When Robert Ashley died on Monday, March 3, 2013 he left in his wake a handful of musical artists who helped to transform American music in the mid-20th century. Bob passed peacefully at his long-time home in downtown New York City. He was 83 years old.
One of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood musical artists of our time, Bob Ashley’s reputation fell within the narrow confines of what has been called “New Music,” a term as misunderstood as his work. Greatly influenced by John Cage, Ashley was part of a generation of musical artists to challenge the supremacy of the corporate symphonic establishment and create singular works that he performed with other selected musical artists. He also created works for variable ensembles, those with the vision – and guts –to engage him. But for those with truly open ears it is the musical form known as Opera that will define his legacy.
Throughout his long active life Ashley created unique American “Operas.” Of course his operas baffle most average opera-goers. “Where’s the melody”, they usually ask, bewildered by the loss of traditional characters that prance around stages filled with archaic ornaments. The melody is always there wrapped around the natural flow of the narrative voice. All one has to do is listen carefully and the magic of melodic invention reveals itself. The complex compositional methods he developed for his operas yields a rich narrative flow elegantly “sung” by Bob and his collaborators using a form of Americanized sprechstimme – “sing-speech” created by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples in the early years of the 20th century in Vienna. Ashley’s operas were initially created for television, a medium that he felt was best suited to present and view these beautifully wrought stories of American lives lived, as he once said, “…on the land not in it…” But due to the expense and difficulty of placing them on television Bob re-configured them for the stage; they became performance pieces set within highly mediated staged contexts. Thus Ashley became a model for many performance artists in the mid and late 20th centuries. As Laurie Anderson once said, “…if it weren’t for Bob Ashley, none of us would be here…” And if it were not for Bob Ashley I would not have the feeling of accomplishment that has sustained me since I left Philadelphia.
When I first organized Relâche and the Relâche Ensemble I vowed to bring Ashley and other composers he is identified with into the Relâche fold. Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Gordan Mumma, Pauline Oliveros to name just a few were, along with Bob Ashley invited to collaborate with Relâche and perform their music as soloists or with other collaborators. Whether the Relâche Ensemble performed an existing work of theirs or whether it commissioned a new work from them, each of these composers visited Philadelphia to interact with Relâche and engage a growing audience of new music listeners. All of these folks were great to meet and hang out with but for me, none were quite as colorful as Ashley. And none had Bob’s sense of humor. I was lucky enough to share this with him both during his Philadelphia visits as well as visits in other cities around the country.
In the early 1990’s Relâche had an office on east Market Street between 2nd and Front Streets. From the second floor of a building with a large picture window to gaze upon the street action the staff of Relâche worked to realize its mission: perform and present innovative music of the 20th century with a clearly stated point-of-view. Central to that mission was a commissioning program to create works specifically for the Relâche Ensemble. One of the composers it commissioned was Bob Ashley. The commissioned work, Outcome Inevitable has been performed many times by the Relâche Ensemble. I invited him down to meet the group so he could better envision how they interact with one another and with other composers. We agreed to first meet at the Relâche office, have lunch then meet with the ensemble.
The entrance to the office was via a wooden stairway with one light illuminating the entire length of the stairway. When he and his wife, Mimi Johnson, arrived they knocked on the door. I answered. Bob whispered out of the side of his mouth, “We’re here to fix a problem that seems a bit out of our control. Can you help us?” Startled I answered, “I thought you were coming for lunch and a session with the ensemble.” “No,” he said, we’re here because we’re in trouble.” He and Mimi then broke up laughing. “Coming in here is like entering a set for a noir film. Man, that staircase is a classic. And the light bulb hanging down? A perfect touch!” For the remaining time Relâche occupied that office it was impossible not to think of Ashley whenever I climbed those darkened stairs with the light bulb hanging overhead.
