A Companion to Slug #12 *
Frog Peak Newsletter
PEAK PICKS (contents)
* New Frog Peak Artists: Rzewski, Vierk, Kennedy, Goldstein
* New Frog Peak Items and Rounds Unbound
* Frog Peak Mills Prize Winners
* Frog Speak: David Mahler, Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky
NEW FROG PEAK ARTISTS: Rzewski, Vierk, Kennedy, Goldstein
Frog Peak welcomes four important experimental and visionary composers and performers: Frederic Rzewski, Lois Vierk, John Kennedy, and Malcolm Goldstein. For listings of their new Frog Peak materials, please visit the individual artist web pages at http://www.frogpeak.org.
SPECIAL FEATURES: New Items and Rounds Unbound
New items from Michael Byron, Cold Blue Music, Philip Corner, Kyle Gann, Peter Garland, Malcolm Goldstein, Daniel Goode, John Kennedy, Lou Harrison, David Mahler, Larry Polansky, Wendy Reid, Frederic Rzewski, Paul Schick, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Charles Shere, Lois Vierk and Gayle Young. For a complete list of new frog peak items, please visit our designated web page at http://www.frogpeak.org/newitems.html
Rounds Unbound is a collection of rounds by Frog Peak and other composers, including an anti-war round by Frederic Rzewski. The round collection is curated by Larry Polansky, and is part of the Frog Peak UNBOUND on-line editions at http://www.frogpeak.org/unbound.
FROG PEAK MILLS PRIZE WINNER
The Frog Peak Music Award at Mills College for community-building in music went to Seth Warren and Sean Clute. Previous winners are listed at http://www.frogpeak.org/fpprojects/millsprize.html
FROG SPEAK: Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky; David Mahler
Listen to the co-directors of Frog Peak Music in an interview recorded for New Hampshire Public Radio at http://www.nhpr.org/node/8778
"The Peterson" by David Mahler
For years I have held all composer grant and award competitions to a simple standard: would Tom Peterson have a chance of winning? Too frequently Tom didn't have a ghost of a chance. Recently I decided to create an award that, when all votes are counted, Tom should win. Worthy Composer Who Doesn't Stand a Chance is the award's name, or, The Peterson, for short.
But don't vote for Tom Peterson. He just died.
Elections have been won by dead people before, including Mel Carnahan, Missourian who defeated John Ashcroft, his living if not lively opponent for a U.S. Senate seat in 2000. But as a general rule (Carnahan excepted), electing a dead person is a bad idea.
So don't vote for Tom Peterson. Besides, you don't know enough about him. It's no shame. Tom was a composer, not a publicist. How could you know that Thomas Elliot Peterson was Seattle born, a trombonist in the Youth Symphony, studied in Vienna, and obtained a doctorate at the University of Washington, writing his dissertation on The Music of Carl Ruggles? And I'd be surprised if you knew that Tom taught at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, and at Seattle University, or that, aside from sporadic performances, he lived a solitary musical existence in Seattle, not associated with any institution for the past thirty-five years. You might not even be aware that Tom became a Frog Peak composer a couple seasons ago. Then, on December 26, 2005, a few months shy of seventy-five round trips, Tom died.
If you promised Tom your vote he wouldn't promise anything in return except a glass of beer. It would be good beer, most likely a double bock from Germany. Maybe you'd meet at Bill's Off Broadway, or that raucous punk bar on Jackson, or the solicitous Coastal Kitchen, or the Athenian Inn at the Market, where one time Tom gazed out the window at mist darkened Post Alley down to ferry lights on Elliott Bay and said, as though it were enough to build a life around, "I like this view." Or perhaps you'd wait for him some rainy night at the inexplicable Sun Ya bar where they served Optimator, and where Tom was surely the only patron who ordered it. You'd wait for Tom, and here he comes, as always in his useful dark raincoat covering his eternal suit jacket, face alive at the sight of you, left hand raised toward you in recognition, still clutching the newspaper he used as umbrella (free at any trash receptacle or park bench), right hand clasping a ten year old University Bookstore plastic bag, protecting his pencil score you'd soon spend some beers looking at.
