Liner Notes


Pictures of Motion Liner Notes
Pictures Of Motionby John Schaefer, host of "New Sounds" & Director of Music Programming, WNYC Radio, New York

"New music" is a slippery term. At the end of the 20th century, it can mean almost anything, from the quasi-medieval sounds of Arvo Part to the experimental instruments of Ken Butler, from the wild improvisers of Manhattan's Lower East Side to the gnomic precision of the uptown academics. This can be annoying as hell for people who have to market or review this music, but it's an appropriate reflection of the bubbling ferment that is the new music scene. So, saying that sax player and composer Ken Field makes new music doesn't necessarily tell you anything; but in the larger context of what new music has meant in this country in the 20th century, it's quite a telling statement.

You see, three decades ago Ken Field probably wouldn't have been called a new music composer. The new music of the mid-twentieth century was an extremely adult diversion, where large amounts of training, concentration, and tolerance were required. The avant-garde threatened to turn in on itself in increasingly smaller, more cerebrally athletic circles until it disappeared in a puff of dodecaphonic logic. Some have said that this type of music making was a dead end. It wasn't. It's become fashionable to look back at the serialism and atonality of the 1940s and 50s and cluck disapprovingly. The fact is that this generation made great contributions to the music world and produced a handful of true masterworks, although if I were to list a few of them here it would provoke eye-glazing incomprehension in most people and outraged dissent from a handful of new music nuts.

And that's where the problem lay. The earlier generation was not a dead end; but it might have been a little side street whose inhabitants seemed curiously uninterested in having visitors, or even having their street included on the map. They were too absorbed in their private little block party. There always seemed to be the suspicion that if a piece of music could appeal to an inexperienced listener, it somehow wasn't serious enough. In Ken Field, we have musician who's been a longtime member of the avant-rock band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and a composer whose most widely heard composition is a piece for Sesame Street. Hardly the credentials one would expect to find in the pedigreed circles of the avant-garde. But things have changed. The scene has opened up to include not only eccentric bands like the Birdsongs, but the even more idiosyncratic music of some of its individual members. Field's aim, as expressed in his own notes to his first solo CD, Subterranea, was "to create music that was evocative, beautiful, substantive, and new." I'd say his aim was true, and if kids happen to like his music too, that doesn't make it any less substantive or new.

As a thesis, this is easily tested: play Field's music while unsuspecting children (mine, in this case) are in the room and see if they get it. Kids may not recognize the occasional piquant harmony in the multitracked saxes; or appreciate the inventive tone-colors (in Subterranea, Field used a suitcase and coffee cans to good percussive effect). They may not be reminded of the tension between Philip Glass' rapid music and Robert Wilson's breathtakingly slow imagery in Einstein On The Beach when listening to Field's unhurried saxes moving over an energetic percussion track. But as 8-year old Saratoga, unaware of her dad lurking nearby with pen and paper in hand, told her younger sister, "this music slows you down, then gets you up." I'd say she got it.

Field's music never seems to be in a hurry, but it gets somewhere quickly. He effectively creates a mood or ambience, and like so many recent composers, he uses his own instrument, the saxophone, to do it. This may have been the most enduring legacy of the so-called Minimalists. When Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass began playing with their own ensembles in the 1960s -- getting down in the trenches with the other musicians -- they were bucking a trend in Western classical music in which the composer had become increasingly isolated from the act of performing music. Reversing that particular course has had profound implications, because a composer's own instrument is often a major influence on his or her work. As any guitarist will tell you, it's easy to spot the composers who are also guitarists: they tend to have a harmonic sense that's quite different from their piano-playing colleagues. Or, think of a composer like Libby Larsen, a trained singer, whose music has a sense of line that gives even her most abstract instrumental scores a song-like character; or George Crumb, whose occasional stints as a percussionist are reflected in the fabulously detailed sound effects he creates. The importance of a composer actually being a performer is hard to overstate.

It's funny how saxophonist/composers in particular seem to be drawn towards more accessible, vernacular idioms - Peter Gordon towards pop music, Phillip Johnston towards vintage jazz, to name just a few. There's something about the saxophone, or perhaps more accurately, something about the lineage of the instrument that makes it well suited to these styles. A saxophone in the rarefied air of serial composition somehow never sounded as convincing. In Ken Field's music, where layered saxes are core sounds, you'll hear allusions to various popular musics - a whiff of languorous tango here, a hint of New Orleans-style mardi gras music there, perhaps a distant echo of a Gospel choir (another tradition with a rich saxophone heritage). Like many sax players, Field wears his influences on his sleeve, whether it's a substantially altered version of the theme music from NPR's news program All Things Considered, or an original work propelled by world music and acid-jazz rhythms.

Field's work is a natural result of the evolution of new music since the 1960s. For all the talk of the postmodernist embrace of popular musics, non-Western traditions, improvisation, alternative tunings and instruments, and cutting edge technology - most of which Ken Field has embraced with gusto - the biggest change has been, finally, the realization that it's okay to make music that's fun to listen to. I don't know what the critics will make of it, but I know how this music played with one tough audience. "This makes me feel good," said Isabella, age 3. "Every day you should play some of this music."


© 2000 Ken Field