In 1993 Robert Ashley finally had an opportunity to present the complete version of a work titled Now Eleanor’s Idea, actually four separate operas which comprise the overall work. Well before moving to New Mexico I had been visiting there for many years so I planned a visit to coincide with Ashley’s residence at the College of Santa Fe and the two complete performances of Now Eleanor’s Idea. Since the theme of Now Eleanor’s Idea explores the history of Hispanics in the southwestern United States Ashley had envisioned having two Low Rider autos on stage in the final act of the opera. Low Rider culture is popular among Hispanic men and women in many parts of the southwest and is best known for the custom cars that are adorned with finely detailed painting that depict aspects of Hispanic-American culture. The cars are equipped with hydraulic systems and struts that allow them to be controlled by the driver to move up and down as they’re being driven. The unofficial “headquarters” for Low Riders is in Española, New Mexico, about 20 miles north of Santa Fe so Ashley hired two leading Low Rider artists to be in the cast to sit in their cars and operate the hydraulic system – on cue of course – in the finale to Now Eleanor’s Idea. Each time they activated the hydraulics it went off without a hitch, to the satisfaction of everyone in the audience. After the final performance at a post-concert reception Ashley came over to me and with a huge smile said, “Joe (he called me that) did you see those cars dance? Man that was very cool.”
Bob Ashley will be missed by those of us who listened carefully to his cool, softly-inflected voice intoning stories of the American character. I doubt if anyone like him will come along any time soon. I guess that’s just as well. His legacy stands alone within the context of contemporary American music history.
(Outcome Inevitable by Robert Ashley was commissioned by the Relâche Ensemble and is recorded by Relâche on O.O. Discs 17.)
Fred Ho passed on April 12, 2014. Fred’s passing did not surprise me. He had been ill for some time, a victim of colorectal cancer, a disease that he ferociously fought for six years. Along with many of his other friends around the world, I was kept up-to-date on his condition via a list serve titled “Warriors for Fred,” maintained by a loving companion named Ann T. Greene. During the first couple of years of his illness he wrote a journal documenting his equally ferocious battle with America’s health care system. That journal became a book “Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level” (Norton). There is not enough space in this publication to do justice to Fred’s life and work so I’ll leave it up to the reader to learn more about him and his epic cancer battle. And I’ll leave it up to you to wrap your ears around his music.
I first met Fred Ho in 1986 as I was preparing to produce the “New Music America 1987 Festival” in Philadelphia for Relâche. A mutual friend intrigued by his music urged me to include it in the festival. Upon hearing it I too was intrigued but felt it just didn’t fit with the overall programming content that was taking shape. I opted not to include it. I regretted that decision. Fortunately though Fred and I hit it off and we became not only good friends but collaborators as well. After two failed attempts to raise funds for a commission, I finally succeeded. The result was a new work for the Relâche Ensemble with a most Fred-like title: ”Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan.” Relâche performed it extensively; from Philadelphia to Tokyo, throughout Europe and the U.S. Often Fred accompanied the ensemble on tours adding his rugged baritone saxophone sound to the group. At other times Relâche performed a specially arranged version without him. Even though the piece was a bit outside of the unique ensemble sound that Relâche had created, it worked and became something of a hit for the group. Among the many performances with Fred one stands apart.
Fred did not play in other composers’ music but one night in Phoenix, Arizona as part of a residency at Arizona State University West he played in a piece by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen titled “Worker’s Union.” It is a thumping piece that celebrates the trials of the world’s workers. My mother lived in Arizona so I brought her to the concert. Afterward I introduced her to Fred. Now it’s important to know that my mother, a Philly girl through and through did not remotely “get” the music that defined my life and my friends’ lives. She loved to sing and had a terrific ear for melody but the entire “new” music repertoire that invaded her space during my visits was far removed from her Kensington background. After shaking Fred’s hand she said to both of us, “…I really liked that last one you played.” She was referring to “Worker’s Union.” Surprised, I looked at her then at Fred, who was graciously smiling. “It reminds me of the factories I used to work at in Philadelphia.” She got It! The pounding tinny noise of the Crown Cork and Seal Company factory on Hunting Park Avenue came alive in her memory.
Fred made many visits to Philadelphia to work not only with Relâche but with several other organizations as well. He liked Philly, especially Chinatown. He resolutely ranked it the 3rd best in the country. Often he stayed with me and my wife Laurel Wyckoff on South Second Street. On those occasions I took him to the old YMCA at 15th and Arch Streets for a workout. He loved to swim, as I did but he was more intrigued with my workouts on the heavy bag so I gave him some instruction. He never quite learned to work with the bag so his punches usually slid off the side. Frustrated, Fred was not good at not being good at something.
