Steven Kemper’s Mythical Spaces


mythical

Ravello Records RR 7980

It is this writer’s opinion that the category “electro-acoustic” carries such a wide range of connotations that it is of limited use to a listener.  This album is so characterized and here simply means that both electronics and acoustic instruments are used.  Even the concept of electronic music is difficult since such a designation. Playlists on Spotify and iTunes usually points the listener to a form of pop/dance music if you search for electronic.  Further complicating things (and I think this is at least in part the point here) the electronics here include fixed media (electronics which does what it is programmed to do and does not interact with the performers or simply plays alone) and robotic electronics as well as electronics which interacts with the performer.  You will have to check the composer’s web page for more information on what exactly the “robotic” media are.

This is cutting edge in the sense that it is experimenting with new media in combination with more traditional media (and simple electronics is now “traditional media” having been superseded by the new fangled).  The actual sound of this music seems to inhabit a rather spare sound world akin perhaps to that of late Morton Feldman but with more brevity. These pieces last from 1.5-10 minutes on average and demand some concentration on the part of the listener.  Think maybe a cross between Feldman, Webern and say Subotnick.

Now one could conceivably play this music at a low volume in the manner of so-called “ambient” music. There are not many dynamic changes here to take you away from that sort of reverie.  But that does not really seem to be the composer’s intention. These are concentrated little essays, each seeming to explore the parameters of its context, fixed media, live instruments, robotic media, and combinations of these.

Steven Kemper is a new name to this writer.  His education and wide interests are available on his web site.  While he has an impressive bibliography with cutting edge research interests in music and sound this appears to be his first CD.

There are 15 tracks which comprise 5 works.  Mythical Spaces (2010) is for percussion with fixed media in 5 separate movements.  Breath (2015) is for fixed media alone in one movement.  Lament (2015) is also in one movement and is scored for flute with interactive media.

The longest single movement comprises In Illo Tempore (2012 rev 2017) is scored for saxophone, bassoon, AMI (automated monochord instrument), and CARI (cylindrical aerophone robotic instrument).  It clocks in at 7:48.

Last but not least is The Seven Stars (2012) for amplified prepared piano in 7 movements.

Live performers include Mark Truesdell, percussion; Wayla Chambo, flute; David Wegenlaupt, saxophone, Dana Jessen, bassoon, and Aurie Hsu, prepared piano.

This is music which requires some serious concentration from the listener.  Hearing/seeing this live might provide some additional aspects due to these strange electronic/robotic instruments but the point here seems to be one of an inner voyage which, if you focus you listening energy, transports you into this composer’s imaginary spaces.  Whether you will enjoy this or not is difficult to say but it is certainly worth the effort.

 

Crazy Nigger, Gay Guerrilla, Precious Artist: Julius Eastman Examined


eastman

This essential collection celebrates the life and work of a composer and performer whose unique presence was nearly eroded to nothing but for the work of composer (and co-editor of this volume) Mary Jane Leach who spearheaded an effort to rescue as many scores and recordings as possible after Eastman’s death in 1990 at the age of 49.  The first evidence of this modern archaeological effort came with the release of Unjust Malaise (2005), three CDs which featured some of the recordings that were gathered in that early effort.  In addition it should be noted that Leach continues to maintain a resource page with the most up to date information on Eastman scholarship efforts.

Now, along with Renée Levine Packer (whose wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music Days, “This Life of Sounds” (2010) is not to be missed) we have a lovingly edited collection of essays which comprise a sort of biography as well as an appreciation of this very important American composer.

One look at the acknowledgements reveals the wide scope of individuals with whom Eastman came into contact and whose contributions became so essential to this volume.  The wonderful introductory essay is so very appropriately written by George E. Lewis whose figure itself continues to loom knowledgeably over late twentieth and early twenty first century music.  He takes a characteristically unflinching look at the cultural, historical and socioeconomic factors that contextualize Eastman’s work as well as his untimely demise.  Eastman’s frequent use of politically incorrect titles that challenge a smooth vocal delivery in the most seasoned of broadcasters is here made to seem quite understandable (if not comfortably palatable) within the complex forces that defined Eastman’s milieu.  Lewis embraces Eastman’s talents and makes the prospect of further study of his work tantalizing.  He provides a truly authoritative context which can serve all future work in this area.

