COMPLEXITY, STRANGENESS, AND CHARM:
Noah Creshevskys Archives
You could say that Noah Creshevsky sits at the crossroads of the world. He lives in a comfortable apartment—where he keeps his composition studio—a short walk from Times Square, and his music and compositional career are an intersection for several important directions for music, old and new, high and low, traditional and technological.
Creshevsky is not just an accomplished composer, but a unique one. He creates music with the tools and craftsmanship that come out of the rigors of the Western classical tradition, but his medium is entirely electronic. Imagine a sonata written in a sequencer and a Digital Audio Workstation, and imagine that the sonata is not written for musicians to play, but instead plays musicians in a virtual way, and you’ll have a grasp of Creshevsky’s means, which already set him apart from his peers in both contemporary classical and electronic music.
Then there’s Creshevsky’s sound, which is not only, again, different from his peers, but different from anything you’ve heard before. He calls his style hyperrealism: he takes samples of playing and singing—an individual instrument, a bit of an ensemble—which come from either pre-existing recordings or are specially made for him by musicians, lightly edits them, and then uses them to realize his compositions. He makes pieces that produce music just beyond the skills of the most virtuosic musicians—figurations that are a little too fast, attacks that are a little too exact, changes and superimpositions that are a little too quick—and that elide your ability to perceive music made by man or machine. Everything sounds so human, because the sound sources are human, yet it’s all covered with a sheen of artificiality; people are playing, but they can’t possibly be playing what you’re hearing—it’s not surreal, it’s hyperreal.
His music is strange, charming, and sublime. Its language is based in familiar, even prosaic, grammar, but the vocabulary and syntax seem to come from the future, or another dimension; it preserves the structural grace of the classical era, and the mix of natural materials and unnatural process triggers a Burkean fascination with things we can’t understand. It produces a powerful, uncanny effect, a complex psychoacoustic experience of having your perceptions constantly stimulated and challenged while also hearing a formally structured composition. It’s not uncommon to laugh in both amazement and disbelief. On top of that is Creshevsky’s humor, the jump-cut aesthetic and juxtaposition of absurd combinations that he shares with Carl Stalling and John Zorn.
There are about a dozen CDs of his music currently available, including two excellent recent sets on Zorn’s Tzadik label, The Twilight of the Gods (2010) and The Four Seasons (2013), and the Japanese EM label is preparing a retrospective of his 21st-century works for release in July to commemorate his 70th birthday (full disclosure: I will be writing the liner notes for that CD). But the most substantial collection of his work, and of significant parts of his life, will be found at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where he is donating his archives, including recordings, papers, correspondence, and even his samples and audio sources. Once catalogued—George Boziwick, Chief of the Music Division, expects the process to take one to two years—Creshevsky’s work will join other significant electronic music archives at the library, including those of Charles Dodge, Eric Siday, J.K. Randall, and Emmanuel Ghent. “We were eager to collect his archives,” Boziwick told me.
Creshevsky was born in Rochester in 1945, and when he was young, fell in love with the piano: “I dragged my parents around to anyone’s house who had a piano,” both to hear it and to play. He studied music in the preparatory division at the Eastman School of Music from age five to 17, “piano, theory, ear-training, all the basics,” he told me.
He played some cocktail lounge piano when he was young, but although he was fascinated by virtuosic musicianship, he found composition was his calling. He went to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied with Lukas Foss, who created an important contemporary music program there that drew in other composers like Virgil Thomson, George Rochberg, Mauricio Kagel, and Henri Pousseur, all of whom were some combination of teacher, influence, or example for Creshevsky.
From there, he studied in Nadia Boulanger’s program in Paris, designed to drill a composer in the absolute mastery of the fundamentals of Western classical composition and musicianship, then with Luciano Berio at Juilliard (where Creshevsky earned a Master of Music).
Along the way, from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s, things changed: Terry Riley’s In C “came out when I was 21, and I realized it was okay to have a beat and to keep things in time. I also began my electroacoustic studies, working with tape, constructing pieces.”
Creshevsky wrote several pieces of music for live performers, but found that preparing performances was not for him: “To be a regular composer, you have to like the rehearsal process.” He states bluntly, but with satisfaction, that “electronic music is a way of life, it suits me.” He likes the solitary work, was happy to retire after teaching at Brooklyn College for over 30 years. “If you don’t have a financial or psychological need for validation, no one’s listening, you’re free,” he explains. “This could be a Golden Age of music. I wish this for others.” He frequently states that “I’m only happy when I’m composing,” a claim which is gently undermined by his considerable, easy charm and clear pleasure in conversation.