The memories of my times with Fred flow easily. But I’ll end with one that perhaps defined him to his many followers. It happened in as far away a place as one could imagine within the context of Fred Ho’s life. After leaving Philadelphia I moved to Montana to direct a performing arts and film center. Through some careful manipulation of funds I was able to allocate $25,000 to Fred so he could do a two-year residency in Montana while he completed a work titled “Once Upon a Time in Chinese America.” During his first visit to the state Laurel took him to Butte, a city as tough as any within the mythos of 19th Century American history. Together they explored what remained of Butte’s Chinatown, a section of the city that bore the brunt of Butte’s ferocious meanness. Fred was amazed. He found an authentic piece of Chinese American history, replete with Keno games invented by the Chinese workers who were brought there to support the flourishing mining industry. Here amidst the decaying noodle shops (and decaying streets) they learned that the early residents of Butte’s Chinatown dug tunnels beneath their homes and shops in order to mine the ore that gave sustenance to its residents. The Chinese folks were not allowed to be miners, just coolies. But they surreptitiously won their battle. Fred Ho did not win his. His huge legacy, however, endures.
“A Coney Island of the Mind” is more than the title of a great book of poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a book that has earned a place in my well-worn hip pocket. The Coney Island of my mind resides in the memories of an 8-year old kid hurtling down a gleaming ebony wood slide inside the mammoth shell of a building named “The Steeplechase,” a major attraction at the Coney Island Amusement Park in New York. Although I was raised in Philadelphia, I nevertheless spent a good deal of my early years visiting relatives in Brooklyn who never tired of hauling me and my brother over to Coney Island.
The slide was my favorite part of the visit. I would lie face up on a burlap sack and let gravity do its thing: propel me down the slick corrugated slide while my young body swayed in an uneven rhythm, my eyes fixed on the sight of two shoeless feet sticking straight up like a sight on a rifle. When I finally hit the bottom of the slide a flat planed surface broke the force of my slide before nudging me to another flat surface fixed with round plates that rotated at varying speeds. My now somewhat relaxed body skimmed over these plates as they turned me randomly around and around. After spinning left then right, again-and-again, I would slide into a wooden bowl, gliding around the concave walls of the bowl until coming to rest at its bottom. As I lay still I would stare up – way up – at the glass ceiling while my stomach gradually centered itself.
I have often thought of my trip down that slide and what might have happened if my body were to gain so much momentum and speed that it would defy gravity and launch me over that field of plates, causing me to feel even more helpless and denying me a massage by those circular fingers. That never happened, of course, and the memory of being turned this-a-way and that-a-way has become something of a metaphor as I continue my personal journey.
Memories of my visits to Coney Island were rekindled recently following the death of my father-in-law, John Wyckoff after a tough battle with cancer. While observing his final days a feeling of helplessness flowed over me, something like the feeling I experienced while being throttled by those circular plates at the end of my Coney Island ride.
In my mind I imagined a young spirited (some might say reckless) John Wyckoff riding his motorcycle down that slide, defying all manner of reason and physics, like his friend the daredevil, Evel Knievel, to land upright with that self-satisfying smile that said, “…see, no problem…” That kind of confidence was evident throughout his professional life as he established a reputation for innovation while creating marketing strategies that helped transform the motorcycle industry. During my long friendship with him I benefited from his ideas and vision. Over the years our conversations were lengthy and detailed. As an inveterate listener to music with a preference for western classical music, he enjoyed the challenge of helping me market music that is not part of mainstream America. I like to think that we influenced one another as we wrestled with these issues during times of great cultural change.
I now listen to recorded music in the house that John helped to design. At times I sit in the chair he favored – the sweet spot in the living room – listening to recordings by classical guitarists that he treasured. (John was an amateur guitarist.) I listen in the way that I have been trained: structurally and critically. John didn’t listen that way. He waited for the grand gesture that at times was more imagined than real, in much the same way that he conducted his business. He was a unique guy in a business that strived to embrace unique characters.
In paradisum deducant te Angeli
My mother died on April 2, 2013. Her passing will likely help alter the memories that I have of growing up in Kensington. But her stories of having been born and raised there will endure for eternity.