There are nine chapters, a chronology and a select bibliography along with photographs and score examples.  The essays that comprise each chapter focus from the macro-view of Packer’s biographical sketch and Leach’s timeline to micro-analyses of some of Eastman’s works and some additional personal perspectives.  One of the most endearing qualities of this volume is the fact that many of the contributors knew and/or worked with Eastman at one time or another.  It is clear that all the contributors were deeply affected by their encounters with Eastman himself and/or with his music and all are rather uniquely suited to be in this volume.

One suspects that Packer’s biographical sketch which opens this volume will henceforth serve as a basic model for all future biographical research.  Whether one finds agreements or not the material is presented in as complete and organized a fashion as can be imagined.  It paints the picture of a prodigy who, for whatever reason, fell into disarray.  Whether there was drug use or symptoms of mental illness will be the debate which will, of course, never be satisfactorily resolved.  What shines through though are tantalizing moments and a plethora of relationships, however brief sometimes, that contribute to all we will ever really know of the enigma of the life of this precious artist.

Some of what follows has the quality of memoir and some leans more toward academic analysis.  All of these essays, timelines, bibliographies, etc. tie this book together as the first most comprehensive effort at trying to understand the man, his music, his milieu, his unusual personality.

These accounts will always be crucial in any future analysis of the enigmatic talent of Julius Eastman.  Though many will attempt to affix labels to his personality variously attributing his quirks to mental or physical illness no one will ever know him the way the people in this book did, as a precious artist whose work was rescued (as much as it could be) from obscurity by his family (both biological and artistic).  He was and is loved in perhaps the only way that he would allow, through his work and his deeds.

This book is a fascinating read which serves to put the artist back into his proper place as the genius he was.  Much remains to be written, performed, analyzed and recorded but this book will always serve as the reference point for what is to come.

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


brminc

This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.

 

 

 

 

Longleash: Incorporating the Modern


longleash

The strikingly beautiful cover art reminiscent of Magritte is eye catching and make this reviewer nostalgic for the days of the 12×12 format of LP covers.  (Album Artwork: Pink Lady (2015), Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Album Design: Laura Grey).  It is, perhaps by virtue of its nod to modernism, a metaphor for the content of this album as well as being its title.

Longleash is apparently the oh so clever operations name of a CIA project whose goal was to help proliferate American modern art in the cold war era.  These days I guess that would be “weaponizing” art.  And this modern piano trio has (curiously) elected this for their stage name.

Well the content of this album is nowhere near your traditional piano trio and may even seem subversive to some listeners.  Longleash are modernist throughout.  Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano self-identify as a group with “traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity.”  Indeed they have chosen a rather young and pretty much unknown group of composers: Francesco Filidei (1973- ) is the oldest of the group followed by Clara Iannotta (1983- ), Juan De Dios Magdaleno (1984- ), Christopher Trapani, and Yukiko Watanabe.

Despite the varied backgrounds these composers seem to share a particular segment of a modern aesthetic.  They seem fond of judicious use of extended instrumental techniques and quasi-minimalist cells but their styles are quite listenable.  They seem to have aspects of pointillism, the occasional terseness of Webern, some rhythmic intricacies and the occasional nod to a melody.  In short they seem schooled in the variety of techniques which rose largely out of the twentieth century but seem beholden to none of them seeking instead to judiciously use their skills to create their own unique sound worlds.

There are five works on eight tracks and none of them can be easily described except to say the the combination of listening with the aid of the liner notes can be helpful.  That is not to say the works cannot stand on their own.  That is a useful experience in itself.

I suppose it might be best to say that these works will likely evoke a variety of reactions from various listeners.  This is the sort of album, at least for this listener, that benefits from a direct concentrated listen without distraction but it is also worth experiencing as background music, letting the experience creep in where it might while you do other things.  And then a read through the liner notes to try to divine the composers’ intents.

I’m not being facetious here.  I think this is a very intriguing album but one which is difficult to characterize in words and one which is beyond this writer’s expertise in terms of any useful analysis.  Also the newness of these voices does not allow one to place these works even within the contextual canon of each individual composer’s work.  We have free floating modernism which, as was thought in the cold war days, may invade one’s intellect in subversive ways.

