William Susman (1960- ) may not be a household name but, since my first encounter (purely by chance) with this man’s work I have heard, enjoyed, and reviewed several fascinating CDs of chamber music and film music which demonstrate a significant musical voice with some mighty substantial compositions. I don’t know how Mr. Susman feels about being called a “minimalist” but that is the most useful way I can convey with words his musical style. That much used word is a sort of catch all for what is in fact a plethora of compositional styles based in some basic, though hardly rigid, set of practices like static harmonies and repetition.
There are, as of this writing, four books of Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2010, 2012, 2013), each book contains 22 pieces further divided into 11 “Prologues” followed by 11 “Actions”. While I have only the vaguest idea of what processes the composer uses in these works (Book I at least) sounds to these ears like music which should share company with the likes of Terry Riley’s “Two Keyboard Studies” (1965), William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes” (1977-78), Jeroen van Veen’s “Minimal Preludes” (four books1999-2013), Philip Glass’ “Etudes” (two volumes1994-2012). Spiritually they share a kinship with antecedents such as Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” (six volumes1926-1939), and, ultimately I suppose, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (1722-1742). Yes, these are a diverse set of works for comparison, but to my ears they seem to share attempts to codify and/or experiment with their respective materials. They are the composers’ working out of their ideas.
And, in a delightful coincidence the pianist chosen to interpret these works is none other than Nicolas Horvath, a name that has graced these pages numerous times since our first online meeting in about 2014. Horvath has become a sort of pied piper for minimalist composers. He has performed solo recitals lasting up to 35 hours including Philip Glass’ complete piano music, a solo rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893-94), whose 840 repetitions were first performed by a tag team of pianists helmed by John Cage (of course) in 1963. He has also recently recorded all the piano music of little known French minimalist composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005) and numerous other projects including his own original compositions and sound/art installations.
Horvath was born to play this music and Mr. Susman kindly informed me that he will indeed record the remaining three books. This musician’s curatorial radar is as unique as it is accurate. That is, he knows good music when he sees/hears it and he searches far and wide. He delivers loving and authoritative performances here. It is, after all, his métier.
Susman’s etudes are experimental only in the sense of a composer exploring his inspiration, transcribing the dictation of his muses. The title “Quiet Rhythms” is quite apt as these are really kind of soothing in their harmony and meandering developments. And, more importantly, they have the weight of substance.
Three of these have been recorded before and I’m pleased to say that the remaining 8 compositions are equal in quality to the ones I’d already heard. Each numbered piece is actually two pieces, a prologue of 90-120 seconds followed by a more complex sounding work using similar methods. At first I had wanted to write about each of the pieces but I found myself enraptured by the music and insufficiently skilled in musicology to do a respectable analysis of these works.
So I’ve chosen to simply say that these are fascinating and engaging pieces whose structure is very much secondary to the quality of the musical content. These are truly post minimal works with a much wider harmonic palette than its minimalist predecessors. The sound is quite rich and the pieces engage the listener transporting them to a powerful emotional experience. The music echoes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley but they also are destined to share a place in the repertoire alongside similar works by William Duckworth, Jeroen van Veen, and Simeon ten Holt.
Horvath is truly in his element here and his performances are hypnotically engaging. I can’t imagine these works being done better but, that said, they are attractive concert pieces for adventuresome pianists to program. Above all these are listener friendly despite the feel that they are almost a sort of textbook or manifesto by the composer which describes in music his vision of minimalism/post-minimalism.
If you’re a fan of minimal/post-minimal music this is a must have. but beware and remember to budget for the forthcoming 3 discs. You will want them all.
OK, I admit that using the term “rogue” is a stretch. But titles of reviews should help draw the reader to it. And “clickbait” is the new “catchy”. But, in another sense one doesn’t generally think of the bass clarinet as a standalone recital instrument, even with electronics. Increasingly, it seems, new music purveyors are liberating instruments once unthinkable outside an orchestra or chamber ensemble. Jazz players have long used the bass clarinet as a solo instrument alongside the ubiquitous family of saxophones and the flute as the woodwinds that comprise most jazz ensembles,
Classical music has been slow to accept the bass clarinet until relatively recently. I don’t know when the first use of a bass clarinet either as a standalone solo or as part of a chamber ensemble occurred but certainly post 1950. Without getting in to the “whys” of this one can simply embrace the increasing presence of this instrument and its fascinating players.
Here, we get another of the subgenre of “COVID Isolation music”, itself a category worth further exploration.
There are five selections with composition dates ranging from 1983 to 2020 and composers from the still underappreciated Isang Yun to a new name, Hidiaki Aomori, a composer and friend of the soloist. And the remainder are risen and rising stars including the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, Grawmeyer Award winner Unsuk Chin, and the prolific Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.
The Fujikura work opens this isolated recital with a melancholy piece which appears to be a set of variations and has the character of a cadenza calling upon both technical and interpretive skills of the performer. And do I hear a nod to minimalism at the end? “Contour” (2020) is a fine opener where Lee displays her technical skills and insight to the composer’s vision.
Then its back to 1985 with one of the technical peaks of Boulez’ work at IRCAM, “Dialogue de L’Ombre Double” for bass clarinet with inscrutably complex electronics. This once leading edge example of the avant garde in its day actually sounds a bit dated but the soloist here seems to humanize the piece with her warm interpretation. And, despite what you may hear in the other tracks here, it is the only one using electronics on this disc.
Isang Yun (1917-1995), the late prolific Korean master is beginning to get more of a reckoning, and this 1983 piece, “Monolog for Bass Clarinet” is a fine entry to the expanding recorded oeuvre of this mid/late-twentieth century embattled and neglected genius. This piece speaks deeply of alone-ness.
Unsuk Chin (1961- ), a rising star and Grawmeyer Award winner is represented by a bass clarinet solo from her much lauded opera “Alice in Wonderland”. This stand alone solo, titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” is a maze of hallucinatory nods to Gershwin, Carl Stalling, and perhaps Prokofiev (in a “Peter and the Wolf” sense) using multiphonics and seems to expand the possibilities of this instrument to limits which might only be transcended with electronic assistance.
Hideaki Aomori‘s “Split” is a rather personal addition, a submission from one friend to another, a gift from one alone to another alone. It is another fine solo work which sits stylistically somewhere between the technical extremes of Boulez and Unsuk Chin and the more melodic work of Fujikura and Yun.
This is a very personal disc on many levels and it is a fine calling card by which to introduce listeners to this fine musician.
Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.
And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.
So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.
Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.
The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.
Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.
While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.
Microtones and alternate tuning systems are increasingly one of the most significant streams in new classical music as well as in the revisioning of old classical music to capture the sound of the music in its original milieu, which is not current performance practice. In the liner notes John Schneider says that hearing Bach in 12 tone equal temperament (current performance practice) is analogous to “exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.”
That image conjures for me a childhood memory of my mother bringing home some of the promotional gimmicks by one of the Chicago based supermarkets. It involved prints of famous paintings with a wax textured surface to imitate the look of oil paint on canvas. It’s a tortured metaphor for the present recording but it speaks of “cheesy imitation”. The present recording is one of an increasing number of recordings done with the scholarship of the very complex area of tuning, the surprisingly varied types of scales devised to solve harmonic complexities that occur due to the physics of sound itself. And by so doing, placing earlier efforts as “cheesy” by contrast.
In fact, Schneider (who kindly sent this disc to me), is one of the scholars at the forefront of recreating the musical scales as they existed at the time of the compositions so to get a clearer idea of how it must have sounded at the time. Toward that end one can now obtain guitars capable of being tuned to the subtleties of the scales. Another such disc was reviewed here. In fact guitarist Dan Lippel, in that recording played one of Mr. Schneider’s guitars.
I am working to learn more about the fascinating field of alternate tuning systems to better understand the various tunings in the flow of new music that comes to my desk. But listeners need not concern themselves with these details. The curious fact for this listener is that, on first hearing, the subtle differences in tunings were not immediately obvious (Well Tempered Kirnberger III on this recording). A better trained musical ear would doubtless hear these differences much sooner than I had but I have noticed that I have begun to hear these subtleties having been listening to this disc and some of the similar efforts on the aforementioned Lippel recordings and other titles on Mr. Schneider’s fine Microfest label. It seems like a sort of learning curve in which my brain learns to process these sounds and to hear them as more natural rather than altered.
