I’m guessing that my title has its origins in the Benjamin Britten piece, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. That phrasing has been used by the likes of Phill Niblock and King Crimson to title retrospective compilation discs. While the disc under consideration here is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective it is a fine representation of the chamber music of the late great Ben Johnston (1926-2019).
Johnston, a former associate of Harry Partch (Johnston played in Partch’s ensemble) was a composer in his own right. His ten string quartets are a landmark of the genre. Two of those quartets are featured here played by the Lyris Quartet (Nos. 4 and 9) along with what is apparently his last composition, “Ashokan Farewell” (1999) scored for an octet in which the Lyris is augmented with flute, clarinet, bassoon, and double bass.
Like so many composers before him, Johnston was fond of incorporating folk tunes into his compositions. The composer’s fourth quartet (included here) from 1973, which incorporates “Amazing Grace”, is likely his best known work. Despite its incredible complexity (nicely summarized in Kyle Gann’s lucid liner notes) this set of variations keeps that familiar tune near the surface and effectively make for music that is friendly to the audience, easy on the ears. It’s single movement clocks in at just under 12 minutes, the piece ends long before listeners have time to worry about that complexity.
Not all of the quartets incorporate familiar tunes but they explore various aspects of just intonation tunings. The ninth quartet (1987) is about twice the length of the fourth and is set in the familiar four movements that characterize the majority of the classical string quartet literature. The use of the classical format along with Johnston’s masterful writing also make this slightly odd sounding work just familiar enough that few listeners will find unpleasant. In fact the work is a joy to experience though very difficult to play.
Listeners may want to seek out Mr. Gann’s very readable work on microtonal tuning systems, “The Arithmetic of Listening” available. Your humble reviewer is working through this text and finding it useful in understanding microtonality.
The final work (both the last on the disc and the last in the composer’s ouevre) is a delightful set of variations on a tune called “Ashokan Farewell”, a pretty folk like melody that pervades the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. I say “folk like” because the time was written by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Johnston mistakenly believed it to be a folk song in the public domain and, seeing its possibilities for his compositional aspirations, simply used it. Like the fourth quartet it is a set of variations in a single movement of similar length. This is the world premiere recording.
Musicians include Alyssa Park, violin; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, cello; Sara Andon, flute; James Sullivan, clarinet; Scott Worthington, double bass.
In researching this review I discovered that the tune actually has lyrics (also under copyright) and they are presented below:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan The pines and the willows know soon we will part There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken And a love that will always remain in my heart
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter The magic of moving as one And a time we’ll remember long ever after The moonlight and music and dancing are done
Will we climb the hills once more? Will we walk the woods together? Will I feel you holding me close once again? Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever? Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping Over the lake the stars shine They wonder if you and I will be keeping The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Those lyrics make for a fond farewell to a true musical genius who gave us both magic and music. Grab this lovely disc and honor his memory.
This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
It is thanks to the ever industrious Guitarist/composer/producer (et al) John Schneider for doing the research and navigating legal quagmires to obtain permission to release this marvelous private recording of a lecture/demonstration of Harry Partch’s musical theories in a sort of lecture/recital given on November 3, 1942 in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. This (apparently stereo) direct to disc recording languished in an archive and has now been liberated and released to Partch historians, fans and friends of new music..
First let me say that the physical product here is both his both a valuable historic artifact and a “fetish level” collectible. And by that I mean it is a hardcover book measuring 6 x 8 inches with boards and spine covered tastefully with images and text. Save for the heavy stock end papers the pages are glossy satin coated pages. They contain the liner notes, relevant texts as well as historical photographs and some fascinating historical material that helps put this sonic document in its proper context. It is a beautifully conceived and executed release on the ever adventurous MicroFest Records. (Of course you can get the excellent recording and the texts, learned liner notes, and historical photos on a pdf file, the recording on a digital file, but collectors will long cherish this museum quality document. Suffice it to say that some of my Christmas shopping is done now.)
This is in effect a sort of appendix to the Bridge Records Volume I, (“Bitter Music” released in 2011) of their visionary complete Partch recording project. Both “Bitter music” and “Harry Partch, 1942” are basically variations on Partch’s work with “speech music”.