The review immediately preceding this one, Soft Aberration, features this piano trio on it’s first track.  Now Scott Wollschleger is very closely associated with the Manhattan School of Music.  What is curious here is that Longleash has managed to find the present disparate group of emerging composers with no directly discernible connections to the Manhattan School but with a clear affinity for the same sound world.  It is the luck of the draw that these reviews have appeared in this sequence but the similarities are striking.  So if you like the spare sounds of the New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff) and their successors in people like Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Futing, and Nils Vigeland (who, along with Pala Garcia provides the useful liner notes) then this will be your cup of tea.  But even if you don’t know these folks you are still in for a fascinating journey of cutting edge ideas by emerging composers.  And even if it is not “weaponized art” subverting your mind to western ideology you can be assured that it is genuine and uplifting work done by some wonderful performers of composers you will likely hear from again very soon.

 

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration


wollschlegersoft

New Focus FCR182

The cover and the booklet that come with this CD contain art that is a remarkably fitting metaphor for the music contained herein.  The almost monochromatic images with sometimes barely visible lines defining a space which requires serious concentration to discern effectively at times is very much like the music we hear on the disc.

Scott Wollschleger (1980- ) is an American composer who studied with Nils Vigeland at the Manhattan School of Music.  His work has been compared to that of Morton Feldman and, more generally, to the other members of the so-called New York School.  Vigeland has been active throughout his career performing and recording definitive versions of some of the best of Morton Feldman, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.  It would appear that these voices and stylistic leanings are very much favored at the Manhattan School of Music.  A previous disc reviewed here with music by head of the composition department Reiko Futing, evokes a similar sound world.

This disc of chamber music contains five works on eight tracks ranging from 1’43” to 14’27” and all require almost as much concentration on the part of the listener as the extended techniques and performance requirements demand of the performers.  The dynamic range is from (generous) silences to forte.

The first track is by the seriously entertaining and odd piano trio called Longleash.  They demonstrate their expertise and concentration as well as their love for this musical genre in their performance of Brontal Symmetry (2015).  Unlike the other pieces here, Brontal Symmetry makes use of ostinati and there is a consistent sound field punctuated with silences.  It is an unusual but ultimately engaging piece.  Longleash consists of Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano.

It is followed by the titular and sparse Soft Aberration (2013) for viola and piano played by Anne Lanzilotti, viola and Karl Larson, piano.  Though approximately the same length as the opening work the silences nearly suspend the perception of time and create a sense of sounds suspended in space in a sort of sculptural way.

Bring Something Incomprehensible into this World (2015) is for trumpet and soprano.  The three parts of this work are spread across the disc (tracks 3, 5, and 8) creating an even more spare sense.  It is interesting to play the three movements manually without the interruption of the intended track sequence to get a sense of the piece.  Again we have silences predominating with extended techniques demanded of the performers.  Andy Kozar plays trumpet and the soprano is Corrine Byrne.  The first movement at 6’39” is the longest followed by the second at 3’25” and the last at 1’43”.

America (2013) is a solo cello piece here played by John Popham (of Longleash).  It is a pointillistic mix of silence and extended instrumental techniques which makes reference to an art work by Glenn Ligon.

White Wall (2013) is for string quartet and is played by the Mivos Quartet consisting of Olivia De Prato, violin; Josh Modney, violin; Victor Lowrie, viola; and Mariel Roberts, cello.  This is an amalgam of unfolding processes which seem to be indiosyncratic to the composer.  It is very intimate music in that sense.  The piece is in two substantial movements.

The album concludes with the brief last part of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World.  Suffice it to say that there are attempts here to tie in philosophical as well as visual metaphors.  Wollschleger is apparently enamored of the writings of Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Brecht.  Her lies another tie in to the New York School with their love of visual metaphors and philosophy.  This is not an easy listen but it is a serious effort deserving of some attention.  The listener can decide whether the artists have indeed brought something comprehensible into this world…or not.

 

 

Coming Out Electric: Trevor Babb’s Warmth



Steve Reich’s masterful Electric Counterpoint (1987) opens this disc.  That work originally written for Pat Metheny  and has become pretty much a classic as well as a fine way to demonstrate a musician’s facility with multi-tracked guitar music.

Trevor Babb is a doctoral student at Yale and this appears to be his first album.  And what an album it is.  The choice of the opening work serves to demonstrate Babb’s ability to interpret, in his own individual manner, a work that has been recorded many times.  It remains a classic and very listenable work which belies the difficulties inherent in its performance.  Babb seems to take a bit more of a legato approach than previous interpretations but is definitely highly effective and this is a wonderful recording of the work.