I apologize for all this chatter but this album is not just about Bach, it is about hearing Bach as he heard it, freed from the shackles of the dominant western paradigms of how to tune a scale. It is a revelation but a gentle one whose radiance is clearer in the light of the retuning of the scale, removing the “wax paper” of the familiar western tuning to reveal a clarity not heard since the composer’s time. It is analogous to the 2018 restoration of the Rose Window (1210) in Chartres Cathedral bringing light in ways not seen in a very long time.
The fine Slovenian guitarist, Mak Grgic is a new name to this writer but one I hope to hear from again. In his selection of repertoire as well as his distinctive playing he makes a compelling and loving case for this music. His well organized web site details his work as musician, teacher, musicologist, composer, and international performer. This release is (by discogs) his seventh appearance on CD and his second recording for Microfest Records.
These are apparently Grgic’s transcriptions, not the “usual suspects” one might expect from a new Bach recording with the exception of the Cello Suite in D. This is apparently a very personal selection of music chosen with curational care. I’ve included a photo of the back cover to show the unique selections.
The Rose Window depicts the revelation and the final judgement of mankind. The present audio document is a gentle revelation but doubtless not the final word on Bach. But the scholarship is fascinating and the sound simply gorgeous. The wax paper has been removed.
Seth Graham’s art work alone might be a reason to buy this release by Canadian musician/producer Nick Storring. He sent this to me with several other releases by Canadian composers and performers of various stripes. Some rock/blues solo guitar, some new classical, but this one…I wasn’t sure at first. And as one accustomed to placing music in some sort of context this left me a bit stumped. But that is NOT an indictment of the music on this disc. Rather it is a reflection of the limits of my own musical understanding as I approach the unfamiliar. In fact this is closest to classical chamber music. Its timbres and development are not stereotypically “classical” but these essays are absolute music in that they have no obvious meaning save for the titles whose poetic ambiguity are open to the listener’s interpretation.
So having gotten myself past that stage of trying to imagine the intended context or intended audience for this music I decided to just listen and I did, several times. What I heard was engaging but still with no obvious clue as to how to characterize it except to describe it in its most obvious aspect, chamber music with a personal twist.
The stylized writing on the back of the album is visually interesting but not easy to read so here is a breakdown of the individual tracks and timings:
Tides That Defeat Identity
Pretending You And I
Tonight There Will Be No Distance Between Us
What A Made-Up Mind Can Do
Now Neither One Of Us Is Breaking
My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell
The titles strongly suggest a very personal meaning for the composer but there are no lyrics and nothing that provides any clues as to the meanings behind these titles. So I found it necessary to simply treat them as individual expressions with, ultimately, abstract titles. The album is characterized on discogs as: modern, experimental, ambient, and new classical, pretty much what I finally deduced after my multiple listens.
I won’t attempt to characterize the individual pieces here except to say that they are tonal, engaging, and not obviously beholden to any particular formula or style. Yet there is an aspect of familiarity, gentle consonance. And therein lies the true value of this music. It does not rely on clichés but moves along to the composer/performer’s whim, which is to say that this is original music, experimental in timbre and musical development.
All the tasks, save for mastering are by Mr. Storring.
A look at Nick’s website reveals it to be very well designed and includes a complete discography (16 albums either solo or collaborative by my count), a well organized CV, and links to his work at Riparian Media in which he produces music by a variety of carefully curated albums by a variety of musicians. Listeners will probably want to peruse the composer’s list of works and performances which also list a variety of musicians, some of whom will be known to new music aficionados and those not familiar hold the tantalizing prospect of being quality composers/performers who have made it on to Nick’s well tuned curatorial radar.
So, after all this rambling let me just say that this album is a fine example of experimental new music which can serve whatever purpose you wish. Dance to it, use it as background music, or listen closely. This is an interesting artist (now permanently on this writer’s radar) who promises to bring forth more interesting music from himself and others.
Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.
Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).
The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.
Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.
Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.
The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.
The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.
We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.
Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.
The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.
This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.
Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.
The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.
This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.
The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.
Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black
At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.
Having chosen a debut album featuring solo cello without electronics or accompaniment the Sono Luminus label virtually guarantees that every one of the subtleties of the performer’s skills will be heard in all their glory. And so we have an auspicious solo debut album by a skilled and talented artist with a unique and intelligent vision in her choice of repertoire for her instrument. Hannah Collins has a beautifully designed web page describing her background so I will focus only on the music on this release.
Even a brief glance makes it obvious that Collins’ radar captures a wide range of music which encompasses five centuries of compositional efforts by both a consciously curated selection of composers that reflect both racial and gender diversity and who themselves represent a substantive variety of styles and visions. She begins with a rather obscure baroque composer (I had never heard of him), Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). His Chiacona (1670) is apparently the first identified composition for solo cello (the famous solo cello suites by J.S. Bach wouldn’t come along until 1717-1723).
This arguably foundational work of the solo cello genre is then followed by the very fine Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) whose Dreaming Chaconne (2010) is in fact a variation on the Colombi piece.
The third track, “In manus tuas” (Into your hands) by the equally fine American composer, Carolyn Shaw (1982- ) was written for Ms. Collins, and is an aural peek inside the mind of the composer as she recalls a performance of a motet by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Shaw evokes a sonic memory moment of hearing a performance of “In manus tuas Domine” in Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut which made a strong impression on her. It is a work that appears to be destined to become a modern classic. It creates spectral harmonics that engulf the listener inside Shaw’s memory of the event. The composition’s title also function metaphorically as she offers her music into the hands of the artist and the minds of the listeners. It is a challenge both technically and interpretively and Collins rises to those challenges with seeming ease.
The next seven tracks are given to another Saariaho composition, “Sept Papillons” (2000). This earlier work from her extensive catalog is also given to extended instrumental techniques as she evokes the seven butterflies of the title. This set of pieces was written for the fine Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen. It was at the 2008 Creative Dialogue Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (run by Karttunen) that Collins encountered this music and the extended techniques required for its performance. Saariaho’s sound world is like that of an incarnation of Debussy and his impressionist aesthetic. There is apparently no visual program here but the music recalls, in this listener’s mind, Saariaho’s earlier “Nymphea” (1987) for string quartet and electronics which was inspired by Monet’s famed “Water Lilies” of 1906.
This fine disc includes the first (of three) suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten. All three of these (1964, 1967, 1971) had all been composed for the Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the the Saariaho and Shaw pieces these suites are inspired by earlier works, in this case the Bach suites of the early 18th century. Collins plays the first (Opus 72) of these and her performance makes this listener hope that she will later record the other two.
While modeled on earlier music, the Britten work utilizes techniques that would likely be unfamiliar to cellists before the 20th century. It is homage both to Bach and to Maestro Rostropovich. And Collins’ playing furthers this homage to both of these past masters.
The final track is a work by one Thomas Kotcheff (1988- ). Like the first track, this young composer is unfamiliar to this writer. His work, “Cadenza (with or without Haydn)” of 2020” carries on the theme of homage. In a nod to the late great Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) whose “Cadenza with or without Beethoven” (2003) is an extended cadenza which can be played on its own or as part of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.
Kotcheff’s work is a cadenza for Haydn’s C major cello concerto. Like the Rzewski, it can be performed with the concerto or as a solo work on its own. Also like the Rzewski, the more modern aspects of this “cadenza” might confuse audiences anticipating more conventional music that fits with the context of the concerto for which it was written and the music stands very strongly on its own.
Like a lot of solo artists are doing these days, Collins’ debut solo album is like her personal manifesto of music for her chosen instrument. It is a fine foundation anticipating what will likely be an enlightening as well as entertaining career.