Partch’s work here seems to be anchored not only to ancient Greek antecedents for the tunings and the performance practices of poetry but also in the genre of “sound poetry” as practiced in the early twentieth century and even perhaps forward to later incarnations of this genre like Charles Dodge’s pioneering 1980s “Speech Songs” using computerized vocal synthesis algorithms. All are plays on the intertwining of speech and music, the artistic territory that exists between music, poetry, and spoken word.
Partch is connected to sound poetry via his explorations of early Greek culture which had a tradition of performing poetry with music. He is a contemporary of Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (maybe even Bob Dylan), and can be said to be in the lineage of beatniks, folk singers, street theater, sound poets, and an exponent of music theater. And Partch’s work on tunings precedes and informs the later work of Ben Johnston (who played in Partch’s own ensemble) as well as La Monte Young. This hour with the master sheds light on his theories, his art, and his genius which will thrill fans of his work. This is one exciting release.
That “Bitter Music” of the Bridge release (Bridge 9349A) is a contemporary performance version, a faithful realization of a written diary but the present document is a chance to hear the mid-career Partch (the Bitter Music journal dates from 1935-7) showing and telling his audience how its done. Partch did some speaking in a lot of the CRI discs which contained digitally remastered transcriptions of the 78 rpm discs released on the composer’s Gate 5 label but these were largely brief, scripted, and informational comments preceding the recorded performances. By contrast Partch, 1942 is a lucidly informative lecture demonstration with an (mostly) unscripted Partch speaking in his own voice, a professor presenting his research. Partch’s exposition of his theories is well constructed and his musical performances are heartfelt and, well, definitive.
The disc (which sits neatly in a pocket on the inside of the back cover) clocks in at about an hour and, for reasons likely lost to history, the recording begins with the introduction “already in progress”. This single CD contains the material on the four original direct to disc live recordings. The sound is surprisingly good.
So whether you just want to hear the performance or want to own this objet d’art in all its glory this is a fine way to introduce yourself or a friend to this unique American genius.
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.
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.
This Lou Harrison (1917-2003) concerto is one of his lesser known works largely due to the unusual instrumentation and the labors needed to tune the piano to the gamelan orchestra. A quick search revealed previous recordings, one by its dedicatee, Belle Bulwinkle with the Bay Area New Gamelan (BANG) recorded at Mills College (and overseen by Jody Diamond) from 1992 (now out of print) and one by pianist Adrienne Varner with Gamelan Pacifica (artists who participated with Harrison during his residency at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) on New World records from 2012.
As a dedicated Harrison fan, I can’t imagine why this work is not better known. It is, in fact, Harrison’s second piano concerto, the first being his 1985 concerto for piano and orchestra. This first concerto has received two recordings by Keith Jarrett (the concerto’s dedicatee) and, more recently by Joanna MacGregor. This concerto also requires tuning the piano but to a just intonation scale, not to the orchestra as in the second concerto. All these recordings were made with significant collaboration with the composer. And here now is a chance to hear this second concerto in a new and defining recording by the next generation of musicians, all of whom have had significant and long term relationships with Mr. Harrison.
The details and complexities of tuning and notation are beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, beyond the expertise of this writer. But suffice it to say that though the performers must run quite a gauntlet of complexity, the listener will likely find this music very accessible. I have included a link here to a PDF of the original score for those who want that sort of detail but this is simply beautiful music when well executed as it is here in this performance.
This new recording of the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan was performed and recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2017, part of the celebration of Harrison’s centennial. It was one of many such celebrations worldwide of a true American master.
This 1986-7 work is from a very productive period in Harrison’s life and demonstrates his deep understanding of writing music for Javanese Gamelan which he studied for many years in Indonesia and later with Jody Diamond. His mixing of western classical music with that of other cultures is one of his claims to fame as is his interest and application of non-traditional tunings and scales. This concerto is one of many pieces he wrote for gamelan and western instruments during the aforementioned residency at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.