Edith O’Connell (née Lutz, Franklin) endured a childhood of extreme poverty and a series of disappointments and traumas to live to 91. Her past 40 years were spent in Arizona and New Mexico. The youngest in a family of six girls- her eldest sister was 18 years her senior – born to working-class parents and reared in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, she was the quintessential American girl of her time and caste. She grew into a pretty woman, tall with long brown hair, a calm disposition and good sense of humor that no doubt helped her through some tough times.
She and her sisters were shaped by their experiences growing up at “K & A” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Although all could lay claim to being real “Philly girls,” my mother was, well, more “Philly” than her sisters. As she said on several occasions, “…as the youngest in a large family I had to fight for just about everything.” And that she did even after leaving Philadelphia in the late 1960’s.The family’s two-story row house was in the shadow of the Frankford El just east of Kensington Avenue and north of Allegheny Avenue on Pacific Street. In those days the neighborhood was a bustling community of blue collar families surviving the loss of jobs as the factories moved to the suburbs or were forced to close when new technologies made manufacturing easier and more cost-effective. Neither my mother nor her sisters finished high school. As young women they were forced into the labor market to provide for the family and a desire to support the war effort. My mother worked at the large Sears & Roebuck factory on Roosevelt Boulevard wiring radio consoles that were installed in the cockpits of airplanes.
My father battled tuberculosis and emphysema much of his adult life. Like many who suffered from these diseases he decided to move to the southwestern desert, to Phoenix, Arizona. My mother reluctantly agreed to the rather dramatic change of life. My father lived for seven extra years finally succumbing to the horrors of emphysema in 1974. After his death a new man in her life soon attempted to kill her; the gun misfired. She broke away from him and took refuge in a home for battered women. Several weeks later a police sharpshooter killed him after he walked into a bar and opened fire. It seems this man, gentle and caring at first, had been badly injured in WW II and required daily medication. After abandoning his family in Ohio he wound up in Phoenix and stopped taking the medication, telling no one about his condition. Over the course of six months or so he began to behave oddly, at first forgetting things then staring blankly for long periods of time. Then he became aggressive and abusive until he snapped. A year or so later my mother met and eventually married a local man named Leslie O’Connell, a big Westerner who had been in-and-out of the Army and Navy between Korea and Vietnam. A rough-and-tumble short haul trucker, he knew when and how to run a good con on some unsuspecting or slow-on-the-draw country boys. Les and my mother eventually settled in Payson, Arizona after she retired from the Honeywell Company. It was a good life for both of them until Les was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in 1995. Widowed three times, my mother was a survivor.
Beginning in her mid-80’s she began to show signs of dementia. It became apparent to me that she could no longer live alone in Payson, Arizona, a small mountain city with few medical resources. After several tough conversations over the course of two years, I convinced her that she should move to New Mexico where she could live in an independent senior community just minutes from my home in Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque. At first everything was fine. She had her own first-floor apartment overlooking a beautifully maintained rose garden. The senior complex was just ¼ mile from a shopping center that contained everything she might need. Unfortunately her dementia became more and more pronounced. Try as I could it became difficult for me to oversee all of her needs, including administering her medications for ailments that most senior citizens endure. One day utterly confused, she called to tell me that she had taken all of her meds at once – a week’s worth! After that incident I began the process of placing her in an assisted living facility. After a search we found one that was not only affordable and beautifully maintained and staffed but was only a ten minute drive from my home. As her condition declined the staff at the assisted living facility tended to her needs as best they could until, in mid-February, she started to become violent. Her dementia was changing her personality. It became clear to me that she needed hospice care. From that time on her decline was rapid.
Even though Philadelphia remained deep in her soul, my mom remarked that she was glad she moved away to a region of the country so very different from the one she knew as a young woman. As my mom’s dementia progressed, she seldom knew the time of day or even what day it was. She nevertheless remembered images from her life in Kensington. She returned to Philadelphia maybe three times after moving to Arizona, mainly to visit her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, none of whom grew up in K & A. On those visits I would take her to visit her sisters, nieces and nephews, all of whom lived in the far reaches of suburban Philly. We would also make short visits to the old neighborhood just to “…see who survived…” as my mom said. The first visit back to the old neighborhood was particularly sad.