I can recall with delight the first time I heard a banjo in a classical piece. It was the 1936 score to the Pare Lorentz film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” by Virgil Thomson. In one of the movements of the suite extracted from the film score Thomson writes a set of variations on an American folk song, a practice he shared with his contemporary, Aaron Copland. The sound of the banjo was both jarring and charming and marked, for this listener, the first time hearing this vernacular instrument in a classical context. Then there was John McEuen, then of the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” including his transcription of the (familiar to young pianists) Sonatina by Muzio Clementi on one of their folk/rock/country albums.
So the release of these 24 Preludes for Banjo by Adam Larrabee, expertly played by John Bullard seems a natural next step. Bullard has previously released an album of Bach played on the banjo and seems intent on expanding the classical repertoire for his instrument. Here, rather than having transcriptions of music originally written for other instruments, we have music written directly for the banjo. Larrabee, an accomplished banjo player echoes Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in this set of 12 preludes (with 12 more yet to be recorded to complete the set of 24).
Composer Adam Larrabee strikes a pretty amazing balance writing brief pieces in each of 12 keys, alternating major and minor keys for contrast and incorporating, as Bach did, baroque dance forms. He connects to the twentieth and twenty first century by using some post baroque dance forms such as waltz, barcarolle, and mazurka. He even manages to further blur the lines of genre by penning an homage to rocker Rick Ocasek.
Rather than being intimidated or overwhelmed writing music which will inevitably invite comparisons with Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, etc. Larrabee never overplays his hand and sticks to short, simple forms devoid of unnecessary complexity. These are pretty much etudes on how to write for banjo and they provide a tasteful, entertaining set of examples that can serve as a great starting point for future compositions and future composers interesting in writing for this unusual folk instrument. I can’t wait for volume two.
The banjo, best known in both black and white vernacular or folk music, traces its origins to west Africa and come to this country as a biproduct of the transatlantic slave trade which began in 1619. Similar instruments can be found in other countries whose participation in the slave trade brought people who subsequently constructed these instruments for their personal use.
Now the utility of Bullard’s instrument is being consciously expanded and welcomed more fully into a place in a genre to which it had not originally been intended. It works.
When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.
At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.
It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.
Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.
When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.
Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.
I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.
The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.
Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.
In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).
After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.
To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.
Receiving this album for review the fact is I actually shed a tear when, upon opening my mail, I found the cover of this album cause my emotions to jump to regions of nostalgic memories deeply treasured.
Another fact is that, due to COVID 19, the virtual stoppage of all live concerts, and shifts in my scheduling priorities I had stopped following the career of Mr. Gibson (1940-2020) for the last few years and I wasn’t even aware that this disc had been released. I had heard that he had died in October, 2020. Gibson is a musician I first encountered, as most people had, via his omnipresence at concerts of the Philip Glass Ensemble where he was a founding member. Gibson’s performances of the saxophone solo in Glass’ “Facades”, which I first heard in 1980, are forever etched in my memory. And I caught pretty much every concert they did in or near Chicago from 1980 to perhaps 2000. So that little personal history gives you some idea as to why seeing this album was a “gut punch” of emotion to me.
I lifted this discography of Gibson’s releases from discogs.com and it does not include his work the Philip Glass Ensemble in which he was a member since 1968. It is probably not definitive but it provides some perspective on Gibson’s range of repertoire and his musical affiliations.
The Dance (CD, Album) Orange Mountain Music 70072013
Relative Calm (CD, Album)New World Records 80783-22016
Jon Gibson’s Visitations Otoroku2017
Violet Fire – An Opera About Nikola Tesla (2xCD, Album) Orange Mountain Music70182019
Songs & Melodies, 1973-1977 (2xLP, Album) Superior ViaductSV1732020
David Behrman with Jon Gibson & Werner Durand -Viewfinder / Hide & Seek (LP, Album, Ltd)Black Truffle BT08220211
Gibson’s brand of minimalism resembles Glass’ at times but Gibson’s eclecticism, his mix of styles bear the fingerprints of a style which will be easily recognized by listeners familiar with some of his previous albums.
This is an album’s worth of music written for a performance piece with choreography by the wonderful Lucinda Childs (who choreographed Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and commissioned Gibson in 1981 for this piece). Relative Calm (1981) is in four sections (or movements) each with its own character.
1. Relative Calm (Rise) (1981) Composed By, Wind, Keyboards, Autoharp, Sounds [Field Recording] – Jon Gibson Keyboards – Joseph Kubera Percussion – David Van Tieghem
2. Q-Music (Race) (1981) Composed By, Keyboards – Jon Gibson Keyboards – Joseph Kubera
3. Extensions RC (Reach) (1981) Sopranino Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson
4. Return (Return) (1981) Keyboards – Joseph Kubera Percussion – David Van Tieghem Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson
Gibson’s fondness for jazz is evident here but the dominant style is the composer’s brand of minimalism. Relative Calm was commissioned and choreographed by Lucinda Childs with decor by Robert Wilson, it received its world premiere by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company at Théatre National de Strasbourg in Strasbourg, France on November 26, 1981. It’s wonderful and it is a blessing to have this recording available.
This was released in 2016 on New World Records and is now available for streaming on Bandcamp. The excellent liner notes are by Kyle Gann and Dean Suzuki tell you pretty much all you need to know and the album sounds great. Thanks, Mr. Gibson, RIP.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Pamela Z first came to this writer’s attention when the fine Starkland label under the very insightful guidance of Tom Steenland released a cutting edge, surround sound 5.1 DVD release in 2000 which featured her along with other similarly interesting musicians in a forward looking recording.
The first CD dedicated entirely to Ms. Z’s work was also a Starkland release (A Delay is Better, 2004) was quickly added to my music collection when I was still a Chicago resident. Since moving to California in 2005 I have had the pleasure of seeing Pamela’s work live on numerous occasions (something which I highly recommend). She is a fascinating performer to watch as well as hear. These releases are the only ones dedicated entirely to her work currently available to the general public though her crowd funded DVD, Baggage Allowance may be obtainable through her web site. Much of her presence on recorded media is as a collaborator so this new disc of largely new work is a truly welcome addition to her catalog and an opportunity to see a unique talent.
Her visual presence and gestures are an important part of her work but it is the hearing part with which we are concerned here. Philip Blackburn at Neuma records has chosen to release a new disc consisting of performances of more recent compositions. Z maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing world wide and her quirky creativity has not failed her. Let me say that I use the word “quirky” just to indicate that her work is unique, a technological expansion of the tired “one man band” cliché in which she uses a variety of compositional electronics (some made exclusively for her) to facilitate her uniquely recognizable style. It is difficult to describe her work in a way that can easily be understood without actually having heard her work. Suffice it to say that, generally speaking, she works with live recording and subsequent looping of those sounds. She is able to turn loops on and off as the piece progresses. Her texts come from a variety of sources, including found texts. And the presentation of these texts are sometimes sung and sometimes spoken.
She has had great success as a collaborator with spoken word narration, singing (she also has a beautifully trained soprano voice), and performing with other musicians. These collaborations are listed on her web site and are worth your time to explore.
The photo of the back cover of this new album serves both to provide a listing of the tracks but also to display one of the wearable electronic devices mad for her which she uses (to pleasantly theatrical effect) in performance. From her web site: “She uses MAX MSP and Isadora software on a MacBook Pro along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound and image with physical gestures.”
Z is a vocalist, an operatically trained singer and voice over artist who has pioneered the use of complex delay and looping systems to produce her work. She is apparently enamored of language (she has studied English, French, Italian, and Japanese). Her combination of spoken and sung passages combined with the looping/delay technology, and, increasingly, writing for other instrumentalists is the basic medium(s) with which she works.
In my mind she shares conceptual space with artists like Amy X Neuberg, Meredith Monk, and Diamanda Galas, at least that is the way I have them filed in my collection. In fact, each of these performers has their own distinct style and aesthetic, each a separate origin story. What they have in common in this listener’s mind is the fact that they are women, the fact that their voice is their primary instrument, and the fact that each uses that voice, sometimes with some augmentation, to achieve their compositional and performance goals. (I nurture a personal fantasy of some day hearing one or all of these women doing their cover of a piece like Rzewski’s “Coming Together” or some similar speaking pianist type work but that’s a topic for another blog).
