Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

Auréole: Embracing the Wind and the Strings


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American Modern Recordings AMR 1050

Auréole consists of Laura Gilbert, flute; Mary Hammann, viola; and Stacy Shames, harp.  It is an ensemble seemingly based on the instrumentation of Debussy’s justly famed sonata (1916) for that combination of instruments.  It is like the instrumentation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) whose instrumentation (flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and voice and/or percussion) has become a sort of standard grouping and has had much written for it (much more than the flute, viola, and harp combo).

Nevertheless this ia a charming chamber ensemble and they’ve chosen their repertoire well for this recording.  Here are four works which share the instrumentation of the aforementioned Debussy sonata.  They also share a similar musical aesthetic in their basically tonal and romantic style. This ensemble has chosen works dating from therapy twentieth century to the early twenty first. Two are by Israeli composers and two by Americans. 

The album opens with a trio simply entitled, “Chamber Music” (1978) by the late Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984).  He was born Paul Frankenberger and was born in Germany. He, like many Jewish refugees from the horrors of WWII, settled in what was then Palestine where he became known (for better or worse) as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  His music is overdue for a new reckoning and this is a fine example of his work. This lovely trio is cast in three movements and is bound to please and entertain. 

Next up is Robert Paterson’s (1970- ) “Embracing the Wind” (1999).  Cast in one movement it has a touch of modernism but remains a predominantly post-romantic work which takes its inspiration from the wind and the way it moves objects. It traverses several moods as it spins its tale but remains compelling throughout, a very strong piece of music which fits the general sound and ethic of this program.  And it leaves this listener wanting more.

“Veiled Echoes”(2000) is the second work by an Israeli composer on this disc.  Lior Novak (1971- ) would seem to be a worthy successor to Mr. Ben-Haim.  This three movement trio is a meditation on the composer’s perception of links between mountains, sky, and other nature phenomena. Very enjoyable music.

The album concludes with what is described as a tone poem.  It is based on one of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s (1898-1936) stories, “Thamar y Amnon”. The composer is Ian Krouse (1956- ).  This rather harrowing romance is in a single movement with many moods which evoke the tale.  In a nice touch the story is reproduced in its entirety in both Spanish and English.

This is a beautifully conceptualized and performed disc which introduces music which would compliment the Debussy sonata in spirit as well as instrumentation.  Brava and now tell us of your next project.

A Major New Cello Concerto from Esa-Pekka Salonen


Perhaps this is a stroke of marketing genius or maybe some luck is involved but this recording has success written all over it. Yo-Yo Ma is without a doubt one of the finest musicians of our time. The LA Philharmonic is a world class orchestra with a world class conductor at the helm. And though this is but the first encounter by this reviewer with Salonen’s music this work suggests that his compositional skills are at a similar level. 

There is but one work on this disc, a large and very listenable cello concerto which dates from 2016. While the work is clearly modern in its style overall it leans toward romantic and impressionistic textures. Using his conductor’s mastery of the orchestra Salonen traverses territory that embraces the sound of composers such as Ives, Messiaen, Debussy, Barber, etc. Listeners will find familiar gestures but this work is not at all derivative. Rather it ultimately sounds like a complex but very connected improvisation between the soloist and the orchestra neither of whom have easy tasks (though they all play flawlessly).

The rather brief program booklet is basically a program note by the composer/conductor and it is most lucid. It might have been nice to hear as well from Mr. Ma but that is aminor criticism. This is a gorgeous piece given a characteristically powerful performance and this writer was simply enthralled from beginning to end. Now I guess it’s time to look into more of this man’s music. 

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Tim Brady’s Happiness Handbook, massed guitars, massed invention


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Starkland ST-232

This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland.  The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases.  You can find a listing on his web page here.  Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs.  Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham.  That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists.  Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.

In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016.  Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound.  It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here.  One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall.  All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet.  The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.

The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar.  If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well.  The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.

Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars.  This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.

And now the music.  The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic.  Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work.  This is practically a miniature symphony.  It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.

Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album.  It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work.  I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds.  Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.

Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope.  (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.)  Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example.  This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.

Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage.  This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy.  Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.

Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision.  The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are.  So much for happiness.

Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall.  Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again.  As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern.  There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony.  It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.

 

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


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I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

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Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

Jane Antonia Cornish, Post Modern Calm


At first listen I thought I might have put an Arvo Part album. The familiar calming sounds of what sounds like “holy minimalism” seemed to be coming at me. But who is this young British composer? Well, let me tell you, you need to pay attention to this one.

While the Arvo Part comparison is apt it only describes a small part of this composer’s range. She does seem to fit some sort of incarnation of “minimalist” by virtue of her use of repetition, silences, etc. At times her music leans sweetly toward the romantic but this is hardly light fare. The music evokes a sort of timelessness and calm but there are moments of tension and sadness as well.

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From the composer’s web site.

Jane Antonia Cornish (1975- ) is a British composer and, looking at her education and training she appears to come almost out of nowhere. Her music clearly draws on aspects of minimalism but her teachers are not the “usual suspects”. Like a lot of people from her generation she seems to draw on a rather comprehensive training in the ever expanding language of new music and uses what works for her. (Doubtless she is quite capable of writing thorny serial music should she find that useful to her expression.)  She currently lives and works in New York City.  Her web page can be found here.

Cornish is originally from London, England and she studied composition with Dr. Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, and completed her master’s degree at the Royal College of Music. She is a recipient of the Edward Hecht Composition Prize, the RNCM Composition Prize and the Associated Board Prize for the Most Outstanding Scholar of the Year. Cornish was also made a Major Scholar of the RNCM.  She is also the recipient of a 2005 BAFTA award for her film and television work.

This emerging composer has been quite prolific.  The present album is her third and she has also done film scores.  Her style seems to be influenced by the post minimalist/holy minimalist school but with a touch of melancholy.  Of course it will be necessary to hear more of her work to get a good overall impression but that will be a labor of love.  This is really listenable.

This is chamber music, violin, cellos, piano but what a big and warm sound!  I liked this album immediately and subsequent listenings have failed to diminish my enthusiasm.  This is engaging and substantive music that has enough depth that allows the listener to get past the pretty surface to the complexities and subtleties that lie beneath the surface.

The musicians include: Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Caitlin Sullivan, Claire Bryant, Hamilton Berry, cellos; Anna Elashvili, violin; Vicky Chow, piano.  All are fined dedicated musicians and they seem to be enjoying themselves here.  You would be doing yourself a favor to got to their respective web sites (linked from here) to see the breadth of these fine young musicians’ activities and interests.  

Thank you Innova for the wisdom of recording this composer’s works (Innova has also released her albums Continuum, and Silence).  And thank you for sharing your artistic talents Ms. Cornish.

 

Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


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All is set up in the diminutive performance space at CNMAT.

Jenny Q. Chai is a graduate of Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music.  She is trained as a pianist but she is in the process of expanding that role somewhat.  Chai is one of an unusual group of people called “synaesthetes”, that is, people who see sounds and hear colors.  Her program tonight is entitled, “Sonorous Brushes”.

I am not a synaesthete and it is most likely that most of the audience was more like me.  The actual prevalence of synaesthesia in which stimulation of one sense (such as sound) simultaneously stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway (such as color or emotion) is estimated to occur in about 4% of the general population (estimates vary).  This condition is unusual but is not pathological.  The interest or the challenge here is the artist’s attempt to convey her personal synaesthetic perceptions in a way that can be understood by those not similarly wired.

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Chai spoke eloquently about her research to the audience.

The program was divided into sections.  In the first Chai performed some mostly conventional repertoire from the early twentieth century namely Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen.  The four Debussy pieces with which Ms. Chai opened this recital (two etudes, “Pour les huits doigts” and “Pour les quartes” and preludes 11 and 12 from book 2) left absolutely  and no doubt as to  and the artist’s virtuosity and interpretive skills.  She then launched into a Ravel homage by one Frederic Durieux followed by Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes and a  truly athletic Messiaen piece.  Understandably these pieces inspired visual creations by this artist and seemed to be the seed for her ongoing research.

