiting list). James shared his time and ideas with my students, who liked these pieces (more or less).*

The first piece, "Game," is structured on three groups of staves. Like Stockhausen's Kalvierstücke 11, the pianist can select from which grouping s/he choses to play from. In James's piece, the pianist begins with one pitch, and then selects the next fragment from the top grouping. Once the pianist plays the groups a set number of times, they move onto the second group, and so on. The fragments get progressively more complicated, but if one listens carefully, one can hear the initial pitch return like an aural anchor throughout the work. The beauty of its work lies in its nature as fragments; despite the fact that my students would inexorably label the music as "random," each gesture is written so that it seems a logical reaction to what came before, and to what follows. In fact, each fragment would probably be worth exploring and developing, so compelling is each idea. I wish that I had multiple interpretations to compare, in order to better realize the potential of the piece's changing nature.

I find myself compelled to criticize the second piece, the evocatively titled "Large Black Window." The voice leading could at times be smoother (for example, in the beginning measures, an E and D changes places, with one becoming the melody note and the other the inner voice, in subsequent measures. To be fair, it looks more awkward than it sounds). There could be greater differentiation between harmonic and melodic elements (or the melodic could come to the fore more prominently sooner), and the syncopated chords at the end don't seem to grow from the earlier music (if that is indeed even relevant aesthetically). This is all by way of hedging, and I fear, like the Queen in Hamlet, that I doth protest too much. I really like this piece. The harmonies are colorful yet accessible and the overall structure of the piece supports its drama, realizing the upward expanding ideas latent in the first bars of the piece. In a purely sonic sense, I find it truly beautiful. If postmodernism is nothing more than accessible modernism, then this piece is postmodernism at its finest. If the same is a blending of elements of a modernist language divorced from the modernist loathing of the moving, then this piece is still postmodernism at its finest. 

The final work, "Motion Machine," features the best aspects of a repetitively based, motoric rhythmic energy, with none of its downfalls (which, at this stage in music history, include lapsing into parody or failing to commit enough to achieve escape velocity for fear of repeating oneself). The main ostinato is perfectly proportioned; it isn't too long or repeated too often without a change in accents to bore. Again, this mix of modernist ideas and postmodern accessibility is at the heart of what makes these works good music. Couple this fact with the music's viscerality, its palpable sense of how fun it is to realize these works at the piano, and you have a maturity in writing for piano that belies James's young age.** I eagerly await his other works for the instrument, and fervently hope that he explores using a larger canvas.

Overall, I was struck with the use of space throughout all three works, both in the sense of utilizing the physical keyboard and between the various musical aspects. No doubt a sensitive performance helps immensely, but the breathing room between gestures in "Game" was just enough to let you absorb each idea without becoming ponderous. The same applies to "Large Black Window." After each arpeggiated chord, performer and composer left a moment to hear the entire sonority, and reveal in the play of overtones that makes the work so colorful. Conversely, the filling of the musical space so completely in "Motion Machine" makes that work a perfect end to the set.

At the risk of generalizing, these piano pieces seem more accessible than some of James's music, and can serve as an excellent introduction only to his music. They should also serve to bolster the supporters of new music, knowing that many talented composers and responsive performers have yet to be discovered. If this convinced you to seek out this music, I couldn't ask for anything more (and if James leaves a comment with his contact info, you can find out where to hear his stuff). And for all of those who I've promised I'd write about, I still intend to follow through. All the names are saved on a sticky note, which constitutes a written contract and will serve as a guarantee.*** Have a happy 4th of July!

* As a disclaimer, it's been that long since I've seen the scores, so if details are wrong, I beg forgiveness, and hope James will rectify them with a comment.

** Hand to God, I didn't originally intend this pun, but it's well worth keeping.

***This does not actually constitute a written contract.


  1. John. Thank you for the words. Your recollection of events is more or less what I remember.

    Some history? These shorts (composed Summer 2009) were originally written as a break from thinking about my thesis, a diversion. Strangely enough, the trio has traveled a long way into influencing my language today.

    Your take on the pieces, John, is as good as I could have given. They represent three ways at looking at the same problem (in a brute force sort of way without development).

  2. Hi James,

    I'm thrilled you like the post, and I'm sorry to the delay in responding. I would be interesting in having you elaborate on how the music has influenced your language, and some more on your very last comment. Do you have any similar pieces in the works?