The ten tracks on this release represent Ms. Z’s more recent work. Taken as a whole this album has an almost existential/apocalyptic character at times. There are 10 tracks ranging from about 4 to 10 minutes each and they span the years from 2003 to 2018 with one track from 1995. The overall feel of this is rather darker in tone than the Starkland disc but it also reflects her further artistic development and that alone is worth the purchase price. The album is recorded, edited, and mixed by the artist who also supplies the brief but clear and useful liner notes.
The first track, Quatre Couches/Flare Stains is a studio mix of two pieces (Quatre Couche from 2015 and Flare Stains from 2010), two works she has combined in her live performances. So this is mix is a 2021 artistic mashup reflecting what she has gleaned from her live performances and incorporating that learning into a new compositional experience.
Unknown Person (2010) is an excerpt from the aforementioned “Baggage Allowance” (2010) which uses found texts collected during the composition process as lyrics and is a work with many metaphorical dimensions that touch on existential ideas that touch us all.
Other Rooms (2018) is constructed around vocal samples of an interview with playwright Paul David Young.
A piece of π (2012) utilizes the first 200 digits which express the value of that mathematical constant. Z recounts further details of her process in the liner notes.
Site Four (2017) is a section of music which was composed for a dance work.
He Says Yes (2018) is an excerpt from music for a theater piece.
Typewriter (1995) is the outlier here. It is one of Z’s live performance staples which utilizes the beautifully designed MIDI controllers which she wears and which control the electronics as she moves her body through the performance space. Even without the visuals, one can get an idea of this seminal work and how it influenced her later developments.
The disc ends with a trilogy of works, The Timepiece Triptych, which consists of Declaratives in the First Person (2005), Syrinx (2003), and De-Spangled (2003). This trilogy is a virtual compendium of the techniques which Z has thus far developed. Using sampling, linguistics, spoken voice, singing voice, and her signature electronics this artist presents work which functions on many levels. It is entertaining, it is thought provoking, it is funny, it is sad, it is personal, it is self referential, it refers to us all. Denotation, connotation, musical/electronic alchemy, language (both spoken and sung) all come together to create art which is engaging and, watch out, sometimes subversive.
Though I earlier made reference to my filing preferences for this and (what I consider) similar artists there is, in the end no one quite like Pamela. She is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and, of course, the Z.
Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).
This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.
While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.
Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.
Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.
The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.
The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.
The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.
It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.
Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.
Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.
While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.
There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?
A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.
Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.
Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.
Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.
From the gorgeous photography of the cover, to the choices of the musical selections, their interpretation, and recording this is a love song to two fine Chicago composers, Frank Ferko and the late great Leo Sowerby. Here are two full discs of eminently listenable and fulfilling organ music by two of the best composers to write for that instrument in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Organs, at least the types of organs you’ll hear in this recording, are unique instruments built specifically for the site (usually a church) in which they will be used. As such they are a part of the architecture and are themselves works of art. If you’re a fan of organ music you have to have this disc. It is sonically beautiful and full details and specifications of each of the instruments recorded here are provided in the excellent liner notes and the Chicago born David Schrader is a truly fine organist (as well as harpsichord and fortepiano player). He has no less than 26 releases on this label alone, all worthy of a place in any serious collector’s library. One of the great added values of this release is its attention to providing the technical specs of the instruments involved (every one of these instruments is a unique construction) and those with an interest in such details will be thrilled with the liner notes which do justice to listeners who crave such details (this listener included of course).
Cedille Records has already done much to bring Sowerby’s music to listeners in several previous releases but this is the first recording they’ve released of his organ music. Frank Ferko, a well known working composer in Chicago (and points beyond), was also previously represented on this label by the release in 2000 of his fine Stabat Mater.
The first disc (of two) is dedicated to the music of Frank Ferko (1950- ) and all of these are world premiere recordings. While Ferko is a church musician this music is not typical liturgical fare. His work echoes the traditions of the great romantic church organist/composers like Marcel Dupre, Olivier Messiaen, Cesar Franck, Charles Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, etc.
All of the music on these discs is for organ alone and titles like “Mass for Dedication” fall into the category of “organ masses” (generally a French tradition) in which music is used liturgically but does not accompany choral settings of the texts generally associated with the sections of the mass in what is known as “alternatim practice” where the organ plays during moments that would normally contain sung texts. It is almost like incidental or film score music which is intended to create a mood for the ritual on stage or on screen.
Ferko, trained as an organist and studied composition and music history. He has worked as a church musician in various Chicago area churches and his compositions have gotten worldwide acclaim and performances. His Stabat Mater (1999) was released on CD by Cedille and his “Hildegard Organ Cycle” (1995) based on the music of Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1107) are major works worth your time.
The works on this recording are a wonderfully representative selection of Ferko’s compositional achievements and will doubtless want the appreciative listener wanting more. He clearly understands how to write for the organ. His basically tonal style is very listener friendly but clearly a style that represents the composer’s vision.
Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was a Chicago composer, church musician and teacher. This disc presents a nicely chosen selection of Sowerby’s solo organ compositions. This is another in a series of releases presenting the too little known compositions of a man who was pretty well known during his lifetime, especially in Chicago where he taught for years at the American Conservatory of Music and served as organist at St. James Episcopal Church. Cedille has presented the world premiere recording of Sowerby’s Pulitzer Prize winning cantata, “The Canticle of the Sun” (1944), the composer’s second (of five) symphonies, and some of his orchestral tone poems. Cedille takes its mission seriously as it methodically documents the work of Chicago composers and musicians.
Unlike the Ferko disc, the selection of Sowerby’s compositions is decidedly non-liturgical and reflects his skills as a composer for the concert hall (of course the church becomes the concert hall here). In fact it was Sowerby’s Violin Concerto of 1913, premiered by the Chicago Symphony that brought the composer early recognition in his career.
The selection of Sowerby pieces, with the exception of a couple of tracks only available in online versions of this album, are a fair assessment of his organ works and a very good introduction to the composer’s style and compositional skills. The Organ Symphony in G Major from 1930, which occupies the last three tracks on the disc, is without doubt one of Sowerby’s most enduring masterworks. It has received numerous recordings of which this is the finest this reviewer has heard. The first four tracks are shorter but no less substantial works showing Sowerby’s mastery of this medium and his ability to engage his listeners in convincing and compelling essays which will have the listener returning again and again.
This double disc set has the feel of a landmark recording and, though many of Sowerby’s organ compositions have been recorded, many are out of print and/or difficult to find and this is one very satisfying collection. It is definitively performed, beautifully recorded, and satisfyingly documented. This one is a classic release!
I don’t recall when I first heard Guy Klucevsek but I think it was the early 90s. I grew up hearing a great deal of accordions in polka bands at weddings throughout my childhood. This instrument had, pretty much since its beginnings in the early 19th century, been associated primarily with folk bands and not at all with classical music. I don’t think one can find an accordion used in a classical orchestra before Tchaikovsky’s 1822 Second Orchestral Suite and only sparingly after that. So when I discovered this New York musician via his releases on the Starkland label, Transylvanian Software (1999) and Free Range Accordion (2000) and the CRI disc Manhattan Cascade (1992). I was curious to see what this musician would do with this traditionally “low brow” folk instrument.
I had come to trust the Starkland label (which began in 1991) as one whose releases were usually very much to my taste and I was not disappointed to hear Klucevsek’s playing of pieces written by him and other composers for this instrument. Unlike Pauline Oliveros who did much to expand the very nature of the instrument itself, Klucevsek retained, and sometimes parodied, the humble folk/pop origins and reputation of the instrument while still pursuing its possibilities in the New York downtown experimental music scene where he worked with people like Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Coleman, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn among many others. Klucevsek expanded the role of the accordion in his own way.