One of the most striking things about Lou Harrison for this writer has been his connectedness. He was collaborative and very inclusive. He touched many lives via his composition, his teaching, and his general openness to others. Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon and this recording is a document of one of the many centennial celebrations of his music which occurred world wide. At one of those events, Other Minds 22, held at the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco (a church where Harrison went to learn to sing Gregorian Chants as a young man) the master of ceremonies, Charles Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the large audience. He simply asked how many people there had met Lou Harrison. Indeed about 2/3 of the audience raised their hands (this writer included).
Harrison was very connected and his influence continues, a fact very much in evidence in this release. This is one of those discs I would buy just for the performers. Sarah Cahill, Jody Diamond, and Evan Ziporyn are all highly accomplished performers, all with deep connections to Mr. Harrison. Cahill, a very fine pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge and real feeling for modern repertoire, can always be counted upon to provide definitive, exciting interpretations of music which deserves to be heard. Her facility with west coast composers as well as her collaborative relationship with many of them makes her an ideal choice to play scores by the likes of Terry Riley, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, John Adams, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Ingram Marshall, and Lou Harrison to name just a few.
Cahill writes in the wonderful liner notes:
“One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.”
The Pasadena, CA born Jody Diamond is a composer/performer and scholar who has worked with Gamelan for many years. She was one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, an American Gamelan ensemble which continues to play traditional music and collaborations with western contemporary composers. She studied gamelan in Indonesia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Diamond writes in the liner notes regarding her relationship with Harrison:
“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.
Evan Ziporyn, born in Chicago, Illinois, is the only Midwesterner in the group but his connections and musical proclivities make him a very comfortable fit with Diamond and Cahill. He is a composer, clarinet and saxophone player and, wait for it, a gamelan player. He studied gamelan in Indonesia with the same person who introduced Colin McPhee (1900-1964) to gamelan. McPhee is known for having been the first westerner to do an ethnomusicological study of gamelan. Ziporyn is the founder and director of MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika which counts Jody Diamond as a former member.
The concerto is cast in three movements much as in the classical style. The first movement is entitled “Bull’s Belle” and is the longest of the three movements. The piano takes the lead and the gamelan enters at first almost unnoticed as its gentle tinkling notes seem as if they come from the piano. This is not the classical call and response between soloist and orchestra best displayed in the classical era (think Mozart) but rather an integration much closer in ways to a baroque concerto grosso where the solo instrument is not as clearly differentiated from the other instruments (think Bach). The piano writing is generally rather muscular and Brahmsian but the sound will remind listeners of the music of Alan Hovhaness and even echoes of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisatory efforts.
The second movement is without a title. The gamelan opens with its gentle chime like percussions and the piano enters almost surreptitiously mirroring the entrances which occurred in the first movement. Like a classical concerto this is a slower movement with a more lyrical and overall less virtuosic feel.
The third and final movement is entitled, “Belle’s Bull”, begins with the gamelan entering first and then the piano. This movement has a lighter feel overall than the grand first movement and even introduces some minimalist repetition passages.
All told this is a performance against which all subsequent performances should be measured. It is a fitting tribute to Lou Harrison, his instrument builder and life partner Bill Colvig as well as a landmark in the performing careers of Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn.
I know this review is “late out the gate” but this disc really needs to be heard. When I did finally listen to this disc in its entirety while on a long drive I was positively mesmerized. This odd mixture of 1/4 tone tunings along with post minimalist repeating patterns takes on the character of drone as well as its own take on minimalism and even spectralism to some degree. These three homages are gestures of respect to three composers whose work obviously has great meaning for Georg Friederich Haas (1953- ). The composers selected for these homages are György Ligeti (1923-2006), Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), and Steve Reich (1936- )
It echoes a similar work by Ligeti, Three Pieces for Two Pianos – Monument – Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei) – Bewegung (1976) but with conventional tunings. Haas has had a long interest in microtonal music by composers like Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába, as well as the music of Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono.