We parked on the corner of Jasper and Pacific Streets in front of what used to be Tony’s Grocery store, an important gathering place for the neighbors. We walked to the house she was born in. (Both of us were raised there.) We knocked on the door. A man peered out then slowly opened the door. I introduced us and apologized for the intrusion. He smiled, shook our hands and invited us inside. To our astonishment, while few houses in the neighborhood were occupied, little had changed in our old place. The small living room, dining room and kitchen were immaculate. To the man’s amazement, my mother explained how she shared two of the upstairs bedrooms with her five sisters. I noticed a small white ornamented iron heating vent that brought back fond memories of Christmas mornings; the Christmas tree was always placed in front of that vent. We thanked the man then walked west to Kensington Avenue. My mom wanted to retrace a path that she had taken so many times.
Her memories of walking along Kensington Avenue between Tioga and Somerset Streets were vivid: one of her two sons – probably me – sitting in a baby carriage while she pushed it along the avenue stopping to ponder if she should buy some candy or maybe a strip of soft pretzels from the nutty little guy in front of the El stop on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. Or she might stop in on her sister who lived a block away on G Street. It took only a few minutes for the reassuring memories to end, wiped clean by the first panhandler to approach us. On each corner sad bedraggled junkies gathered in small groups waiting for their connections, or simply just waiting to die. Young girls vamped along the sidewalk searching for their next trick, or just searching. This was also my first visit back to the old neighborhood. After I left for military service I returned to Philadelphia but I had no desire to go back to the neighborhood. As I walked down Kensington Avenue with my mother on this summer day it reminded me of Yossarian’s Night Journey from Catch 22; the decay and destruction – like wartime Rome as depicted by Joseph Heller – was evident everywhere. At one corner a guy came too close to us and frightened my mother. My old K & A roots flared as I threw him down and cursed his sorry ass. My mother, trembling with a slight trace of tears in her eyes said, “…let’s go home…” We walked back to the car taking a shortcut through Harrowgate Park. She never asked to be taken back to Kensington when she came back to Philly.
Now she’s gone. Her final three years were spent in New Mexico, a place that held no significance for her other than the fact that she was able to be part of the family we have created here: my wife, mother-in-law and numerous ex-patriot Philadelphia friends of ours who gather for dinner and reminiscences. Everyone liked my mother, our friends, the staff at the assisted living facility and the hospice personnel. She ended her life as it began: quietly and with dignity. She took those Philadelphia memories with her. I guess I will do the same.
The hands. That’s what I remember about Pierre Boulez. His hands wove an elegant web of transient lines as he conducted an ensemble of finely-tuned musicians in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City on a frigid Friday night in 1973 while he served as music director of the New York Philharmonic. (He eschewed the ever-present baton believing that it could be a distraction to the musicians.) Whether it be his ground breaking work from 1955, “Le marteau sans maître” or Alban Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” Boulez’s hands deftly steered the musicians along by sub-dividing the music’s beat with his left hand while articulating a musical phrase with his right hand. This musical sleight-of-hand was unheard of forty years ago. It was among but one of the many technical innovations that he endowed both conductors and composers with as contemporary (classical) music settled into a transformative era as the 21st century peeked around a very sharp corner. I was there, at Cooper Union on that cold night, one of many young composers with an itch to be part of a changing musical culture.
I was concluding composition studies at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts) and was determined to attend as many of these “Prospective Encounters” as possible. Boulez’ tenure at the New York Philharmonic was not without controversy. As the leading champion of post-WWII European music many feared that he would upset the very carefully wrought programming philosophy of most American symphony orchestras. Boulez was way too canny an artist to become trapped in a dilemma that would prove those frightened gate-keepers of symphonic music correct. His programming at the New York Philharmonic was brilliant, mixing new works with those from the standard repertoire. His interpretations of works by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel were exceptional as were those by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Luciano Berio. He crafted transparent performances as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra followed, trusting his lead. Seldom was there a false note since Boulez carefully explained to the players what he wanted while taking their ideas into account. He also coaxed elegant performances out of the Philadelphia Orchestra, despite some mumbling from the more conservative musicians in the orchestra. I remember someone once saying that he had “…ears like sonar…” How true.