Klucevsek later put together a commissioning project called, “Polka from the Fringe” (1992), a project which echoes the 1981 “Waltz Project” by Robert Moran and presages another accordionist William Schimmel’s “The Tango Project” of 2006. All of these commissioning projects utilized dance forms common in the 20th century as a “stepping off” place for a new musical piece. And it was Starkland which rescued the fascinating two disc release of Polka from the Fringe (2013) from over two decades languishing in “out of print” status. These projects are significant in that they invite composers to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate their take on the given dance form. Like Klucevsek’s earlier releases this Polka collection is a veritable Who’s Who of working composers of the era much as the Variations (1819) project of Anton Diabelli collected some 51 composers’ works based on Diabelli’s waltz-like theme (Beethoven’s gargantuan set of variations was published as volume 1 and the other 50 variations in volume 2 which included composers like Schubert and Liszt).
So here comes Starkland to the rescue again in this (languished for some 25 years after only having been available for two years) very personal recording which displays Klucevsek’s substantial compositional chops as well as his knowledge and use of extended instrumental techniques for his instrument. It presents pieces written for a dance performances and shows a very different side of Klucevsek, one which shows more of his substance as a composer alongside his virtuosic skills on his instrument. In this digital only release there is an option to include (for a mere $3.00 more on the Bandcamp site) a series of 13 videos featuring Guy Klucevsek talking about the music on this album and his various musical interests. A gorgeous 10 page booklet providing further detail including the original liner notes with updates is included in all purchases. The album will also be available on Spotify, You Tube, and other streaming services but the videos are only available on Bandcamp.
Listeners may find this new release has some in common with Starkland’s previous Klucevsek release from Starkland, “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy” (2016) which features some similar compositional diversity in a disc entirely of Klucevsek’s works. The line from Citrus, My Love to Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy seems to be a logical succession in Klucevsek’s compositional development. In addition to his accordion studies Klucevsek studied composition in Pittsburgh but it was the influence of Morton Subotnick with whom he studied in his independent post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts that exposed this east coast artist to some of the splendors of the west coast encountering artists like Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. Indeed Klucevsek can be said to be “bi-coastal” in his compositional endeavors. And though this is a “tongue in cheek” characterization it does speak to the roots of Klucevsek’s diversity in style.
There are 12 tracks on “Citrus, My Love” representing 3 separate works: the three movement, “Passage North” (1990), the single movement, “Patience and Thyme” (1991), and the eponymous, “Citrus, My Love” (1990) in 8 movements. The production of this album is by none other than Bobby Previte, another valued east coast musician and colleague. The notes have been updated under the guidance of Tom Steenland with input from Klucevsek who, understandably, expresses great joy in having this album available again.
The first three tracks are dedicated to a single work, “Passage North” (1990) written for accordion and string trio consisting of Mary Rowell, violin/viola, Erik Friedlander, cello, and Jonathan Storck, double bass. They are dubbed “The Bantam Orchestra”. This Copland-esque work was commissioned by Angela Caponigro Dance Ensemble. The second movement is for string trio alone and is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland who died in 1990.
Patience and Thyme (1991) according to the composer “is a love note to my wife, Jan.” He composed the work while in residence at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania, which coincided with his 22nd wedding anniversary. It is scored for piano and string trio, no accordion. Compositionally it seems at home between the larger pieces.
Citrus, My Love was commissioned by Stuart Pimsler for the dance of the same name. It is in 8 scenes and is scored for Klucevsek’s accordion accompanied by his personally chosen Bantam Orchestra. Klucevsek describes the music on this album as representing his transition from hard core minimalism to a more melody driven style and this is the missing link, the “hole” to which I referred in the Beatles metaphor in the title of this review.
For those who already appreciate Klucevsek’s work this album is a must have. To those who have not gotten to know this unique talent this is a good place to start.
For those seeking to get more deeply into Klucevsek’s work (a worthwhile endeavor) and to provide a perspective on the range of this artist’s work I’m appending a discography (shamelessly lifted and updated from the Free Reed Journal) :
Scenes from a Mirage (Review) Who Stole the Polka? (out-of-print) Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse (Experimental Intermedia) Polka Dots & Laser Beams (out-of-print) Manhattan Cascade (CRI) Transylvanian Softwear (Starkland) Citrus, My Love (Starkland) Stolen Memories (Tzadik) Altered Landscapes (out-of-print) Accordance with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Free Range Accordion (Starkland) The Heart of the Andes (Winter & Winter) Tales from the Cryptic with Phillip Johnston (Winter & Winter) Notefalls with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Song of Remembrance (Tzadik) Dancing On the Volcano (Tzadik) The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova) Polka From The Fringe (Starkland) Teetering On the Verge of Normalcy (Starkland)
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy’s in Love With You (Tzadik) Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts Legends of Accordion, Awakening (Rhino) The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup (CRI) Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi (Toshiba EMI) Norwegian Wood, Monk’s Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi (Toshiba EMI) Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae (CRI) Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache (Callisto) A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear (Extraplatte) A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps (Einstein) A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land, Samba D Hiccup (No Man’s Land)
WITH JOHN ZORN
The Big Gundown (Nonesuch Icon) Cobra (Hat Art) Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes (A&M)
On Edge (Mode) Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording) Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)
Laurie Anderson: Bright Red (Warner Bros) Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992(Black Saint) Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter (XI) Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night (Avante) Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements) Fast Forward: Same Same (XI) Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith (Elektra Musician) David Garland: Control Songs (Review) Robin Holcomb: Rockabye (Elektra Musician) Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print) Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (Nonesuch) Bobby Previte: Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)
Kinga Augustyn is a new musician to these ears. She kindly sent me this wonderful very recent release for review. And she certainly found a reviewer sympathetic to new music here. A quick review of her releases reveals that she has been releasing recordings since at least 2010 and, in addition to many of the “usual suspects” or “warhorses” of the repertoire, she has demonstrated a keen interest in lesser known works as well as recently minted works hoping for a place in the repertoire.
Her album count by my reckoning is up to 13 now and her musical interests appear to range from the baroque with Telemann’s 12 violin fantasies (no, not a transcription of the better known solo flute works) to the very recent works presented on the present disc. Her choices of repertoire for recording are delightfully unusual as she ventures into the work of neglected composers such as Astor Piazolla (1921-1992) and Romuald Twardowski (1930- ). And she has chosen to release an album of Paganini’s 24 Caprices rather than the Bach solo violin works (though these may come later). The point is that she seems interested in bringing out performances of music which gets less attention than the standard repertoire. Indeed she appears to be attempting to influence and add to the canon of solo violin performance repertoire.
How often can one expect to find a solo violin disc where the only familiar piece is one of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas? Well this is that disc. The earliest work here is Grazyna Bacewicz’s (1909-1969) Sonata No. 2 (1958). Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976). Along with Isang Yun’s (1917-1995) Koenigliches Thema (1976) are also 20th century pieces. And though the four movements of Elliot Carter’s (1908-2012) Four Lauds begin in the late 20th century (Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, 1984 and Remembering Aaron, 1999) they end in the 21st century with Remembering Roger, 2000 and Rhapsodic Musings, 2001.
The brief, almost “Webernian” miniatures that comprise Carter’s “Four Lauds” each have an individual character, the first an homage to Aaron Copland (1900-1990) which doubtless represents the composer via a quotation or perhaps some more personal inside reference. The Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is the longest and seemingly most complex of the group (I don’t know Petrassi’s music as well as I would like so I’m not sure about the references here). The Rhapsodic Musings are not apparently directed to any musician or composer in particular and The Fantasy-Remembering Roger does seem to embody the sound of Roger Sessions’ style.
The Berio is one of a set of 14 pieces for solo instruments (depending on how you count them) and they are a sort of compositional manifesto utilizing extended techniques. Augustyn delivers a very convincing reading of this intentionally challenging work. It is the longest single work on this recording.
This Polish born, New York based violinist has done homage to the music of her homeland before with her Naxos album of miniatures that I doubt you will find elsewhere. On this album she does homage to Polish musical culture by her inclusion of the inexplicably too little known Grazyna Bacewicz and a world premiere of a solo violin work by the well documented Krzysztof Penderecki in his 2008 Capriccio. As one who fell in love with the avant-garde Penderecki of say 1958-1972 I have not paid as much attention to Penderecki’s later works. In a pleasant surprise these ears heard this very late Penderecki piece as almost a summation including tasty bits of avant-gardist techniques along with nicely lyrical passages. I am now convinced I need to do a reappraisal of my knowledge of this composer’s later work.
