On The Outside, Looking Out

George Grella on Alex Mincek

It was a pleasant March afternoon, and composer Alex Mincek and I were talking about his musical career thus far, which has been outsized in both substance and extent in proportion to its still relatively brief duration. I asked about his artistic aspirations, about what the future might hold, and his answer unexpectedly opened up a window onto one of the most acute shortcomings of our contemporary classical music scene.

 

Each musical epoch establishes its own predominant values and tastes, which for newly made music amounts to a set of expectations: based on history, and what one has been hearing, what does the ear anticipate when it comes to a new name, or a premiere? The expectation game makes it hard for the mind and critical opinion to sort out sounds, forms, and structures that don’t conform to prevalent styles. As each of us carries our own tastes and opinions into the concert hall, so none of us have an absolutely open mind about what we are about to hear. For good or ill, the pluralities of expectation amount to the predominant stylistic values for a particular time period; after all, even Bach and Mozart were out of favor for generations

"I want to write a lot more for the orchestra, but I’m too far out for American orchestras and not out enough for European ones."

Mincek has a consistent, identifiable voice as a composer, one that falls outside large swathes of the contemporary classical map. To begin with, take the arguments over tonality, which for decades now have been so central to the broader historical and contemporary mainstream that a composer’s view of them are quite arguably the strongest indication of their formal ideas and their place in—and personal view of—history.

 

Mincek’s view of tonality is creatively ambiguous, a phenomenon that can be fascinating or confounding, depending on your expectations. He works primarily in terms of sound, not pitch—a feature of the avant-garde and experimental streams since Varèse, except that he’s neither an avant-garde nor experimental composer per se. He writes mainly for pitched instruments, so his sound is still expressed through groupings of notes that come together in various degrees of consonance and dissonance. While not tonal in the classical or even modern (Debussyian) sense, neither is the work atonal. His forms are realized by means other than functional harmony or serial atonality.

 

They are also realized by means other than the repetitive pulse-grid minimalism (in Kyle Gann’s term) that has spread so deeply through music in the past forty years that even pop musicians with designs on a composing career routinely churn out pieces expressing the idea that composing is nothing more than writing a couple of bars of constant eighth-notes and then copying and pasting those out for long, long stretches.

 

Mincek, in contrast, operates within a broader and more distant horizon of repetition, something which can be heard most immediately in his series of ten Pendulum pieces. In these, repetition takes the form, roughly, of loops. They are larger and less fractured than the ones used, for example, by Bernhard Lang (a composer Mincek admires). Working with these large-scale loops, Mincek uses the essential components of form, which are sound and silence, to build the types of rigorous structures that make even the most unexpected ideas clear, and to encourage the ear to follow along even when things like direction and meaning seem mysterious.

 

The first work of Mincek’s I ever heard was Pendulum VII, written for a mixed chamber ensemble of nine instrumentalists. It was at the Zankel Hall premiere in 2011, which had the composer himself playing tenor saxophone in a group that featured musicians from the S.E.M. Ensemble. By that point, three years’ worth of new music concerts in New York City at which I heard more than my fair share of new pieces from young composers had my ears primed for repetition repetition repetition… Yet Pendulum VII was a gripping experience all the same.

 

The piece opened with a skronking, stop-and-start structure along the lines of John Zorn or the punk jazz group Gutbucket—sharp and fast jump-cuts and juxtapositions played with a jabbing punch. But this wasn’t some kind of improvised, irreverent thrash, though Mincek did explain when we talked that he improvises a few riffs in the piece (he is the only instrumentalist for whom he writes improvised parts). Rather, it was music written with an X-Acto knife, with absolute precision and attention to the fine details of phrasing and orchestration. There was almost constant, chattering activity, and the unsettling thrill of ideas racing by just past the point of apprehension, each adding to a complex and constantly changing experience.