As a composer those ears gave birth to a number of seminal works that were formed by a tenacious belief in “serialism” as the true musical language of the twentieth century. It was if one settled into an academic life, sometimes creating brilliant music that had no audience whatsoever outside of the academy. That belief was soon to be tested by a group of composer-performers in New York and on the West Coast whose musical language was labeled “minimalism.” Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley et al stood strong as they created myth-busting works that actually drew audiences to their performances.
After leaving his position with the New York Philharmonic Boulez returned to France where he was appointed director of IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustic Music located at the Pompidou Center in Paris. He continued to conduct orchestras throughout the world while presiding over IRCAM which became a magnet for adventurous musicians from throughout the world who were attracted to the formalism of serialism and its musical predecessors and not attracted to a “minimal” aesthetic that was forging ahead in the U.S. and Europe.
Within a few years of attending those Prospective Encounters at Cooper Union I would leave graduate school to form the Relâche Ensemble, fully embracing the language of “minimalism” as well as other unique compositional and performative styles by artists such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Frederick Rezewski and many others. During the years I directed Relâche it’s fair to say that I reacted to the music of Boulez and his contemporaries with some vigor. (Some would say unreasonable vigor.) But oddly enough – and to the surprise of my critics – I continued to listen to Boulez’ music. I simply love his orchestral interpretations. His compositions continue to dazzle me. Their concise formal designs and crystalline selections of pitch and dynamics guided me through his musical works. But not easily. Boulez was never an easy friend to have around. He was intellectually demanding and forthright in his beliefs. So was I and so was a generation (or two) of musicians that either embraced his aesthetic or challenged it. It was a heady time indeed.
Pierre Boulez’ hands will no longer weave those elegant musical lines. His ears – “…like sonar…” have shut down. Pierre Boulez passed away at 90 on Tuesday, January 5, 2016. One of the most compelling musicians in the practice of Western music is gone. His influence on musicians and audiences alike will endure.
Pauline Oliveros once said to me, “You know, Joseph, you can hear better with your shoes off.” She didn’t mean me; she meant us. She was right. At least I think she was right even though to this day the perceived notion that I did indeed hear better with my shoes off might have been an aural illusion, something I wished were true. At that time, I and the Relache Ensemble were collaborating with Pauline at the Yellow Springs Institute for the Arts and Humanities in Chester County where she was composer-in-residence in a program called “Six Saturdays.” During that week, the musicians worked with Pauline to create a new piece titled “The Well.” It highlighted her unique ability to develop a work through close collaboration with the musicians and audience. “The Well” was performed throughout the United States, Europe and Japan by the Ensemble and recorded for the German label, Hat-Art Records. During that transformative week with Pauline a friendship was cemented that helped me to better understand how to shape future commissions of new works. Utilizing her ideas, I learned to craft a truly collaborative musical experience. Over the years, Pauline visited Philadelphia many times, usually appearing in concert with the Relâche Ensemble. Pauline Oliveros passed at the age of 84 on Thanksgiving morning, ending one of the most adventurous creative lives of any American artist of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Up until the end she continued to compose and perform her music. Fiercely independent of mind, she combined a passion for artistic expression with social issues that she believed to be essential for a just and equitable society. A staunch feminist, she nevertheless refused the label of “woman composer.” She was a composer. Period. Her musical scores were not those that one would necessarily associate with the “great composers.” Yes, she could notate her ideas but her methodology was more narrative in spirit. Example: from her oft-quoted, seminal work titled “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 text-based instructions, she wrote “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” (Hence her insistence that one “hears” through their feet.) Pauline’s canon of musical works was diverse, from the early work with electronic/tape music (She was among the founders of the iconic San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960’s) to her later democratically ordered, gender challenging meditative works for musicians and non-musicians alike, her music flowed with a positive message “…I bid farewell not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.” Damned if she didn’t!
I was one of many “new music” artists who “got” Pauline. And she got us. Pauline could be tough while defining her artistic position. On more than one occasion she cautioned me about someone that wished to collaborate with us. Sometimes others cautioned me about working with Pauline, although those cautions proved specious. Like many professions, the world of the arts can be like arm wrestling. Blood is seldom spilled but the pain of deliverance can be brutal. Pauline was never brutal in her dealings with others, but she could be somewhat difficult at times. That was okay; she knew what she wanted and pursued her vision with diligence. She always had a “point-of-view. To me that was an essential element in choosing her as a collaborator.