She follows this with a very significant work by a criminally neglected composer, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Her Second Sonata for Solo Violin (1958) is an adventuresome work which challenges the violinist while holding the listener’s attention. It is definitely time for a major reassessment of this woman’s work and one hopes that Augustyn’s reading will help encourage more interest in Bacewicz’s work.
Augustyn next chooses another unjustly neglected composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995) whose biography including kidnapping by the South Korean intelligence officers and subsequent sequestration in a South Korean jail stirred artistic outrage which eventually resulted in his release. The piece played here, “Koniglisches Thema”(1976) brings us back to the beginning of solo violin composition by its quotation of a Bach theme. Not a theme from any of the solo violin music but rather the theme given to Bach by Frederick II of Prussia. The origin of the theme is not by Bach and its compositional origins are much debated but what is not debated is that fanciers of Bach know this theme instantly. Isang Yun writes, apparently, a set of variations on the theme, an offering of his own to the master.
This is a dream of an album for people who appreciate modernism, new music, and undiscovered gems but Augustyn’s readings of the unfamiliar Carter “Four Lauds” and, the most recent work on the disc, Debra Kaye‘s (1956- ) “Turning in Time” (2018) are, for this listener, worth the price of the disc by themselves. Carter is no easy task for listeners and certainly for performers but she manages to find the late post-romantic/post-modern lyricism in these pithy little works. And the Debra Kaye work is “hot off the presses” so to speak, having been written just before the second of the two recording sessions that produced this album. The Kaye work is the second longest on this recording and fits well as a concluding work on this ambitious and engaging program.
New music is in need of talented musicians willing to search for and learn their work and Augustyn happily seems to be willing to fill that bill. Her acumen in being able to know music of substance when she sees it and the ability to bring those scores to life bodes well for listeners interested in this repertoire. After all it’s hard not to notice that the Bacewicz Sonata is her second and completists will want to hear that first one. But, more seriously, I look forward to the upcoming releases by this artist who, when sighted on my radar again, will not be let go without a serious listen.
I feel as though this artist is a personal discovery for me. Whilst surfing You Tube I found a series of his videos which greatly appealed to me and I contacted him via email. I learned that he was about to release his debut as a solo artist. The logistics of sending CDs by mail “across the pond” as the saying goes are fraught with financial and logistical hurdles so I was glad to find that he was releasing via Bandcamp, a music vendor and streaming service whose business model appeals more to me every day. This album is also available on Amazon music and probably other streaming sites as well.
Let me first issue a disclaimer, to wit: that I am an unreformed and unashamed Glass groupie whose live performances with his ensemble will doubtless comfort me well into my waning years. Those memories echo in my head even now.
“Dennis Weijers is a Dutch musician and composer. He followed a traditional education at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Enschede, and got in touch with experimental electroacoustic music after moving to Berlin. Dennis started to merge his accordion with electronics. Dennis works with a variety of instruments and gear (from accordions and modular synths up to a 1948 wire recorder, tape machines and more curiosities). In 2018 he did a concert series in which he performed the complete version of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. In 2021, his debut album Accordion + Modular Synthesizer was released.”
The present disc is apparently one of those “crowd sourced” deals which allows public funding for a given project not easily funded otherwise. I missed this project but I will be on board for his next release. So I delved into his online presence and found a young highly skilled man whose primary instrument is the accordion and whose interests take his composing and transcribing skills into the electroacoustic and sound installation realms. His choice of accordion as primary instrument puts him in the company of other innovators such as Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, William Schimmel, Miloš Katanić, and others to whom I apologize for not naming here. Do click on his You Tube link (provided above) to get an idea of his creative foci. They include a excerpts from a couple of sound installation works as well as a bit of Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air”.
But let’s get to the album at hand. This recently release contains a complete performance of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” arranged for accordion and electronics. This could have been done purely as a recording but it seems clear that Weijers is enamored of live performance so these arrangements can be done live (which is apparently how he developed them).
The “Opening” begins with apparently with a brief section with (apparently to these ears) a lo fi/hi pass filter which sounds like a glitch and shortly morphs into a full spectrum sound for the rest of the performance. In fact compositional notions like glitch, sampling, looping, etc. appear strategically in other movements but I will leave that to the listener to discover. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a recomposition but rather a recasting in which the artist provides a context and uses a few effects judiciously providing a personal touch much as a painter signs a painting.
This faithful, loving rendition segues into the second movement, called “Floe”. For those who have heard Glass’ ensemble do this live (as I did in 1980) you will likely feel nostalgia. The experience is one of a good transcription of a familiar piece and the nostalgia likely comes from the life memories attached to that first hearing.
The third movement, “Islands” is a glorious minimalist slow movement which serves as much to relax the listener as it does to provide a significant contrast in anticipation of the next movement.
Movement 4, “Rubric” is a manic masterpiece which I recall playing so much that I wore out those grooves on my vinyl copy. Weijers really shows his interpretive musical chops here. He makes the piece rock and his rhythmic sensibility suggest a fondness and familiarity with jazz.
Movement 5, “Facades” is one of Glass’ early hits and, as I recall, was liked even by folks who didn’t like his other music. My recollection is that this piece had originally been written for the Godfrey Reggio film, “Koyaanisqatsi” but not used. Like any good composer does it was repurposed into the present multi-movement work. This movement triggers sadness with my nostalgia as I recall reveling in the beautiful playing of the now late Jon Gibson.
“Closing” is basically a reworking, an orchestration of the “Opening” section which kind of opens the door to inviting transcriptions. It is a full orchestration of what had been a solo piano piece at the beginning. Weijers seals the deal on nostalgia when he ends this movement by reintroducing that high pass filter and adding a little vinyl groove scratches at the fade out. That brought a bit of a tear to my eye.
I don’t know Weijers age but I doubt that he was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes at the time I saw those performances but he has clearly absorbed this music this music completely and shows a deep love and affinity for it. It is a mark, perhaps of genius, that he frames his performance of the complete work with the lo fi/glitch at the opening and vinyl crackles at the end. It was a reminder to this age denying listener that this was indeed long ago. (Over 40 years).
The major work on this album is the following track. It is the performance (excerpted on You Tube) which first gave me that delightful twinge I feel when I believe I have discovered something new and meaningful. It was a performance of a too little known work by Steve Reich (Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, 1979), another minimalist composer who was a frequent visitor to my turntable. The work, roughly contemporary with Glassworks, was only recorded once by the San Francisco Symphony under Edo De Waart, is an overlooked masterpiece.
It’s impossible to miss the Dutch connections with Glass (whose 1979 opera “Satyagraha” was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam) and the only recorded performance of Reich’s Variations performed by the prominent Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Well now comes Mr. Weijers delivers a beautiful transcription and spectacular performance which very well might raise this work out of its languished state. At the very least this is a tribute to Reich.
It is wonderful to hear this Reich piece again. I have never heard it live and, as far as I know, Reich never attempted to recast it in a new orchestration (as he did with the “Octet” orchestrated and played more commonly now as “Eight Lines”). The point is that we have a younger generation encountering, appreciating, and celebrating what is now “old school” minimalism. Whether you are encountering these pieces for the first time or basking in the nostalgia of rediscovery through creative and dedicated new performances this is a truly auspicious debut of a musician who has given new life to music which clearly has endured and will likely continue to endure into further generations. Bravo, Mr. Weijers.
As if this weren’t enough the curious collector gets two extra bonus tracks if you download via Bandcamp. They are two brief pieces that provide a peek at Weijers’ other musical efforts. The first is a beautiful meditative tribute to minimalism, a gentle elegiac piece for accordion and electronics. The second, a collaboration with Koen Dijkman, a musician who appears on other releases along with Weijers. This piece has a more prog rock/improv feel.
If old school minimalism appeals to you or contemporary accordion, you will want to hear this album. But regardless I’m willing to bet that you will be hearing more from this wonderful artist. And I bristle with anticipation.
