Stephen L. Mosko: Music, Mind, and Personality

by Arthur Jarvinen

"My music, my words, my thoughts are obviously influenced by many other people, cultures, and times. I neither care to avoid nor to imitate these influences, since they are the make-up of my mind." - Stephen L. Mosko - from program notes for Indigenous Music II

To hear a composition by Stephen Mosko is to take a guided tour of one of contemporary music's most intriguing and agile minds. Composers often say they "write what they hear". Mosko writes what he thinks, so that he (and we) may hear it.

With post-Webern European art music as a point of departure, Mosko's musical journey has taken him around the world by a circuitous route. He listens voraciously, with an open ear and mind, absorbing the influence of Sufi ceremonial music, Chinese opera, Rumanian gypsy tunes, and Icelandic epic song (he is one of the world's only authorities on the latter). But he is not a mere borrower, simply mimicking superficial characteristics of the music of others in an attempt to sound exotic. Rather, the subtler aspects of his listening experiences become conceptual models, i.e. ways of thinking about his own music. And not only musical ideas imbed his works. His readings in contemporary physics, astrology, and ancient literature have all played vital roles in shaping Mosko's music.

In an age of high-technology, when almost every other composer has at least occasionally turned to electronics, if not embracing it wholeheartedly, Mosko continues to compose exclusively for unamplified acoustic instruments and voice. He delights in the sounds of wood, metal, gut, and skin, and in the ability of humans to keep coaxing fresh sounds from them. His works often push players to the edge of their abilities and beyond, but never out of carelessness or ignorance. His predilection for seldom-used string harmonics, for example, is firmly grounded in the acoustical facts of these instruments.

When speaking about his own music and methods Mosko often refers to "games". Not the usual games we all know, but self-devised rules of procedure and methods of personal amusement. Some of these are simply structural props; others surface in more blatant ways. Lady R., the dramatic soprano of Night of the Long Knives, delivers her lines in a hilarious patois which the composer devised by trying to come as close to French as he could without actually studying the language. A more serious expression of Mosko's interest in language is the text sung by the cellist in her cadenza from Indigenous Music II -

- which not only serves a musical end but provides an eloquent program note for the work.

Structurally, Mosko's compositions are like complex tapestries; variations of variations interwoven to form intricate webs of line and color. Cascading, chromatic piano arpeggios, fragile harmonics and whistle tones, jarring bass drum explosions, bending gong notes, and odd, fleeting fragments of melody merge, collapse, re- emerge, and disappear again in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of sound. Complex yet transparent, similar self- contained gestures like miniature compositions are laid out in a line; stepping stones in a path that ultimately leads nowhere. This moment-form is an outgrowth of Mosko's enduring fascination with music's ability to alter conciousness, especially our temporal perceptions. Ideally, for him, the listener will not be able to say with certainty whether a piece just heard was five minutes or five hours long.

"[Morton Feldman] encouraged me to let my music be whatever I wanted, without concern for stylistic or social 'correctness'. He said the best music could not be imitated because it was pure personality."S.L.M.

Stephen Mosko's music is just that.

Copyright © 1995 Arthur Jarvinen

Stephen L. Mosko

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