Axiom Seeks Contrast in the 'Classics'

What do Hebrew cantillation, fractal geometry, and Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary have in common? The easy answer, of course, is “absolutely nothing”—but Jeffrey Milarsky, director of Axiom, was a little more imaginative.


The contemporary music ensemble’s concert this month features works of Steve Reich, Charles Wuorinen, and Magnus Lindberg. Within the spectrum of craft and style, these composers couldn’t be further apart. But then, that’s what Milarsky was going for.

“Pairing a Scandinavian composer with two American composers is about contrasts,” he explained in a recent interview. “And the two American composers themselves are full of contrasts.” For Milarsky, contrast adequately describes the eclectic body of musical creation produced since World War II. Axiom’s program—Reich’s Eight Lines, Wuorinen’s New York Notes, and Lindberg’s Corrente—is a microcosm of that eclecticism.

More than just a blind drawing of three pieces from a contemporary-music hat, this music has a deeper significance. “Axiom is committed to the classics of the 20th century,” Milarsky said, “and these are certainly classics.”

Steve Reich is most closely associated with phase, or process, music—later termed Minimalism—which emanated largely from the West Coast in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Reich’s interest in world music led him to Israel in the mid-’70s, where he began studying the cantillation of various Sephardic groups. The structural intricacies of their chant patterns provided a structural impetus for Reich’s Octet (1979), which was later rescored and retitled Eight Lines (1983). Reich held strong reservations about importing the sound elements from world music, because—as he wrote in “Hebrew Cantillation as an Influence on Musical Composition,” a 1982 essay collected in his Writings on Music: 1965-2000—“to retune them and use them in my own music would have seemed a kind of musical rape.” Instead, he borrowed structural elements, as in Eight Lines, in which “its construction in the flute and piccolo parts resembles the construction of motives in Hebrew chant.”

For Milarsky, Eight Lines hits closer to home. “In some ways, you hear New York in his music,” he explained. “My own view is that this sort of slow but omnipresent change that happens in the city and in our lives is gently bubbling on the surface. The structures are so strong beneath, and yet the details change significantly over time.”

But there is more than one way to look at a city, and if Eight Lines represents one musical metaphor for urbanity, Milarsky sees Wuorinen’s New York Notes (1982) as its antithesis. “Coloristically, it describes New York City as not a very peaceful place.” Indeed, if one were to focus solely on the city’s surface patterns, it would be hard to ignore its chaotic elements. The work’s outer movements “seek out beauty in harsh sounds—they’re jagged, wild, and hectic.”

Chaos is an important concept in Wuorinen’s music. Born in New York City in 1938, Wuorinen showed a penchant for both music and science as a child. While teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-’70s, he became familiar with the fractal geometry of French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, best known for his important contributions to chaos theory. For Wuorinen, the infinite and chaotic generation of structures through the iteration of finite elements, typified in Mandelbrot’s fractals, had important ramifications for his own compositional aesthetic.

“It occurred to me that this is the basic characteristic of music and that it is, in fact, proved that in well-composed music the same kinds of things tend to happen in the large as in the small,” he said in an interview for Richard D. Burbank’s book Charles Wuorinen: A Bio-bibliography. For New York Notes, Wuorinen synthesized fractal formation theory with serialist music structures, derivative especially of Schoenberg and Babbitt, to create a unique compositional approach.

Lindberg, like Wuorinen, found early creative impetus in serialism and combinatorics. Born in 1958 in Helsinki, Finland, Lindberg pursued his compositional studies at the Sibelius Academy in the late ’70s. His influences ranged from serialism and mathematical set theory to Minimalism and tonality. Some of this diversity can be heard in his 1992 work, Corrente, for chamber orchestra, which is filled with rhythmic energy and drive, propelled by an ostinato in a constant state of flux. Eventually the harmonic underpinnings generate an unintended quotation, from Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, which Lindberg retrospectively assigned significance. This sort of accidental quotation, for Lindberg, is unavoidable. “As soon as you combine three or four notes, ramifications with all sorts of music come into being. These ramifications are present whatever you do, even if they can be hidden, and I do not see any danger in displaying them,” he said in an interview with Peter Szendy in 1993.

For Milarsky, the privilege of performing these works begins with the players. “This is such an awesome group of people, who are so passionate about contemporary music,” he says. “Part of the choice of the music was to show them off.”


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