 

And then, like a pendulum, the piece swung into a different, but related, structural concept. The level of activity remained the same, but the sense of time and motion was entirely different. The music was like a frothing suspension, holding still via sustained pitches, but simmering through tremolos, rebowings, flutter-tonguing. There was the feeling that the music contained some sort of strange, awesome power.

 

Then everything swung back to the beginning idea again. Mincek’s pendulum idea can be fairly heard as a contemporary take on sonata-allegro form, with the return of the first high point made deeper, musically and intellectually, by the previous swing. The sustained, time-suspending music could be taken as the foundation for the edifice heard at the beginning, and then in its return. Music that had literally seemed to fly and flutter past turned out to have interconnected, subterranean roots.

 

Not all of Mincek’s work fits into the Pendulum mold, but you can find his core values there: energy, rigor, intelligence, the sense that he’s not building forms as an architect does, but uncovering them by chipping away at some marvelous substance, as curious as we are about how it might turn out. But though it pops up frequently, the agitated, edgy sensibility of Pendulum VII is not a constant in his work. Where the earlier Pendulum pieces are lean and sharp, Pendulum X (first heard at the 2015 Ostrava Days festival) was positively lush, with big, sonorous chords, and more than a touch of Debussyian plangency.

Listen to Alex Mincek's Pendulum VII from his upcoming SA Productions CD - Torrent

In February, Mincek received the de facto honor of his own concert in the Composer Portraits series at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. First under George Steel, and now Melissa Smey, the series has been the seal of approval for composers old and young working in the modernist tradition, however broadly defined. At Miller, the two pianos-and-two percussionists ensemble Yarn/Wire and the Mivos Quartet played four pieces, two of them world premieres, and one a Miller commission.

 

The older (but still relatively recent—both date from 2010) works were Pendulum VI: Trigger, previously written for Yarn/Wire, and Mincek’s String Quartet No. 3 lift—tilt—filter—split. Pendulum VI reinforced the idea that the series is, in some way, a testing ground for the continued relevance of the sonata-allegro principle, while the string quartet was a veritable tour de force of craftsmanship. Although it sounds like it’s full of indeterminate motion, Mincek confirmed that everything is in fact specifically indicated.

 

The new works were Images of Duration (In homage to Ellsworth Kelly), played by Yarn/Wire, and Torrent, for the combined octet. Both were impressively made, full of perfectly judged proportions of space and silence—a common experience being a moment of silence suddenly interrupted by a musical event at the moment of maximum tension. Images of Duration felt like a 21st-century take on Impressionism, with sections like “Points on a Colored Spiral” and “Oxblood becomes Orchid” being full of soft resonances and an at times ritualistic regard for timbres and overtones. There were also touches of Spike Jones and Helmut Lachenmann at his most irreverent, welcome appearances of humor in Mincek’s music.

 

Torrent carried power in both its shape and its orchestration. A long, drone-like opening gradually transforms into more coherent phrases and rhythms, while the piece oscillates between the punch of complex sounds and equally complex, but more obviously musical timbres. The expressive idea that shone through in both premieres was that of personal change through time, a Romantic journey from innocence to experience.

 

Just as Mincek’s work is too far outside, or too far inside, depending on where the observer is standing, so too his career path, which has not always followed the usual composer’s biography. When he started making music seriously, he was playing jazz. Though not unheard of, one of the things that is unique about Mincek is how firmly and clearly he separated jazz from classical music in his own practice, something that set him apart even from accomplished contemporaries and colleagues like Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey.

There’s no jazz to be heard in Mincek’s composing. He loves the music, and values the social activity of playing jazz, but he’s first and foremost a composer. “I got driven to it, I can do it any time, any place, by any means. I have more global control of all the elements, I can control everything.”

Mincek grew up in Florida, where he studied saxophone with Bunky Green, an almost criminally under-appreciated musician who himself falls between stylistic categories (mainstream hard-bop and the avant-garde). His collegiate studies began at the University of North Florida, and in 1995 he transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, where he first became the composer he is today. There he garnered the requisite academic credentials—an MM in Composition—and then at Columbia, where he earned his DMA in 2011.