My long friendship with Pauline has yielded many memories. Among those are:
At the Yellow Springs Institute Pauline handed me a DAT Recorder. I had never seen one before. It was a brand-new product on the market. She asked me if I would instruct our audio engineer to use the DAT Recorder to record the rehearsal of “The Well.” I informed her that Werner, our audio engineer was prepared to record on analog tape. She looked at me and said, “…I want it on this machine…” I thought to myself, no problem, Joseph, this is what the lady wants.
At the 1984 New Music America Festival in Hartford, Connecticut Pauline performed a duo concert with my close friend, the magnificent accordionist-composer, Guy Klucevsek. It was a mind-blowing 60 minutes of pure, absolute artistic virtuosity. Afterward she said to me, “…Boy, Guy can really play…” Then Guy said to me, “…Damn, Pauline really nailed it…” Yep!
During a tour of Japan, the Relache Ensemble played “The Well” with a group of traditional musicians who were versed in the ancient music of the Imperial Court, known as “Gagaku.” Later when I played the recordings for Pauline, her response was, “…Wow. Those guys sort of got it, didn’t they? Tuning was different in places but I kind of like it.”
Arriving late at my apartment in Germantown for a short residency with the Relache Ensemble, she said to me, “Those were not good directions, Joseph. I damned near wound up in Baltimore.” Humbled, we cooked her a great meal of gumbo.
After I left Philadelphia I saw Pauline only at conferences and other new music events but we kept in touch via email and sometimes social media. I’ve kept abreast of her work with the Deep Listening Institute that she founded and nurtured for many years. It is now the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. These days I no longer listen as much to the music that consumed my life. Like any musician, I listen to music structurally, applying the intense training that I had in Western musical praxis to a variety of musical styles. In some ways, I’m a freer listener now. I no longer have a professional agenda to build new organizations and I no longer wish to be the captain of the team. After learning of Pauline’s death, I gathered up all my recordings of her music and listened. I listened deeply. And it resonates deeply in a world overrun with popular music aimed at those who wish not to listen as deeply as I do. Pauline’s recorded music will continue to sing of the body and through the body. Especially through one’s feet.
In the early 1980’s I was serving as the co-founder and director of the Relache Ensemble, a position I held until leaving Philadelphia in 1999. Those were formative years for Relache and the Relache Ensemble. I spent much of my time in collaboration with the composers and performers from the group unearthing new works for the ensemble to play. The time not spent in these artistic pursuits was spent building an infrastructure for the organization, to ensure it would evolve into a viable fundraising and producing-presenting entity in support of an expanding performance schedule.
A component of this plan was focused on providing quality sound enhancement to the ensemble’s performances. I was determined to help craft a unique sound for Relache by enlisting musicians that had ears for “the new” and were eager to incorporate the quickly evolving audio technologies into their performative lives. To accomplish this, it was necessary to find a skilled engineer willing to experiment with the players to create a sound concept in support of and integral to the musical experience. I found that engineer in Werner Strobel.
I first met Werner in 1976 while teaching a course at Temple University’s downtown campus. The class was named “Introduction to 20th Century Music.” I was enrolled as a graduate student, having received a University Fellowship with teaching duties. Werner was one of about a dozen adult students to enroll in the course. At the time I was beginning to organize small chamber-like concerts at venues around town with advanced students I had met at Temple. The Painted Bride Art Center at its original location on South Street became an early home for these efforts. As these concerts evolved — we did not yet have a name for the group — we needed someone to assist with recording tasks and audio tape playback. Werner was interested, beginning a personal and professional relationship that lasted 40 years until his recent October 7 death from a particularly relentless form of cancer. His battle with that awful disease was brutal and decidedly unfair.