Ah, those sneaky Canadians. This disc was surreptitiously slipped in with another mailing of a disc sent for review. The sender, aware of my interest and admiration for Canadian art music sent me this little gem of a recording. It is a fine example of cultural incorporation (as opposed to the pejorative, “cultural appropriation”). It is about the celebration of “first nations” people and their culture rather than the exploitation of it.
“Take the Dog Sled” (2008) by Alexina Louie is in eight movements that clock in at 21:48 total time making this a sort of CD single. And I’m happy to say that this is a happy little musical journey much in the spirit of Leopold Mozart’s “Musikalische Schlittenfahrt” or (“Musical Sleigh Ride” in English), an unusual piece of program music from 1755 (the year before the birth of his ultimately more famous son, Wolfgang). In fact these two works might make for an interesting program heard back to back.
Alexina Louie (1949- ) is a justly much lauded Canadian composer. Her prolific output includes orchestral, chamber, solo music, and film scores. She is a living artistic treasure and the recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor when she was named an “Officer of the Order of Canada” in 2005. This is just one of many awards and she continues to produce exciting music in a variety of genres and has demonstrated facility with electronics as well as conventional acoustic instruments.
But first a word about “throat singers”. Many people familiar with this term have probably heard the singing of Tibetan Monks who produce multiple tones via their ability to emphasize one or more of the natural overtones of the fundamental note they are singing. (The process is beyond this writer’s understanding of vocal physiology and, if you haven’t heard it, you probably can’t imagine it.) But the point of this is that there are different varieties of “throat singers” and, while I can’t tell you the specifics of what makes them different, the listener should be aware that the singers heard here do not sound like Tibetan Monks or Tuvan Throat Singers or David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir. Rather you will hear the Inuit style of throat singing.
The throat singers are featured in movements 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8. Movements 1, 4, and 6 are given solely to the seven piece chamber orchestra, the amazing Espirit Orchestra. All are conducted by the the wonderful conductor, educator, and advocate of Canadian composers, (and spouse of the composer) Alex Pauk. The singers Evie Mark and Akinise Sivuarapik are both natives of northern Quebec (“Nunavik” in their native language) and life long throat singers and their collaboration with Louie is a delightful accomplishment.
This piece was written in response to a commission from the fine conductor Kent Nagano in conjunction with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (where he was principal conductor at the time) for a performance in three towns (Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuak, and Kuujjuuaq) in far northern Quebec (Nunavik). Ms. Louie worked with the throat singers, listening to their songs, talking with them and, ultimately, choosing the songs which would become a part of this piece.
Not surprisingly these performances were well received and listeners are in for a treat with this recording. It does honor to first nations folk artistry and effectively includes them in the definition of music as a whole, incorporating traditions and instruments in the traditional classical sphere while still doing honor to the traditions from which they sprung. The music is accessible but never trite and reflects what appears to have been a respectful collaboration. One hopes that this will not be their last collaboration. You may or may not want to take a ride on a dog sled but give a listen and find the delight from which it draws.
This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.
It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…
Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.
Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!
I first encountered the work of Michael Harrison (1958- ) while searching for Lou Harrison CDs. I came across the New Albion release, “From Ancient Worlds” (1992). It is a disc of short piano compositions played by the composer on an instrument of his own invention, The Harmonic Piano, which was conceived in 1979 and built by1986. Harrison was a student/apprentice of the Godfather of American Minimalism and Guru of non-western tunings, La Monte Young. He has also enjoyed a close relationship with yet another icon of contemporary music and non-western tunings, Terry Riley. Via these associations, Harrison has also studied with Pandit Pran Nath (famously a teacher of both Young and Riley) and Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan.
He holds a B.M. in composition from the University of Oregon, and and M.M. in composition from the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Reiko Füting. His collaborations put him in touch with progressive musicians on both the east and west coasts of the United States and he seems to derive a great deal of joy sharing his enthusiasm with many talented artists imparting his knowledge and learning from them as well.
Mr. Harrison’s major opus, “Revelation” (2002-7) for solo harmonic piano is a sort of manifesto or “urtext” and has been the source and inspiration for much of his subsequent work both directly and indirectly. At his 2009 appearance at the Other Minds Festival 14 he premiered “Tone Clouds” (2008) which incorporated a string quartet (Del Sol Quartet) along with the composer at the piano utilizing material from Revelation. Subsequent recordings with cellists Maya Beiser and Clarice Jensen further expanded his use of string instruments along with the piano.
So here we come to Harrison’s second release on Cantaloupe Records (his first was the Maya Beiser release in 2012) this time incorporating Tim Fain (violin), Caleb Burhans (viola), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Payton MacDonald (vocals), Ina Filip (vocals), Ritvik Yaparpalvi (tabla), and Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy winning vocal ensemble in a work which strikes this listener as a grand nearly symphonic effort reminiscent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Also, like Mahler, the composer uses non-western (Sufi) texts and (unlike Mahler) non-western tunings derived in part from Hindustani and Carnatic influences, and from his studies with Pran Nath, Terry Riley, and Mashkoor Ali Khan.
The eight sections vary in style but have echoes of Arvo Part, Hindustani/Carnatic musics, minimalism, etc. all integrated into a large form neatly bookended by a prelude and epilogue. It is, in effect, a song cycle and, guess what? It’s about the earth, well, sort of. It is, according to the liner notes by W.H.S. Gebel, music which corresponds to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in that author’s book, “Nature’s Hidden Dimension”. Maybe Mahler for the New Age?
Only the second movement, “Hayy: Revealing the Tones” derives directly from the aforementioned Revelation but it is clear that Harrison has integrated his diverse musical studies into a personal style descended from artistic and philosophical ancestors. The work struck this listener as being a successfully unified whole and a landmark in this composers still burgeoning career. This is grand and gorgeous music.
As I write this I am seeing images of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the twin towers attack and can’t help being reminded of another of Robert Moran’s works designed for resonant spaces like cathedrals. His “Trinity Requiem” (2011), written for the 10th anniversary of this tragic event, was written for the space in which it was subsequently performed, Trinity Cathedral in New York. Its setting of Psalm 23 lingers in my head as I write. The present work was written for and performed within the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg, Austria.
These two very different works serve to demonstrate the range of Moran’s creative palette and his ability to use disparate techniques to achieve remarkably personal and effective results. In the Trinity Requiem we hear a composer using fairly conventional tonal harmonies but with the unusual orchestration of children’s chorus, organ, cellos, and harps. His compositional methods, his harmonies are friendly and familiar, sweet and poignant without being saccharine.
By contrast, in Buddha Goes to Bayreuth” (2011/14), the composer uses a chamber orchestra, chamber choir, and the distinctive sound of a countertenor. And the orchestral writing involves the use of chance operations of the Chinese classic text, I Ching. As he tells it in his liner notes, the composer had been introduced to the I Ching by his friend John Cage. What is most interesting is how Moran is able to use a Cagean technique to produce his desired result and come out sounding nothing at all like Cage. It is a mark of Moran’s skills that he is able to draw on a wide variety of compositional techniques and a thorough knowledge of the subtleties of orchestration to create a sound which achieves his compositional goals.
The second part of this work, as you can see from the track listing, is nearly twice the length of the first. The second part was composed in 2011 and the first part to fulfill the request for an evening length performance piece.
Stylistically this work has more in common with Moran’s earlier mystery play, “Game of the Antichrist” than it does with the Requiem, though both are designed to take advantage of the resonant spaces of the cathedrals in which they were performed. This work relies more on the randomized chords in which Moran utilizes aleatoric structures in a way that are uniquely his. He did something similar in one of the pieces on another album reviewed here, “Points of Departure“.
This Dada-like dramatic work is but one side of Moran’s stylistic output. His sonic toolbox ranges from aleatoric and graphic scores to unabashed romanticism, from Cagean chance operations to scary minimalism (as in the yet unreleased “Spin Again” from 1982) and post-romantic singable melodies as in “Towers of the Moon” and his collaboration with Philip Glass in “The Juniper Tree”. In the end he is one of America’s finest composers whose music deserves more hearings and rewards listeners for the effort.