 

All the while, Mincek and saxophonist Sam Hillmer founded Zs, one of the emblematic avant-garde bands of the new century. At the start, Mincek said, the idea was to make music “with logic, but not completely bound to expectations.” The albums, singles, and EPs released through to 2005, when Mincek departed, were simultaneously contemporary classical and avant-garde instrumental rock, noise and post-punk, urban funk and pretty much everything one thinks of at a barely conscious level while being jostled on the subway, hurrying from one place to the next, always behind, always seeking a moment of repose. An inchoate, mercurial internal experience regulated by the rhythms of transportation, work, and other people’s time, something both inside and outside. (The early Zs output with Mincek is collected on the Northern Spy four-CD set Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002–2007.)

 

He was also an active member of Wet Ink, the ensemble of composer-musicians he founded, and which generally orbited around Columbia. Like Zs, the ensemble makes music that is part of the contemporary classical world, and yet is also part of other worlds: members have included Ian Antonio, a current member of Yarn/Wire and former member of Zs; composer and singer Kate Soper; pianist and composer Eric Wubbels; and composer and laptop artist Sam Pluta.

 

Wet Ink’s repertoire includes music that they collectively develop, like a rock band. The ensemble also plays works, such as those of George Lewis, that are carving out a new approach to idiomatic improvisation in a contemporary classical music setting. And the group is a leading interpreter of composers like Anthony Braxton and Christian Wolff, both of whom, as a result of their absolutely individual and even idiosyncratic artistic paths, remain connected to the academy, but are not of it. Taken together, it all makes for a body of work drawing connections that might seem obvious, even commonplace, were it not for the reality that they have, in actual fact, been woefully under-explored.

 

During this period, Mincek was also still playing jazz, hitting jam sessions at venues like Smalls, where he recalls having once had an interesting encounter with no less than Cecil Taylor. In conversation Mincek lets flow a list of jazz musicians he adores: Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane... Then there were Joe Henderson’s State of the Tenor recordings of 1986, which were essential listening for him when he was a young musician. And he deeply admires the music of Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton, and Evan Parker.

 

Those last three can fairly be identified as jazz musicians, but their work goes far beyond that. Parker’s way of improvising and working with sound constitutes its own idiom, and Braxton and Mitchell have strong, important voices as non-jazz composers. To these, Mincek adds Alvin Singleton, who seems an aesthetic peer—a composer who writes music of incontrovertible logic, but which conforms to no predominant notions of how composed music is supposed to sound.

 

This broad range of practical working experience means that Mincek has “seen how the sausage is made” (his phrase). He knows not only how music is composed and how notes are pushed around on paper, but what it means to be in front of a variety of audiences, what works with musicians and listeners and what doesn’t. His music gives the impression that the road from conception to execution is direct, that what one hears is exactly what he intends.

 

There’s no jazz to be heard in Mincek’s composing. He loves the music, and values the social activity of playing jazz, but he’s first and foremost a composer. “I got driven to it, I can do it any time, any place, by any means. I have more global control of all the elements, I can control everything.”

 

And that is the feeling imparted by his pieces, complete and confident control over his materials. Taking a logical proposition—e.g. what can be done by swinging between two formal ideas—and testing it to the last degree is usually an avant-garde recipe. But Mincek’s composerly craft, his conviction that pieces are finished works to be played, rather than experiments to be simply carried out, keeps him at arm’s length from the vogue for new concepts. Meanwhile, the sound of his music ensures that those American orchestras remain leery.

"On The Outside, Looking Out" was originally published April 28, 2016 and is reprinted here through the kind permissions of Music and Literature and George Grella.

 

 

George Grella Jr. is a composer, independent scholar, and critic. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail and a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, publishes the Big City blog, contributes to New Music Box, and has written for publications like the Grove Dictionary of American Music and Musicians, Signal to Noise,  His Voice. His book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is available as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.