It is easy to see why he chose Ligeti for the first homage (written in 1984). Haas’ work owes much to Ligeti’s influence including dissonant harmonies and micropolyphony. This first homage is the longest, clocking in at about 30 minutes. And Steve Reich has met with admiration and homages from many fellow composers but I must admit to having been stumped at the inclusion of Hauer’s work. This one I had to look up. Hauer was a Austrian composer whose substantial oeuvre is not really well known in the United States but deserves at least a second look. Hauer created his own 12 tone system apparently in parallel with Arnold Schoenberg but achieved little recognition despite a large catalog of works. That appears to be the reason why he was chosen. Hauer’s homage is placed second in this performance and Reich’s is last. Both the Hauer and Reich homages were written in 1982. And though this piece requires 2 pianos it also requires only the two hands of a talented pianist.
Mabel Kwan‘s recording is the world premiere of this work which is among Haas’ earliest published works (having heard it a couple of times it is difficult to imagine why it waited so long for a recording). Kwan, a founding member of the Chicago based Dal Niente (whose name literally means, “from nothing” but is used in music to indicate basically a long diminuendo, a fade) is no stranger to new and experimental music.. Her musical credentials are extensive and this world premiere recording is a major feather in her musical cap and a demonstration of her formidable interpretive and performing skills. Brava! Ms. Kwan.
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.
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.
This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of the art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.
Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is a rather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for the modern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.
This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This is NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk“, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked by quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.
This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, “The Well Tempered Clavier” which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at http://www.MicroFestRecords.com and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.
All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper”. The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.
Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.
And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.
There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV 996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV 998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more.
As far as I can tell this is only the second recording of Harry Partch’s 1958 dance theater masterpiece. The recording that most folks know is likely the CRI release which used that awful simulated stereo (which is rather unpleasant heard on headphones). That recording (thankfully remastered in the original mono for New World Records) is of the 1958 premiere of this inventive and groundbreaking work originally released on the composer’s Gate 5 label.
This release of the 1980 (six years after the composer’s death) Berlin performance is here released for the first time on Neuma records under Philip Blackburn’s new tenure. Neuma’s tagline, “Food for the Mind’s Ear” is curiously reflected in the recording method used here. Binaural recording was pioneered in the late 1960s using two microphones facing away from each other inside a dummy head with anatomically accurate human inner and outer ears. The idea was to produce recordings which, when heard on headphones, simulated the experience of being present in the audience. Of course one can listen on conventional speakers but it is truly worth one’s time and money to get a good set of headphones to appreciate this amazing performance.
This is the second Neuma release which embraces Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy. The above recording (reviewed in an earlier blog post) is of a 1967 choral concert curated and conducted by Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Illinois at Champaign where, nearly ten years before that event, the premiere of Partch’s Bewitched was first imposed on a audience. It is Gaburo’s skills as a musical theater director that come into play in the 1980 Berlin production which features the Harry Partch Ensemble conducted by Danlee Mitchell, a long time Partch collaborator and performer.
The recording has a refreshingly superior sound to the 1958 mono premiere but the crucial significance of this release is of Kenneth Gaburo’s holistic theatrical vision which draws upon world music theater conventions such as Japanese Noh, Hindu Mahabharata performances, Gamelan accompanied Balinese Shadow Puppet theater, and the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow as well as ancient Greek theater. Gaburo rehearsed the musicians and dancers to channel Partch’s grand vision in this, the first of his three major dance/theater works (the others being Revelations in the Courthouse Park, 1960; and Delusion of the Fury, 1965-66). It is a masterpiece of American music.
The Harry Partch Ensemble in this recording consisted of Isabella Tercero (The Witch), Peter Hamlin (Adapted Koto), Phil Keeney (Spoils of War), Cris Forster (Marimba Eroica), Randy Hoffman (Cloud Chamber Bowls), Francis Thumm (Chromelodeon I), John Szanto (New Boo I), Dan Maureen (Bass Clarinet), Donna Caruso (Piccolo and Flute), Robert Paredes (Clarinet), David Dunn (Adapted Viola), Robin Gillette and Anna Mitchell (Kithara II), Ron Caruso (Diamond Marimba), Gary Irvine (Bass Marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (Harmonic Canon II), Ron Engel (Surrogate Kithara). Lou Blankenburg (choreographer/associate director) and Kenneth Gaburo (director). The Partch instruments are as much characters in this piece as the musicians and dancers.