It also serves to set the tone for the rest of this truly fine solo guitar and electronics debut album.  Electric Counterpoint is the first of 6 total works represented on this disc.  The remaining five selections fit the rubric of this collection in the overall sense but are definitely unique and challenging in their ways.

Paul Kerekes is not a familiar name to this writer and perhaps a new name to many.  His inclusion here introduces many to this composer and places him in the context of this interesting collection.  This young composer is apparently well known in the New York scene and seems to travel in the circles that include some of the most interesting artists currently working.  Trail is a very different piece than the Reich but demonstrates the range of the solo guitar and electronics genre.  This is a gentler, more meditative piece overall and one which piques interest in hearing more.

David Lang is a well known and very welcome name in new music and is here represented by Warmth, a classic Langian post-minimalist work which delights the listener while challenging the performer.

Septet by the late great James Tenney is one of those masterful compositions that is respected as a masterpiece but not often programmed.  This is due at least in part to it’s critical use of alternate tuning.  The effects intended by the composer can only be heard if the performer can play accurately the tuning involved.  It is a wonderful and listener friendly experience typical of the finest of Tenney’s grasp of how to use such tunings in the compositional process.  Babb executes this piece lovingly and this performance will likely help to nudge this work to a more frequent experience in the concert hall.

Babb introduces himself as a composer in Grimace, an impressionistic exercise in which he attempts to imitate both the style of Ligeti and evoke the image of a mask seen in an art exhibit.  Long tones and extended techniques predominate in this meditative drone-like work that demonstrates fine technique in both composition and instrumental facility.

The album concludes with Slope 2 by the emerging bass player and composer Carl Testa.   Again Babb introduces a new voice for the listener to explore.  This extended composition, more drone than pattern based, is one that deserves multiple hearings to discern its substance and to demonstrate its position in the larger rubric of this collection.

Babb produces a great debut here and makes a strong case for the genre of electric guitar with supporting electronics as being a viable format for a live concert.  He also seems to be defining that genre much the way that many solo artists are doing these days.  He seems to be constructing a repertoire establishing the classics (Reich, Tenney) and promoting the viability of works that he feels deserve a place in that repertoire.

This is a really delightful album and that extends, at least in this writer’s eye, to the cover design as well.  Again I will bemoan the loss of the 12  inch square format of LPs which could have made more prominent this lovely design by Colin Meyer and Trevor Babb.  Perhaps a 12 inch vinyl release may happen.  But until then the listener can settle most comfortably in the warmth of this truly fine release even in the smaller CD format or even as a digital download.

 

Nordic Affect: Raindamage, Wonderful Music from Iceland


Sono Luminus SLE-70008

Definitely an unusual beginning to this sonorous album of chamber music from the happy, creative place called Iceland.  Some of these tracks are electroacoustic combining some sort of electronic sound producing and/or manipulating components along with the live musical performance.

Nothing familiar here but a lot worth listening to.  This is a collection of recent chamber music from what is apparently some of the finest composers working in Iceland today. And as a Sono Luminus product it is a sound object of the highest order.  It is a beautifully recorded set of pieces that goes a long way to demonstrate the high quality and creativity of both the compositional and performance to be found in this distant corner of the world.

There are six works represented here.  Three are exclusively electronic, one for acoustic instruments with electronics and two are for acoustic instruments alone.  All seem to share the eclecticism of modern composers and, to this writer’s ear, a rather distinct style which seems to come out of the Nordic regions these days.

Iceland has a long and proud musical history and has amassed a large creative classical repertoire in (at least) the 20th and 21st centuries.  Perhaps one can hear the “sounds of the north” in these works or perhaps that is simply the analogous associations of this listener’s mind but there does seem to be some affinity between the lovely cover photograph of melting ice and some of the sounds herein.

At any rate this is fascinating music beautifully performed by Nordic Affect, a more or less fixed ensemble of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord with occasional electronic supplementation.  Performers include Halla Steinun Stefásdóttir, Violin; Guòrún Hrund Haróardóttir, Viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, Cello; Guòrún Óskarsdóttir, Harpsichord with Nava Dunkelman on drum in the last track.

The composers Úlfur Hansson, Valgeir Sigurðsson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson are completely unknown to this writer though it is noted that Hansson studied at Mills College in California, itself quite a hotbed of new music innovation.  No matter, though, these are some amazing composers doing cutting edge work and deserve your attention.

All in all this is one fine disc of chamber music.