Officially Relache and the Relache Ensemble for Contemporary Music, as it was initially known, was born in 1978. From the very beginning Werner Strobel contributed time, talent and capital to the enterprise. Although not formally trained as an audio engineer, his keen ear and intensive knowledge of electronic systems lent the Relache Ensemble a unique character. For the next 10 years as Relache grew in stature Werner was a steady influence. His soft-spoken manner and ego-less personality was in sharp contrast to many of the members of Relache who at times were strenuously in pursuit of their shared musical goals. (I’m trying to be diplomatic. Many of us were pains-in-the-ass to deal with…intense and even sometimes combative. Werner was always a calming presence.)
Born in 1948 in Bavaria, Germany, Werner Strobel came to America with his mother and father, both of whom endured difficult times during WWII: his father as a German prisoner of the British, his mother as a baker at a convent in rural Bavaria. They arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1950’s having been sponsored by a Philadelphia-born Army legal officer who presided at the Nuremberg Trials. Werner’s father had learned English during his years as a POW. He was hired as a janitor by that Army officer; a fortuitous event in his and the family’s future.
Werner did not speak English upon his arrival in Philadelphia. He set about learning a new language and did so with a vengeance by skillfully mastering grammar and building a vocabulary. And he began a dedicated – and highly focused – attempt to shed his foreign background to become an ordinary American boy of his time. It didn’t work out that way. Werner was not ordinary at all.
After graduating from Drexel University with a degree in electrical engineering, he began working at the Philadelphia Naval Yard as a civilian engineer, the only job he ever had. He rose through the ranks to eventually head a division that was tasked to test the integrity of the hulls of ships and submarines. He traveled extensively, often going to sea for days at a time. He and I joked that despite my serving in the Navy he spent more time than I did at sea. Ah, but he had the perks, I reminded him.
In 2004 he retired and moved with his wife Kathy Diak to Albuquerque, New Mexico, just a few miles from where my wife and I live. For the next ten years we spent much time together with a network of like-minded expats from the east coast. In early 2013 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and began intensive radiation treatments that temporarily improved his condition. Eventually the cancer metastasized necessitating multiple operations that proved unsuccessful. To receive more advanced medical treatment, he and Kathy moved to Pittsburgh, where he passed.
A gifted engineer whose love of music likely exceeded his love of problem-solving, Werner was amazingly well organized. Until I could hire the production team that I always envisioned for Relache, Werner and I – with volunteer help – were pretty much in charge of supporting the ensemble on stage. When things went wrong, and they often did, I knew that he would be able to put his trouble-shooting skills to work and solve a technical problem. It amazed me how often he nailed the problem then calmly fixed it. But there was this one time when…
While performing at the Mandell Theater on Drexel University’s campus (Relache was in residence at Drexel’s Department of Performing Arts for 7 years), the electronic configuration on stage was particularly difficult. Midway through the concert the system failed, causing us to announce a brief pause. That pause lasted longer than usual. Despite putting all his trouble-shooting knowledge to work he could not figure out what went wrong. “Let’s try this,” he told me and proceeded to pick up an amplifier and dropped it onto a table, a distance of about three feet. It worked! Problem solved. I just shook my head and cued the ensemble to pick up where they left off.
Relache and the Relache Ensemble continue to present their unique musical point-of-view to Philadelphia audiences. This is due, of course, to the exemplary dedication of its players and administrators to the cause of new and experimental music that has bridged the 20th and 21st centuries. The public persona of the Relache Ensemble is manifest in the action on stage as well as the maneuverings behind the scenes as administrators engage in the hustle and flow of fundraising, marketing and in general doing anything necessary to keep the organization afloat in a tense competitive environment.
When Werner moved to New Mexico he brought along a cache of 10” analog recording tapes full of concert recordings that chronicled the first 10 years of the Relache Ensemble’s concerts. He subsequently digitized almost all of them. We both wished to have this music available to any interested listeners anywhere, preferably either downloading the files to a computer or streaming them. I approached an old friend of mine, Charles Amirkhanian, founding director of Other Minds in San Francisco. They were about to launch a major archival site containing 25 years of music that they had produced. Charles was eager to include the Relache Ensemble’s performances in this archive. Other Minds raised funds to support this and Werner and I carefully selected the tracks that we believed best represented the ensemble’s early history. Phase One of that archival project was completed prior to his health declining. The archive will be a testament to Werner’s contributions to Relache at a time of artistic transformation of musical performance in Philadelphia.