Bebe Barron (1925-2008) With her husband Louis, Bebe worked with John Cage on the Project for Magnetic Tape and composed the landmark soundtrack to the film Forbidden Planet, which exposed millions to electronic music. Pioneers of circuit-bending and of the kitchen sink-approach to electronic music, the Barrons (pictured below) were willing to try anything to make new and unusual sounds, including building self-destructing circuits. “Prepare your minds for a new scale of scientific values…” and see some of Forbidden Planet.
Henry Brant (1913-2008) A 20th century pioneer of heterogeneous ensembles and acoustic spatialization, Brant took the concept of antiphonal performance (think brass choirs in opposite balconies during the time of Giovanni Gabrieli) to new heights: His oratorio, Wind, Water, Clouds & Fire, calls for three women’s choruses, a children’s chorus, woodwinds, six trumpets, percussion, harp, piano, ten violins, and organ. Several years ago, the Seattle Flute Society performed Brant’s “Ghosts and Gargoyles” for flute ensemble; flutists ringed Town Hall’s main hall. The music, a kind of glacial, surround-sound Gregorian chant, was captivating.
Tristram Cary (1925-2008) A pioneer and fine composer of electronic music, Cary co-designed one the great synths of the analog age, the EMS VCS 3. Unfortunately the documentary, “What The Future Sounded Like,” which features Cary prominently, has been removed from youtube. Here’s a more in-depth obituary.
Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) Apart from his essential role in West Coast jazz, the reedman helped pioneer freely improvised music with his ill-fated 1962 album Free Fall. The trio that recorded Free Fall - Giuffre, bassist Steve Swallow, and pianist Paul Bley - disbanded soon after a gig that earned each member 35 cents apiece for a set. Alas, wages for experimental music makers have hardly risen since.
Too many amazing musicians have died recently. To cheer myself up, I watched an episode of The Subject is Jazz with pianist Billy Taylor and composer George Russell. Scan ahead to the six minute mark for “Concerto for Billy the Kid,” which features pianist Bill Evans and remains one of Russell’s best pieces. It’s also a treat to see the underrated trombonist Jimmy Cleveland.
“Billy” showcases Russell’s gift for making tightly scripted pieces that nonetheless welcome unusual timbres: Note that the drummer continually hits the nipple of the cymbal (near the nut) for a high, ringing tone; Cleveland’s tiny polyphonic emendations around 6’40”; and, at the first piano break, Bill Evans doubles his part two octaves up for a bell-like sound.
I also like how Evans’ one-hand solo at 8’30” - unusual for the absence of left hand comping - thins out the overall texture. By contrast, trumpeter Art Farmer’s marvelous bit at 10’03” cuts through a denser field: a ride cymbal and passages injected by the trombone and saxophone.
Alas, the bass and guitar (guitarist Barry Galbraith falls behind in the first section) remain mostly inaudible in this clip; to really hear the work’s polyrhythmic frisson, find the out of print Jazz Workshop recording released in 1990 on RCA or the cheaper import disc “Complete Bluebird Recordings.”
And yes, the host of The Subject of Jazz, Gilbert Seldes, is a tad stuffy, but when the program aired in 1958, jazz and other improvised musics had yet to win recognition as a field worthy of respect and serious study. Seldes was fighting the good fight.