Good beer lost out to good tea in Tom's last years. Preferred venue was a block down and a steep hill up from Tom's Bush Hotel one roomer, at The Tea House, Panama Hotel in Seattle's International District.
(The International District is known as the I.D. When my wife Julie first met Tom he required a ride home. I asked Julie to drive him. "Where?" "ID." Several days later Julie told me that when they got into her car and Tom told her he lived on Jackson Street she was relieved. She thought I wanted her to drive Tom to Idaho.)
Tom was a time waster. Surely you don't want to give away your vote to one of those. He spent hours walking to no place in particular. If asked, Tom named walking as one of his hobbies. His other hobby, he responded to an inquisitor one night at dinner, was eating exotic meats. This is partly explained by his years in Montana, where most of Tom's faculty colleagues were hunters. Too, living in the I.D. for his last twenty years, Tom frequented Asian cafes that served stewed chicken feet, eel with garlic, shark fin soup, and sea cucumber. "How about fish head soup," Tom might ask at dinner, "say, with scallions, tomato and ginger? Or what about, let's say, fish lips in broth. Hmm?"
Tom and I wasted time together. Did we ever! Sustaining beverages accompanied us as we kept time waiting with our talk of counterpoint, Aas Bock, J.S. Bach, brass playing, bus service, Ruggles, Ives, Hans Leo Hassler, Seattle history, Brahms, notation, Ibsen, and choucroute garnie. Our conversations, like Tom's walking, went everywhere, nowhere. What shameless, wasted time we shared, fearless in the face of silences that would have left any goal driven conversation wrecked.
Have I said that Tom would not have wanted your vote, anyway? At least he wouldn't court it through his music. He bristled at the word "accessible." Two words he loved were "substance" and "effective." A worthy composer was one who "had something to say." After hearing a new work that was all show and no go, Tom would growl quietly to himself and then, gently: "I don't think he had much to say."
When Tom headed to his daily appointment with the muse, his mind took the stairs two at a time. He composed with clear, energetic intent. What he once said of a little speech I heard him give in Anne Focke's honor could apply to his music: "I said what I wanted to say."
Have you ever knowingly cast a vote for a quarter-tonist? Here's how Tom arrived at twenty-four to the octave. Like Schoenberg, Tom's old world antecedent, and like Ruggles, his U.S. reflection, Tom developed his own approach to dissonant harmony, and applied it consummately. In his early forties Tom came up short trying to express himself with his old pitch vocabulary. He purchased two battery powered mini Casio keyboards, cheap, but just what he wanted because they were tunable. In his hotel room, with the door locked and the volume low, he tuned one keyboard a quarter tone higher than the other, then physically placed it above the lower pitched instrument so his thick fingers could touch any combination of the tiny black and white keys. In such a way, hunched over runt synthesizers, Tom taught himself to recognize the quality of any two intervals sounded between the two keyboards, and gradually worked his way into three and four pitch harmonies. Vishnegradsky, Haba, Ives and Carrillo enriched his listening repertoire. He read extensively on his new found subject, purchased a scientific calculator for figuring ratios, puzzled over the best way of notating twenty-four to the octave, and began composing afresh.
Tom's interest was not in quarter tones as gimmick; he built a whole harmonic and contrapuntal theory around them. Aware of a recent resurgence in just intonation at the same time he started thinking in quarter tones, he was not bothered by the well temperedness of his new palate. For Tom, all systems of tuning had creative legitimacy. Twenty-four fed his imagination for the rest of his life.