What stands out about his tape pieces, which can be heard on an EM collection, The Tape Music of Noah Creshevsky, 1971–92, is both how different they are from the prevailing style of tape music up to that point in time, and how close they are in quality to the music Creshevsky began making with the advent of digital tools. The 1971 piece Circuit, for which he wrote a fully notated score, combines multiple recordings of harpsichords being played into a realistic sounding piece that would be impossible to realize with live musicians. His dazzling Strategic Defense Initiative (1985), which was premiered on WNYC in 1987, splices together sound effects, vocal noises, and fragments of pop music into a large-scale collage that, in sound, anticipates both his own later work and John Oswald’s 1988 Plunderphonics EP.
“I appropriate everything, classical, rock, klezmer,” he said to me. “The sound has to be realistic, it has to appear plausible. You don’t necessarily know it’s electronic,” he says of his ideal. But the music he appropriates, or that musicians give to him, is not yet hyperreal. A necessary part of his compositional process is editing the samples for a precise, immediate attack, no matter the source or the instrument. “I want a hard-edged envelope, my aesthetic is that I prefer Manet to Monet, I don’t want a blur.” For the tape pieces, that meant lots of long, arduous physical labor, cutting and splicing reel-to-reel audio tape, maintaining the proper speed in a flexible physical medium.
The change in his music from analog to digital is pronounced. The analog pieces are intellectually agile and fast-paced, but they are clearly electronic. The digital pieces are hyperreal; with digital tools, Creshevsky became a virtuoso composer of super-virtuosic music. “I admire extreme virtuosity, my interest in it goes back to Liszt, Scarlatti, some of the music of the past lends itself to hyperreal interpretation.” But while Liszt and Scarlatti are playable, and are played with astonishing skill, Creshevsky has pushed past the limits of the body.
He uses Peak (which is no longer available; the maker, BIAS, went out of business in 2012) for audio editing, and Melodyne for the other essential part of his process, tuning the samples. After the tape music, he “was seduced by pitch, I remain entranced by pitch. And I use harmony, counterpoint,” he says, so a sample of the piano producing middle C has to both be tuned to that pitch and, along with all the other piano note samples, placed in the proper location along his sequence. Currently, he writes his pieces inside Digital Performer.
In an ideal situation, he works with what he calls “iconic samples.” In one example, the singer and composer Thomas Buckner “gave me recordings of his singing,” Creshevsky explains. “I picked out 82 moments I liked and sampled them, then we went into the studio to re-record Buckner singing the same samples.” That gave Creshevsky the means to create the extraordinarily life-like and mysterious Jubilate (2001), which is on Hyperrealism: Electroacoustic Music by Noah Creshevsky (Mutable Music 2003).
One of the reasons he is donating his archives is that he wants to open up his methods for study. Not only will his own sample library be available, but his unique sample metadata, which identifies features like quality—cadential or transitional—and pitch. “I want them to have my notebooks so people can see how to do this.”
Creshevsky has been such a pioneer of electronic composition that one of the challenges the library faces is transferring DAT, floppy disks, and even zip disks to digital drives, from which all the audio will be available to stream in the Special Collections Room (once the cataloguing is complete). Boziwick points out that the archive will be “a single, comprehensive collection, it will be unique, no other library will have anything of the kind.”
Unique, that word again. The converging streams of history not only place Creshevsky at a unique point with regard to composing, but also place him at the dividing line between a tradition that developed steadily and linearly from the Middle Ages up to World War II and then splintered into innumerable paths, an alternate worlds theory of the universes of classical music. Creshevsky is a real bridge between those eras—the archives include correspondence with Boulanger, Thomson, and John Cage, a microcosm of past, present, and future. Using the most up-to-date digital technology, he combines the contemporary concept that music can be made without musicians, and include non-musical sounds, with structural virtues that would strike many contemporary classical composers as old-fashioned. “I’m trying to make legato,” he points out, “I derive my forms from the suites of Stravinsky. I’m conscious of making phrases and cadences. I’m the most classically trained of all the electronic composers!”
And he continues to compose: the new CD will also have a new piece made expressly for it. About parting with his archives, Creshevsky says, “It’s time, you look back and feel most of your life is behind you.” He adds, “I want to continue to be free.”
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.