The original recording done by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) was restored and mastered by David Dunn. The booklet includes commentary from clarinetist Bob Paredes as well as Partch’s original scenario taken from the published score.
The Bewitched is a visionary politically progressive music/dance theatrical satire that parallels the work of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater and presages theatrical and musical trends that would later characterize the 1960s and beyond. This recording is a very significant historical document and a great sounding CD, an essential recording for fanciers of Partch’s work, and a performance that sets a standard for the future.
If you don’t already have a good pair of headphones get one and buy this CD. You won’t regret it.
A quick look at Sharon Isbin’s discography makes it clear that she embraces her instrument in all of its historical, cultural, and geographical guises. From baroque classical on to contemporary classical, from jazz to folk and troubadour traditions. She has had over 80 works written for her and has collaborated with a wide range of musicians and musical styles.
For this release, Isbin has chosen to follow the route originally pioneered by Yehudi Menuhin in exploring and collaborating with South Asian musicians. Menuhin helped introduce music from other cultures (we now call it “world music”) to the western world. His recordings with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rahka were revelatory and instructive to thousands of listeners (this writer included). Now comes another generation reaping the joy of collaboration inserting her western instrument in a context with musicians from another culture. The end result enhances both cultures.
Her collaborators span seven generations of familial musical traditions in India. Here we have master sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan and his very accomplished sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. They are dazzlingly accompanied by tabla player Amit Kavthekar. All the music was written by Amjad Ali Khan and arranged for Sharon Isbin. And so she joins people like Menuhin and Ry Cooder in establishing a new generation of collaborative music making.
There are four compositions here lasting about 15 minutes (the second track is shorter at about 4 minutes) each based on a raga (a stale of notes) and named for that scale. Each piece is also given a more poetic title as well giving us: By the Moon-Raga Behag, Love Avalanche-Raga Mishra Bhairav, Romancing Earth-Raga Pilu, and Sacred Evening-Raga Yaman. All are world premiere recordings.
The recording was done in New York following a successful concert tour in India. It is lucid and a joy to the ears. There are doubtless multiple meanings hidden here in the kaleidoscopic world of Indian musical traditions and in the minds of the performers but the music has a joyous directness that comes from performers who have mastered their craft.
Dither is a guitar quartet comprised of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley. The present release is their third album and, like the preceding releases is an adventure in listening. Their intelligently designed web site has some nice sound and video samples.
A quick look at their recorded output places their performing repertoire clearly in the “new music” category and their work has been granted a kind of serious legitimacy by their inclusion (of their second album) in John Zorn’s wonderful Tzadik record label. So along comes the truly rising star of New Focus Recordings whose service to new music adds yet another imprimatur to this group’s collective resume.
A quick look at the track list on the back of this gorgeously designed album reveals 9 works spread across 12 tracks (one of the works is in 4 movements) which includes one track from each of the musicians alongside some other interesting new music and, at the end, the gift of one older piece which, though certainly modern in concept is too little known. The only negative is the lack of liner notes both on the album and on their website.
I assure you that I don’t mean to trivialize this wonderful album by calling it “post-psychedelic” but it is difficult to not hear the riffs and effects as having an ancestry in the psychedelic sound. But for this disc the psychedelic sounds appear to include Frank Zappa, Rhys Chatham, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Mahavishnu John Mc Laughlin, and their compatriots.
The first track, “The Garden of Cyrus” (1985) by Eve Beglarian, a much sought after composer who emerged from the downtown New York scene and continues to enthrall with her inventive talents. This track is generally speaking a sort of post minimalist piece with a rather immediate appeal and serves as a fine introduction to the album. It has a variety of sections with varying degrees of rhythmic complexity and harmonic density. It is sometimes microtonal, sometimes spectral, sometimes antiphonal, sometimes dissonant, sometimes warmly consonant, but always engaging.