Though a mere twitch of commotion, and not enough to disqualify him for The Peterson, Tom's closest brush with success came in the late 1970s. He received an NEA composer fellowship, and shortly after that a commission through King County Arts Commission, enough approbation to keep him going. His inclusion in the Frog Peak catalog was the next most cheering, ennobling event in a long, unknown life.
About Tom's music there are a few things I'll say. Tom's pieces hit the ground running and impress with their sustained ideas. His counterpoint is impeccable. I listen to his String Quartet with admiration, caught up in his extended thoughts. The first work of his I heard, the Trio Sonata for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon, introduced me to his trademark conversational rhythmic phrases, instinctively formed to blot out bar lines. Tension builds smartly in what few quarter- tone pieces of his I heard; he manipulates his expanded pitch arsenal to gain maximum dramatic effect. "Cannon Beach," the brief song Tom wrote for Ann Obery (who performed it tirelessly and with affection), is pure Tom-knotty, dissonant, lyrical, long wearing. The demanding monophonic counterpoint of "Design on B-A-C-H," written as part of Tom's treatise, Playing Trumpet in our Time, has been neatly tackled in its trombone version by, among others, Stuart Dempster and Peter Tomita.
Tom's music challenged performers. Because he had been a player, and apparently a good one, he expected much of anyone who took on one of his pieces. Technical challenges were the spinach of a growing musician. To overcome obstacles of a rhythmic, fingering, phrasing, and breathing nature was the mark of dedication to art as far as Tom was concerned. Difficult passages, when confronted with hard work, possessed curative powers. Yet I would never say Tom tried to write abstruse pieces on purpose. It's just that his music required concentration and dexterity to compose, and he assumed as much from the mind and body of the performer.
In all Tom's pieces he balanced careful planning with an explorer's sense of curiosity. The painter Kenneth Callahan said about his own paintings that his best work occurred when he stopped trying to illustrate what he already saw in his head. Tom composed like that. I remember him describing surprise, even awe at how a composition took on a life of its own. Following the lead of a piece once he started writing it brought out a bubbling excitement in Tom, as though he were a researcher on the brink of a breakthrough.
If it affects how you vote, there are aspects of Tom's music I don't warm up to. His pieces veer toward the fiercely dramatic. Tom's sense of form draws on oxford shoe classical style. There's no dismissing an old-fashioned heft to his tensions and releases. Too, he couldn't begin to understand Cage, and what Cage posited as Satie's form-driven-by-factors-other-than-harmony legacy, which seems to me vital to understanding much new composition. Tom was a Western culture chauvinist, and to the best of my knowledge harbored no interest in music from other traditions.
Personality? Character? Tom was brilliant, charming, witty, a conversational regaler. For a dinner guest there's never been a surer ticket. He was also stubborn, private to his own lasting disadvantage, mechanically incapable in a comic way (he never mastered how to put a cassette tape back in its plastic case, or how to attach or release a seat belt in a car), and not good at any composerly task besides putting mind to music and pencil to paper.
So what. Those traits fade in the genuine light of Tom's enthusiastic, lonely perseverance, his bid to apply rigor to quarter-tone writing, and his titanic, detailed understanding of Western music through the first decades of the twentieth century. For thirty years he was my deep source of history.
In my reminiscing about Tom I realize that, if you're a composer, you might be tempted to give your vote for The Peterson to yourself. That's okay. I understand. If, like Tom, you write and make music for pleasure and for the exploratory intrigue of the task, and in the process don't get much notice, you qualify. We all hold hands with our varied forebears, the intrepids and the joyful tryer-outers who warbled and woofed in differing states of anonymity. Like most of us who can't not compose, can't not make music, Tom collected, weighed, studied, and reconciled the musical pebbles within his reach, enfranchised them with his touch, then tossed them into the big pool. The ripples are small, but they spread a long way, last a long time.
Here's to Tom! Here's to us all!
* The current title of the frog peak newsletter is taken from the text of a Shaker song; "Slug" is one of many Shaker monikers for the Devil.
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