Producer Philip Blackburn clearly has an affinity for Moran’s work and he deserves thanks for making much of the composer’s work available in fine recordings. The entire spectrum as described above is available on recordings right now on both the Innova and Neuma labels. Get them while you can.
One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.
Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.
In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.
A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.
Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.
We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.
It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969 “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.
One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.
I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!
Who? Cenk Ergün (1978- ) is a Turkish born, New York based composer and improvisor. His distinctly ethnic Turkish sounding name will trigger fond memories in “listeners of a certain age” of the profoundly significant work of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, the Turkish/American brothers whose Atlantic Records label helped define jazz, pop, and rock throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Lesser known is one of Atlantic’s spinoff labels, Finnadar helmed by fellow Turkish/American Ilhan Mimaroglu, himself a composer as well as producer. It was here that one saw the producers’ radar turned to the classical avant garde. And Ergün fits rather comfortably in this category.
A quick Google search reveals Mr. Ergün to have released at least six albums both solo projects and collaborations with composer Alvin Curran, cellist Mariel Roberts, and unclassifiable iconoclastic guitarist Fred Frith. His bio does not document his education but those collaborations show him to be in sympathy with what one might consider the current leading edge of the avant garde.
This disc consisting of two works for string quartet entitled, respectively, “Sonare” and “Celare”. Whether these are separate works or, as this listener perceived them, two parts of a whole, they are engaging works utilizing a variety of extended techniques and tunings. The album lacks liner notes but the works, though complex and unconventional, are rather transparent (at least to ears accustomed to some of the innovations of the last 50 years or so of new classical music).
Sonare is far more rhythmically active than its partner on this disc. Its use of unusual tunings and spectra as well as its apparent micropolyphonies suggest a variety of predecessors including George Crumb (think Black Angels) and some hard to delineate minimalist ideas. Celare, which follows it brings the listener to more of a drone minimalism aesthetic which also suggested Luigi Nono’s “Stille An Diotima” at times. These two pieces (or movements?) collectively clock in at just over 30 minutes which I guess makes this a sort of “CD single”. There is no apparent program other than the music itself and the music suffers from neither understatement nor overstatement and is ultimately a very satisfying experience in the very capable hands of the venerable Jack Quartet.
Put Mr. Ergün on your radar alerts. This is a voice that this listener hopes to hear more from in the near future.
I make reference to “Gabriel’s Oboe” (from the Morricone score to The Mission) in a slightly ironic way to introduce an album in which the artist, Dr. Catherine Lee is on a Mission of a different sort from that of Gabriel in the film. Lee’s mission is the liberation and expansion of the role of her chosen instrument(s).
While many instruments fit comfortably into a solo role such as keyboard instruments, violins, and cellos this is not the case with the oboe and it’s double reed relatives the oboe d’amore and the english horn (Lee is a master of all of these). Indeed many instruments which have populated orchestras and chamber groups for ages have seldom if ever stood on their own. In a phenomenon which I term, “refugees from the orchestra” there have been many instances in which artists have taken their instruments out of the context of those ensembles and began to establish a performing tradition and commission a repertoire suitable for such a venture. In fact there are two west coast musicians who are renowned for their work in liberating their respective instruments from orchestras and into their own domains: Bertram Turetzky (professor emeritus at UC San Diego literally wrote the book on expanded techniques for double bass) and Stuart Dempster (trombonist extraordinaire who also “wrote the book” on the modern trombone). Dr. Lee is poised to make a similar mark on the musical world.
Lee’s previous album reviewed here, “Social Sounds” (2013) focused on music by Canadian composers. The present album (released May, 2021) parallels the tenor of these crazy pandemic times in both title and content. Recorded mostly in 2019 it arguably has some prescience the way good art tends to achieve. Here she includes composers whose milieu includes northern California and the Pacific Northwest in addition to Canada. The six compositions represented here touch on many mythological and actual beings from whom the artists derive their inspiration. Dr. Lee was apparently pleased with my review of her first solo disc graciously sent me a copy of this new effort.
Now for the last 18 months I have been on a travel contract living and working near Tacoma, Washington. My tenure in my “day job” has run pretty much concurrently with the rise of the pandemic and its attendant restrictions. As a result I had not explored this beautiful area of the world until recently. I decided to remedy this by taking a car trip to explore a bit of the Olympic Peninsula, the westernmost portion of the lower 48 states, and I took this CD along to provide a soundtrack for my trip. This journey of two days took me around and through parts of the Olympic National Park and through various tribal lands where native peoples have lived for thousands of years. Throughout the drive I let the disc play repeatedly and found it curiously satisfying as a soundtrack for the images I saw through my windshield (I did not bring music along on my hikes). Metaphorically Lee accompanied me on this journey.
This disc also appears to derive inspiration from several musical mythologies and persons which are also associated with the regions which span from the San Francisco Bay Area north into the Oregon, Washington, and Canada. John Cage, Pauline Oliveros (Lee holds a certification in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” techniques), Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, spectralists (Wyschnedgradsky, Haba, Radulescu, etc.), Morton Feldman, Raymond Murray Schaeffer, Henry Brant and professor Lee who shares one of her own compositions much as she did on the first disc. There are six tracks containing six compositions which, though of different character, share a connection via the historical and mythological dimensions that comprise their roots. This is more about drones than rhythmic complexity and about images more than linear narratives.
The recording begins with the only actual solo composition, Jordan Nobles‘ “Nocturne” (2013). This is in fact a realization of a composition for a “spatialized” chamber group in which the instruments play “self paced melodies”. This track is a somber Cagean etude realized from this material for solo oboe. Spatial dynamics are the realm of both Raymond Murray Schaeffer as well as Henry Brant.
The second track is by the only composer on this recording with whom I have some familiarity, Dana Reason, a pianist and sound artist with roots in (the now mythological) Mills College and who is also certified in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening”. It is Pauline Oliveros whose spirit presides in this work. Her “Chanson de Fleurs: Eleanor of Aquitaine” (2017) is a sort of sonic narrative for oboe and soundscape evoking the mythology of the medieval French Queen. This is music that skirts the boundaries between didacticism and program music. It evokes images of the archetype of the eternal feminine. It is a lush and evocative work that brought images to this listener’s mind.
Taylor Brook‘s “Alluvium” (2017) is for oboe d’amore, a slightly lower pitched version of the modern oboe which was popular in the baroque era. It includes an electronic accompaniment and plays on the tuning problems common to these woodwind instruments. The recorded tape is the foil against which the soloist plays and deals with the tuning issues which in turn results in spectral harmonies which are rich and beautiful.
Julian Snow‘s “Red Eyes, Green Lion’s Teeth, Golden Heads” (2017) is also for oboe d’amore and recorded sounds. Here is a piece which ostensibly evokes the sprites and devas of “the flies and dandelions” of the composer’s back yard. Snow seems to channel the world music explorations of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison in spirit.
Matt Carlson‘s “Chiasmus” (2018) for English Horn and Synthesizer attempts to metaphorically use the literary device of Chiasmus (a type of repetition for emphasis like “all for one and one for all”). This piece is, at 14:20, the longest piece on the disc. It consists of several short movements utilizing a minimalist dearth of materials to create variation structures. It is virtually a concerto whose virtuosic demands are interpretive rather than technical. It is a highly engaging piece that gave this listener joy in both passive and active listening. He seems to channel musical deities like Morton Feldman and Alan Hovhaness, a lovely experience.
The final conjuring on this disc is by Catherine Lee who presents “Silkys” (2020) a meditation for oboe and environmental sounds, a collaboration with sound artist Juniana Lanning. This is a meditation on the life of the domestic silk moth, again a soundscape rather than a narrative. Dr. Lee’s fascination with the natural world is also reflected in the cover art which is the artist’s own photomicrograph of the exoskeleton of a bombyx mori.
This is a subtle but widely embracing collection of music seems to be a logical next installment in Professor Lee’s mission to lead her tribe of double reeds to a new vision appropriate to the new century. Brava! Long live Catherine’s Oboe.