Next up is “The Tar of Gyu” (2013) by Gyan Riley. Gyan is indeed his own man musically who has emerged from the shadow of his famed father Terry Riley in a most gracious manner. His collaborations with his father continue to be a must see concert event and his work in solo and chamber groups reflect a growing and fascinating identity as a composer and musician entirely in his own right. The present work makes excellent use of the timbres of the electric guitar and makes for another engaging if rather somber track. This work is largely about sustained tones and timbres and shows a real mastery of composing for this unusual chamber ensemble as well as a side of Riley’s compositional style less familiar to this reviewer.
Paula Matthusen, an associate professor of music at Wesleyan where she became the sort of heir to Alvin Lucier’s Music 109 class (documented so well in Lucier’s book of the same name). Her music combines electronics with instruments and sometimes recorded sounds. Her piece, “but because without this” (2009) was written for Dither and continues her unique compositional journey. Without notes it is difficult to say much about this work by a composer who tends to insert herself pretty organically into her compositions.
Jascha Narveson is a name new to this reviewer. He is another composer deeply involved with electronics as well as acoustic instruments. Ones (2012) is a four movement work written for the Dither Quartet. This is basically a set of etudes for the effects pedal. The four movements, titled “The Wah One”, “The Driving One”, “The Warped One”, and “The Floaty One” are each apparently a reference to electric guitar foot pedals and these minimalist etudes exploit the effect created by the pedal as a compositional device. Really fascinating.
Mi-Go (2012) by the ensemble’s own Joshua Lopes and it is here that the Zappa comparison is most evident. This piece (the second longest on the album at 9:38) sounds like an aural refugee from Zappa’s “Jazz from Hell” (an album much admired by this writer). Lopes creates a work of some complexity and many moods utilizing the potential of this instrumentation to great advantage creating a work of almost symphonic dimensions.
Up next is James Moore’s Mannequin (2014), one of the shorter pieces here. After a loud and somewhat cacophonous opening this piece goes on to explore sustained tones and glissandos.
Candy (2010) by Ted Hearne is the first of only two pieces here that was not written by one of the performers. Hearned earlier released a fine disc of his own music (also on New Focus). Like many of his peers he wields a tool box of compositional styles that includes jazz as well as contemporary classical techniques. This is certainly one of the more complex pieces here but Hearne’s music communicates well with the audience.
Track 11 is by Dither’s Taylor Levine. Renegade (2013) is a relatively brief piece and one which wanders furthest from my characterization of this album being “minimalist”. It seems to have its roots at least partly in noise bands but its complexity engages and seems to fit the program.
Track 12 is by James Tenney (1934-2006). His Swell Piece (1966) is actually an early example of minimalism an is part of a series of compositions written on post cards and called, “Postal Pieces”. Tenney spent a portion of his career in California teaching at Cal Arts where he mentored many composers and performers working today, This is a fitting conclusion, an homage to one of the great experimental composers whose music, thankfully, is now getting fine performances and recordings.
A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included). That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.
It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series.
Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.
Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)
Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992. That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year. In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.
His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time. This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.
His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City. It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking). Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own. His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.
Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)
The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats. The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts. The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982). A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.
Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)
After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond). Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.
In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers. This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members. One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents. Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life. His support of this very blog is another example. It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office. And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events. Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission. More examples abound.
Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).
New World Records 80817
There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works. The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) , a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997). This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..
At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian. The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries. These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts. I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.
Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.
Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event. We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis. And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy. Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause. It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.
Other Minds OM-1025-2
In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records. One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano. It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others). Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.
Charles signing his CD
Kyle signing his CD
Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements. As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause. This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work. Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.
And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.
Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith
Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee. It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.
The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.
A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian. Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general. Salud!!
Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)
The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th. The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present. Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?
Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)
This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series. Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.
A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.
The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars. The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time. It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.
The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ). It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe. It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score. On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received. It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case. The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.
Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ). Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier. The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.
Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”. As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist. This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.
The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism. Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound. According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918). Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves. It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja). And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more. At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.
The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth. The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.
The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4. This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.
Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre. György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982). Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday. The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.
The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert. This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.) It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation. The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
Hannah Lash‘s name began appearing on my radar about two years ago but this is my first actual encounter with her music. This recent (2011) Harvard graduate’s star seems to be rising quickly and this is a fine place as any to start to get to know her work. New Focus Recordings is a label with good instincts regarding new and important music and this one is typical of their collective acumen.
