Modern Composition (Guillermo Klein, Tim Berne, Marc Ducret, Jason Moran)

In the past couple of months, the internet has offered a bounty of valuable articles about classical music, all at least somewhat interconnected:

Will Robin’s dissertation on “indie classical.” Unusually for a dissertation, this is a riveting read chronicling recent history.

A conversation with Paul Griffiths by Matt Mendez. I’ll have more to say about Griffiths on DTM in the future; Mendez impressed me very much with his liner notes to Peter Lieberson Vol.3, reviewed on DTM here.

Kevin Volans on the state of the modern classical composer. Some hated this but I found much food for thought, especially the detailing of government involvement in the careers of Boulez and Stockhausen and the crucial idea of “vocation.”

Philip Clark on the end of the great composer. Clark is onto something, but his attempt to take down Thomas Adès a peg or two is bewildering. (Probably best to chalk that up to some kind of byzantine perspective impossible to understand unless you come from England.)

Joshua Kosman’s rebuttal to the two above pieces. (Understandably, Thomas Adès tweeted approvingly of Kosman’s article.)

Joe Phillips looks at “indie classical” from the vantage point of race. Unsurprisingly, the news is not good. There’s something to be done here, a think piece going from Volans’s famous (and now perhaps dated) string quartet White Man Sleeps into Phillips’s essay….

“Reflection on Risk” by Ashley Fure. Darmstadt, a key town for 20th-century composition, is the provenance of this compelling analysis by a significant young composer.


Four recent releases by artists in the “jazz” category show how much modern improvising musicians are concerned with composition.


Anyone excited about the idea of “indie-classical” should rush to hear Guillermo Klein’s masterful Los Guachos, V. There’s all the tuneful rhythmic drive anyone could wish for, in this case seen through the prism of Argentinian folklore. Some of the greatest living jazz musicians are in the orchestra, so everything lays right, not least due to the presence of drummer Jeff Ballard.

There’s not so many improvised solos to be heard on V. Guitar hero Ben Monder gets to shred on “Si No Sabes 4/4” and Diego Urcola blows some tart trumpet on “Si No Sabes 9/8” but that’s about it. The focus is on detailed composition throughout.

However, Klein would not be able to get the effects he does without a committed band of heavyweights. Everyone has been in Los Guachos for years and years at this point. They honor the composer but they also play the music like leaders themselves.

Two suites dominate the disc. The first three pieces are a marvelous deconstruction of the changes to “Back Home Again in Indiana,” better known these days as “Donna Lee.” The second is a long exploration of a few key generative ideas in Suite Jazmin. (Speaking of dissertations: unpacking Klein’s compositional devices is a worthy topic for a talented scholar.)

Steve Reich is a common inspiration these days, but what makes the difference on V is Guillermo’s command of jazz harmony. More accurately, it is simply harmony: the movement of the 12 pitches through keys. V is where process and phase music needs to go! True masters of harmony like Klein — even Reich isn’t quite there on the harmonic tip — are needed to rescue post-minimalism (especially “indie classical”) from dead ending into banalities.

After the heady suites there’s a surprise, a straight cover of unconventional jazz icon Andrew Hill’s anthem “Ashes” that smoothly transitions into Klien’s own ballad “Quemando Velas.” This unlikely pairing shows the distance Klein is trying to cover with his personal conception of twisted romance.

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo’s for a long time. However this album might be the first one to really capture the magic of seeing the band live on a good night. Klein is also obviously still growing as a composer. The future awaits.


High modernism did its best to kill off the personality of the performer. God bless those specialists that strive to execute every dot, dash, and dynamic marking in Babbitt or Boulez.

Perhaps one of the most successful general uses of high modernism is in avant-garde jazz, where an improviser can summon a similar kind of discontinuity with off-the-cuff ease.

I asked Tim Berne how many originals he had recorded. He grunted and said, “I have no idea.” I’m going to guess it is about 250 pieces over the course of something like 40 records. Talk about a working-class composer! He just produces and produces his beautiful and crazy music.

There’s been an evolution in Berne’s artistry but there hasn’t been that much evolution. He’s a pure spirit.