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It is curious and somehow very fitting that this musical exploration begin with music that was inspired by the visual.  Impressionism was pretty much paralleled by the music which appears to have been inspired by the visual art, an early argument for synaesthesia.  There is little doubt that many artists (and non-artists) have had this condition for better or worse but it is likely that such unusual perceptions would have been classified as pathological and not the topic of polite conversation back in the 19th century and before.

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On this night it would be not merely a topic of conversation but an introduction to research which began with a grant Chai received from the French government for research into synaesthesia and presenting these ideas to a wider audience.  Far from pathology, this could even be seen as a deficit in those who lack this ability.  The key then is to explore synaesthesia as a potential asset.  Of course a complete and detailed explanation was not the goal of the evening.  This was to whet our appetites.

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Composer Jarosław Kapuściński explains some of the technology behind his compositions and the visual art that accompanied these performances.

 

This next part of the program involved the work of Jarosław Kapuściński (Warsaw, 1964-) whose two pieces were slated for the last portion of the program.  He is, since 2016, the chair of the music department at Stanford University and no doubt spends time with CCRMA (Stanford’s equivalent of CNMAT) investigating music, sound and computers.  He spoke of being inspired by a calligrapher who was also well known to Ms. Chai, a Chinese woman and master calligrapher named Shanshan Zhao (the film was done at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music).  While he did not go into great detail the composer basically shared his visual inspirations and spoke a bit about how his composition program “listens” to the performer (see the photo with the two mikes inside the piano below) and responds in some way.  This sounds like another chapter in the book which includes David Behrman’s early computer/performer interactive experiments.  Some 50 years later (this piece, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” is from 2018 and got its US premiere here tonight).  Another generation shows its expertise.

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Note the two black microphones inside the piano. No, its not the Russians.

The title, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018) references Ziqi, a man whose listening was so perfect that the musician destroyed his instrument after Ziqi died because he knew he would never find a better listener.  This ancient Chinese story (approx 770-476 BC) is also about the merging of sound and image in its way.  Several calligraphies are displayed in process during the performance with the music reflecting the moods of the Chinese characters being displayed.  Each movement involves a different Chinese character and a different attempt at calligraphy.  There may be extramusical references here but the music does a satisfying job of standing with the visuals and further analysis can be left to musicologists and program annotators.

In addition Kapuściński is no stranger to Asian arts.  He has explored eastern musics and incorporated aspects of them into some of his works.  He is also no stranger to computers and their use in composition.  His appreciation of disparate artistic techniques effectively spanning 5000 years and utilizing them effectively is a mark of genius in this writer’s opinion.  This is a challenging piece for the soloist but it is a sensual journey for the audience.  While the geekier folks (this reviewer definitely included) would like to know much more about the technical aspects of this gorgeous music, suffice it to say that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying the art.

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Chai playing the interactive piano part to the visuals in “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018), This was the California premiere.

This was followed by another visual/musical collaboration, Side Effects (2017) also by Kapuściński involves music set to videos by Kacper Kowalski who shoots from a perspective 150 meters directly above his subjects.  Think a latter day Koyaanisqatsi (do I need to footnote that reference?).  Again we see affecting music which captures the composer’s reaction to the visuals.  I didn’t get the sense that there was any computer interaction here, just some good music to some stunning visuals.

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Chai playing the music to the visuals in “Side Effects” (2017)

The capacity audience (the room capacity is only 49) was very appreciative and gave a standing ovation which compelled no less than two encores.  Forgive your reviewer for not being able to recall the first but there seemed to be a new magic afoot when this pianist launched into the second, a wonderful rendition of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It was a loving and intense interpretation (no doubt full of colors as well) and it left the audience satisfied as a dessert would cap the climax of a fine meal.  Brava, Ms. Chai.  And thank you Mr. Kapuściński.