This release features 4 works. One is for harp (Lash’s instrument) with string quartet and the rest are for string quartet alone. I find it difficult to describe Lash’s work concisely. Like many in her generation she seems to have been exposed most comprehensively to a huge range of styles and techniques and she appears to be selecting judiciously among those to apply those techniques by which she can achieve her compositional goals.
The works include the single movement, Frayed followed by Suite: Remembered and Imagined (in 6 short movements), the single movement Pulse-Space, and the three movement Filigree in Textile which features Lash on harp along with the Jack Quartet. The rather sparse liner notes are by the composer. They may lack detail as to composition date, commissioner, etc. but they do reflect what the composer’s thought processes were with each piece. She is clearly more concerned with conveying her metaphorical ideas than the technical aspects of her work. That is perhaps best left to future musicologists.
Her work is direct, one might even say concise. Using a basically tonal palette, the composer explores a variety of musical and metamusical ideas. These are intimate and interesting works that seem very much to the point. Keep in mind too that this is simply a disc of recent chamber music which gives no idea as to how she handles larger forms. But from the perspective of this album alone her brevity has an almost Webernian quality (not the thorny harmonies or difficult rhythms, just the brief and direct statements she makes with the music here).
The always wonderful Jack Quartet plays in two different configurations here. Tracks 1-8 feature Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Kevin McFarland, cello. Tracks 9-11 feature: Austin Wullman and Christopher Otto, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello; and Hannah Lash, harp.
As usual with well written new music multiple listens reveal more detail. The music is both interesting at first listen as well as compelling enough to provoke yet another listen. Lash is a rising star who deserves the attention of a new music audience who will learn the subtleties of her musical language. There is great beauty here.
Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor. First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes. Second, the joy: All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.
So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers. She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.
Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.
It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.
Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.) She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.
Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres. Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard. The work is in three short movements.
Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints. The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.
Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer. The AACM was founded in Chicago.
I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17. The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener. The concert took place in 2012. Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page. Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.
Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin. The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion. This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition. But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.
As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration. First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu . This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work. Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds. This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part. It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.
Next up is Vijay Iyer. Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece. It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism. It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.
The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer. She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”. The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics. The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one. The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting. Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.
Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.
Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.
Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them. And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression. He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.
I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music. Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked. That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. And so it continues. But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.
With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music. Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right? Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats? Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.
John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture
Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider. As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these. They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording. The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience. Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research. Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH. These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates. This release is solidly built from the ground up.
PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat
PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)
The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions. It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962). This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it. It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”. The piece has been recorded twice before. For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom. Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.
Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning. These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these. They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.
Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will). Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons. Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name. It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967). Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.
Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950). It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected. There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial. This deserves to be heard again and again.
Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history. First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music. It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.
Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web
The second bonus is a real gem. Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942. This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009. But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording. Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.
It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work. Bravo!!
The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series. Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex. The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.
But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event). When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step. When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”
If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music. A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key. Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought. 1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris. It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work. This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.
Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.
While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music. That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive. One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.
The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs. You can download a PDF file of the program here. It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.
One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers. Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music. Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann. His extensive information on the subject can be found here.
The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos. It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals. The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett. This was a US premiere.
Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days). This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.
Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.
Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere). The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”. It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers. What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive. Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.
Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works. She would appear in the second half of the program.
If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique. Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning. So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.
Shot of the two piano stage set up. Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.
It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket. As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo. The link to their work in that area can provide more information,
Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo
They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives. It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.
Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.
Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn. As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus. This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.
The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963). This time they performed without a conductor. Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically. This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently. And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.
Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38: Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959). Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance. The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present. What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.
The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two. Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion. This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight. It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony. The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.
This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.
Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it. With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement. This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.
On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer. The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.
I must confess that Ireland is hardly near the top of my list for countries that are producing interesting contemporary music but this new release will soon have me checking out their Contemporary Music Center to see what else is happening. Let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Ireland, just lamenting the fact that, like many countries, their contemporary classical music rarely gets to U.S. ears.