Around Tim the bands change. Snake Oil with Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell, and Ches Smith is flexible chamber ensemble. High modernism is second nature to Mitchell, and Smith doubles on vibes and expanded percussion, so at times the group really has a “classical” kind of cast.

However, unlike some avatars like Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman, Berne would never tell his players how to select pitches to use while improvising. As a result, the “composition is begun when the players are selected,” as Duke Ellington might have said.

Berne’s latest record is the deluxe package Spare, which includes a burning CD of a ferocious live Snake Oil gig (hello, intoxicating Matt Mitchell solo rumination that opens the album!) alongside a thick book of photos by Berne and art by long-time collaborator Steve Byram.

It is a lovely punk coffee table book, but the music is what matters most. Listening I’m reminded of Tim’s vast influence. Hundreds of musicians play this way today: cadenzas, duos, and free-for-all improvs linking thorny material in suite-like fashion. Tim himself comes out of Julius Hemphill and the AACM, of course, but Berne’s own fierce set of solutions is what others others have emulated time and time again for so many decades now.


Certain musicians in Europe have been some of the strongest purveyors of high modernism in a jazz or improvised context. Thanks to Tim Berne, I’ve become aware of six recent CDs from brilliant guitarist Marc Ducret. The covers of Tower volumes one through four make a little interlinking art project when you lay them next to each other. Tower-Bridge is pair of live gigs from the related tour.

Everything is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada and the related short story “The Vane Sisters.” Ducret himself explains:

Marc Ducret Tower project

This project initiated in 2008 is an attempt at transposing in the musical world a short chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada”, in which the writer weaves a whole labyrinth made of mirrors, memories and correspondences, eventually building a form which in turn leads to his other books, themes and emotions. I wanted to use only musical means to “transcribe” this process, without having to quote excerpts of the book or literary explanations; therefore I chose to write music for three different bands, following the “design” of the mentioned chapter.

The first group, “Real Thing #1”, is a Franco-Danish quintet with Kasper Tranberg (trumpet), Matthias Mahler (trombone), Frédéric Gastard (bass saxophone), Peter Bruun (drums), and myself on guitar. The band performed its first concerts in a French-Swiss tour in May 2010. The music was recorded during two days in the middle of the tour and published by Ayler Records as “Tower vol. 1”. Since then the quintet has been presented by such festivals as Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Pori Jazz and Jazzdor Berlin. New concerts are planned on the first half of October 2013.

The second group, “Real Thing #2”, is a Franco-American quartet with Dominique Pifarély (violin), Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Tom Rainey (drums) and myself on guitar. The quartet toured in Germany, Luxemburg and France in September 2010. The band recorded “Tower vol. 2” at the Studio Sextant (Malakoff, France) during that tour.

Each of these two groups plays one half of the music; the third band, “Real Thing #3”, is a sort of “chamber” ensemble including Fidel Fourneyron, Alexis Persigan and Matthias Mahler, on trombones; Antonin Rayon on piano, Sylvain Lemêtre on percussion and myself on guitar. This group gives all the musical “solutions” to the first two halves played by #1 and #2, commenting their music and putting it into a new light. The sextet played for first time in October 2011 at Le Triton (Les Lilas, nearby Paris). “Tower vol. 3” will be recorded in December 2012 and published in the spring of 2013.

The three groups have played separate concerts and can also be superimposed, with endless possibilities of different arrangements of the same basic musical material – presented in the same concerts or in two evenings.

The whole Tower project reached a new dimension with the Tower-Bridge orchestra. This name has been given to the three groups together, i.e. twelve musicians playing extended versions of the whole music. The band was premiered at La Cave Dimière (Argenteuil) on November 9th 2012. The concert served as an opening for a tour consisting of ten concerts across France.

Marc Ducret, July 12th 2013

The albums are quite dissimilar in effect. This is a lot of music to digest, and my notes are merely first impressions:

Vol. 1 thrashes around with heavy drums and blistering guitar solos over odd-meter vamps. Ducret’s command of modernist composition is undeniable.