As if to magically remedy my wish for a more democratic distribution of said music producer Eamonn Quinn kindly sent me this single track CD containing a work influenced by (among others) the Godfather of minimalism, La Monte Young. He commented to me about the ultimate marketability of a one track CD but his instincts are well placed in this CD recorded February 2019, hot off the presses. This is my first encounter with the composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz (1953- ) whose name is now programmed into my surveillance engines as a voice to be followed. Definitely want to hear more from him. Born in Hamburg, he now teaches at Cal Arts. A list of his works can be found here. (While there you will want to avail yourself of the rest of this great site about just intonation composer at Plainsound)
While I share Mr. Quinn’s concern about the marketability of a single track CD (it is about 45 min), this is an ideal presentation for a work in just intonation by a string trio and the uninterrupted 45 minute interval is integral to the experience of the music. This work is like the grandchild of La Monte Young’s String Trio (1958). I am now having fantasies about curating a program of this work paired with its spiritual grandfather. The single track, just intonation hits at my geeky minimalist heart and I know I’m not alone in that.
The brief but lucid and useful program notes are by the wonderful Paul Griffiths and the recording by Peter Furmanczyk captures the rich overtones well. The Goeyvaerts String Trio has earned a place in my media alerts now as well. They perform this work with insight and passion.
Now, past the name dropping and background stuff to the music itself. If you know the long tones of La Monte Young’s String Trio, which is of similar length, you might hear it as a more melodic version of that. That is not to say that this work is derivative, it is evolved its predecessor’s DNA, so to speak. It is postminimalism (or file under “ambient” if you prefer) from that branch of the family tree.
The full title of KLANG” is given as ” PLAINSOUND STRING TRIO KLANG AUF SCHÖN BERG LA MONTE YOUNG…” Op. 39 (1999, rev 2013), and while the musical references to Schoenberg and Berg are there, the experience is that of an almost romantic tableau of long tones and rich harmonics descended from the Urtext of minimalism that is La Monte Young. The spirit of Morton Feldman appears to reside here as well, maybe even a wisp of Brian Eno. The kaleidoscopic effect of the just intonation with all the rich harmonic overtones evoke a great deal and probably will provoke different memories for different listeners. It is a maybe even a sort of Verklärte Nacht for the millennium though what is ultimately transformed is the listener themselves. You can choose your own metaphor, but first you’ll be charmed by the music.
This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace. Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.
Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition. Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.
Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics. The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun. Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.
Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.
This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.
Perhaps this is a stroke of marketing genius or maybe some luck is involved but this recording has success written all over it. Yo-Yo Ma is without a doubt one of the finest musicians of our time. The LA Philharmonic is a world class orchestra with a world class conductor at the helm. And though this is but the first encounter by this reviewer with Salonen’s music this work suggests that his compositional skills are at a similar level.
There is but one work on this disc, a large and very listenable cello concerto which dates from 2016. While the work is clearly modern in its style overall it leans toward romantic and impressionistic textures. Using his conductor’s mastery of the orchestra Salonen traverses territory that embraces the sound of composers such as Ives, Messiaen, Debussy, Barber, etc. Listeners will find familiar gestures but this work is not at all derivative. Rather it ultimately sounds like a complex but very connected improvisation between the soloist and the orchestra neither of whom have easy tasks (though they all play flawlessly).
The rather brief program booklet is basically a program note by the composer/conductor and it is most lucid. It might have been nice to hear as well from Mr. Ma but that is aminor criticism. This is a gorgeous piece given a characteristically powerful performance and this writer was simply enthralled from beginning to end. Now I guess it’s time to look into more of this man’s music.
This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland. The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases. You can find a listing on his web page here. Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs. Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham. That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists. Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.
In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016. Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound. It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here. One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall. All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet. The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.
The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar. If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well. The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.
Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars. This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.
And now the music. The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic. Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work. This is practically a miniature symphony. It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.
Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album. It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work. I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds. Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.
Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope. (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.) Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example. This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.
Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage. This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy. Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.
Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision. The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are. So much for happiness.
Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall. Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again. As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern. There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony. It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.