Vol. 2 Berne and Ducret are close associates, so this quartet with all-weather companion Tom Rainey makes sense from the get-go. The first thing we hear is about five minutes of subway background noise and feedback. Violinist Dominique Pifarély is a new name to me, but what a soulful player.

Vol. 3 is the most immediately charismatic disc of the bunch, and possibly the most through-composed. Berne told me he thought it was one of the greatest albums of recent times. The lack of conventional drums gives the icy sonorities an unusual transparency. Stravinsky’s Agon and Requiem Canticles come to mind (bells and trombones) and perhaps also the hocketing horns of Louis Andriessen.

Vol. 4 offers Ducret solo. The whole disc is fairly thorny and discontinuous until the end, a very brief cover of a Joni Mitchell tune, a superb WTF? moment.

Tower/Bridge combines all the musicians. While the scorching free-for-all moments are expected, it’s good to hear that the compositional integrity is maintained. The themes are clear and it is really fun to hear the interlocking vamps beefed up into a little big band.

Taken as a whole the series is entirely successful. As this music gets closer to classical composition it makes sense to create on a larger and larger canvas. I can’t think of anything else filed amongst my “jazz” records with the sort of ambition displayed by Marc Ducret’s Tower project. Bravo.


Jason Moran has been busy storming the castles. He’s been so impressive, winning awards, getting elite positions, connecting the dots.

Indeed, I was a little worried that he might be neglecting the piano. I’ve seen other great instrumentalists like Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis become a little less interesting after taking on the whole world.

A few months ago I went to the Park Avenue Armory — where, of course, Jason was curating a series of heavy concerts — to see his solo piano set. Frankly, I was astonished. This was one of the best solo piano gigs I’d ever seen. (Much better than Keith Jarrett’s at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks previously.)

Afterwards I joked to Jason, “Better put this out fast, before I steal some and release it first.” Well, The Armory Concert is out already as a download from Bandcamp, and I am definitely not listening to it much more: I just don’t have time to be swayed so easily by a charismatic contemporary.

Among other things, Jason impresses with a full set of original music that prizes organic development. Melodies and harmonies appear and reappear but the argument always moves forward. Actually, a fair comparison is Jarrett’s Facing You, which remains one of Keith’s greatest discs, and (as far as I know) the only Jarrett solo piano album that takes complex pre-conceived sketches as a starting point.

What separates Jason from the rest of the music on the above page is the Afro-American experience. I don’t think there needs to be black stuff in improvised music, but it certainly doesn’t hurt — although if you use it, you need to own it.

When Jarrett played a casual slow blues at Carnegie Hall, it sucked. At the time I thought it wasn’t just the innate laziness of the pianist that was the problem: the glorious full concert Steinway on a major stage was also the problem.

The canonical Philadelphia drummer Donald Bailey once told me, “I don’t like grand pianos. Upright pianos are better for jazz.”

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s true the music of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell is not conceived for elite concert situations. They sound great on a concert grand in a big hall, of course, but they sound just as great or even better on an upright in a noisy club.

(Undoubtedly Keith would sound great playing the blues in somebody’s living room at a party. Getting him there to do it would be the only problem.)

At the Armory Jason had some serious Steinway to work with. He even tweeted the number: 415. Jason really has to double-down to play the blues on that motherfucker, and delivers the goods on a lacerating “South Side Digging.”

On the other hand, “All Hammers and Chains” is in the style of a relentless Ligeti etude, a feat of virtuosity that was undoubtedly aided by a piano that gave so much back.

Among other projects, Jason has begun a magazine about jazz: LOOP. There are only 500 copies, so I ordered mine before spreading the word.

It’s really a little art mag, with much attention to photography and layout. Indeed, the highlight may be Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s utterly disarming essay about the boutique black men’s clothing store Tacuma runs in Philadelphia. Other contributors include Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Matana Roberts, Greg Tate, Walter Smith, J.D. Allen, Eric Revis, and Kendrick Scott. I read LOOP avidly: when I set it down, I was only disappointed that there wasn’t much more. Fortunately, it says “Issue No. 1” on the cover.