William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.
This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.
The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.
Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.
Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.
While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.
This is another entry in an ongoing series of music for piano trio by the tried and true Lincoln Trio. In this fine release they play a delightful collection of five works (three are world premiere recordings) by living composers. This is their eighth Cedille release by my count. It is the second recording of piano trios from Chicago based composers, a follow up to their previous survey of early to mid-twentieth century piano trios, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders.
The five works presented here are but a sampling of the available repertoire from Chicago based composers. That said it is a fine sampling of the current state of the art and one would do well to explore more of the music of all these composers.
The first selection is the three movement, “city beautiful” (2021) by the American composer of Nigerian/American Heritage, Shawn E. Okpebholo (1981- ), a world premiere recording. The title is taken from that of the 19th century initiative that helped build the now familiar skyline which had been ravaged by the 1871 Chicago Fire.
Okpebholo is no stranger to this blog. His fine album of spiritual arrangements Steal Away (2016), and his contributions to Will Liverman’s album, “Dreams of a New Day” (2021) revealed his interest in and expertise with spirituals and art song. “city beautiful” by contrast is essentially three tone poems inspired by Chicago architecture, perhaps one of the city’s finest distinctions. The three movements, aqua, prairie, and burnham are effectively homages to architects Jeanne Gang (whose Aqua Tower is a most recent major addition to the famous skyline), Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Robie House is a classic example of the “prairie school” design), and Daniel Burnham (whose 19th century designs define the famously beautiful lakefront and the iconic Union Station).
Opkebholo’s idiom is basically tonal and could be characterized as post romantic. But regardless of how you categorize it the music is eminently listener friendly and a fine vehicle for the estimable Lincoln Trio. This is the work of a rapidly emerging composer with both substance and style. Keep his name on your radar. I expect to hear much more from this talented and prolific composer who currently holds a professorship at Wheaton College in that western suburb of Chicago.
Next is a two movement work by Augusta Read Thomas (1964- ) entitled, “…a circle around the sun” (2021). This work was a commission by the Children’s Memorial Foundation for the Amelia Piano Trio in honor of George D. Kennedy. Thomas has long been a fixture in Chicago’s music life where she was a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony from 1997-2006. She is currently professor of music at the University of Chicago and a former professor at Northwestern University. Her work also tends toward the tonal idiom and this rather brief two movement work is a fine example of her writing for chamber ensemble.
“Soliloquy” (2003) by the truly fine, if still too little known, Shulamit Ran (1949- ), an Israeli born American composer. She was a student of the esteemed Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony (1990). The composer states in her liner notes that the origins of this work come from her opera “Dybbuk”. It is a pleasant piece perhaps less complex and more lyrical in sound than some of her larger works. Ran was professor of music at the University of Chicago from 1973 to her retirement in 2015.
Mischa Zupko (1971- ) contributes the briefest work to this collection. Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Fanfare 80” (2010) was written in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago. The brevity here belies the complexities within this ear catching piece.
The album concludes with a substantial two movement work (just over 23 minutes), “Sanctuary” by Stacy Garrop (1969- ) is the work of another prolific composer whose work is, happily, getting much deserved recognition. The 2016 recording of her wonderful orchestral work was reviewed in these pages. Garrop’s work is invariably kinetic and deeply felt with a dramatic flair. Garrop was on the composition faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago from 2000 to 2016 and is now a freelance composer.
The usual audiophile production (Bill Maylone, engineer) which characterizes Cedille releases is evident here. This is a fine sampling of music which is roughly representative of the musical riches producer James Ginsburg has mined from the “city beautiful”.
Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.
Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.
The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.
The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.
The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.
“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.
The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.
This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.
Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.
The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.
The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.
They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.
The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.
These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.
Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.
With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.
The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.
Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.
The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.
Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.
William Susman (1960- ) may not be a household name but, since my first encounter (purely by chance) with this man’s work I have heard, enjoyed, and reviewed several fascinating CDs of chamber music and film music which demonstrate a significant musical voice with some mighty substantial compositions. I don’t know how Mr. Susman feels about being called a “minimalist” but that is the most useful way I can convey with words his musical style. That much used word is a sort of catch all for what is in fact a plethora of compositional styles based in some basic, though hardly rigid, set of practices like static harmonies and repetition.
There are, as of this writing, four books of Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2010, 2012, 2013), each book contains 22 pieces further divided into 11 “Prologues” followed by 11 “Actions”. While I have only the vaguest idea of what processes the composer uses in these works (Book I at least) sounds to these ears like music which should share company with the likes of Terry Riley’s “Two Keyboard Studies” (1965), William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes” (1977-78), Jeroen van Veen’s “Minimal Preludes” (four books1999-2013), Philip Glass’ “Etudes” (two volumes1994-2012). Spiritually they share a kinship with antecedents such as Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” (six volumes1926-1939), and, ultimately I suppose, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (1722-1742). Yes, these are a diverse set of works for comparison, but to my ears they seem to share attempts to codify and/or experiment with their respective materials. They are the composers’ working out of their ideas.
And, in a delightful coincidence the pianist chosen to interpret these works is none other than Nicolas Horvath, a name that has graced these pages numerous times since our first online meeting in about 2014. Horvath has become a sort of pied piper for minimalist composers. He has performed solo recitals lasting up to 35 hours including Philip Glass’ complete piano music, a solo rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893-94), whose 840 repetitions were first performed by a tag team of pianists helmed by John Cage (of course) in 1963. He has also recently recorded all the piano music of little known French minimalist composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005) and numerous other projects including his own original compositions and sound/art installations.
Horvath was born to play this music and Mr. Susman kindly informed me that he will indeed record the remaining three books. This musician’s curatorial radar is as unique as it is accurate. That is, he knows good music when he sees/hears it and he searches far and wide. He delivers loving and authoritative performances here. It is, after all, his métier.
Susman’s etudes are experimental only in the sense of a composer exploring his inspiration, transcribing the dictation of his muses. The title “Quiet Rhythms” is quite apt as these are really kind of soothing in their harmony and meandering developments. And, more importantly, they have the weight of substance.
Three of these have been recorded before and I’m pleased to say that the remaining 8 compositions are equal in quality to the ones I’d already heard. Each numbered piece is actually two pieces, a prologue of 90-120 seconds followed by a more complex sounding work using similar methods. At first I had wanted to write about each of the pieces but I found myself enraptured by the music and insufficiently skilled in musicology to do a respectable analysis of these works.
So I’ve chosen to simply say that these are fascinating and engaging pieces whose structure is very much secondary to the quality of the musical content. These are truly post minimal works with a much wider harmonic palette than its minimalist predecessors. The sound is quite rich and the pieces engage the listener transporting them to a powerful emotional experience. The music echoes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley but they also are destined to share a place in the repertoire alongside similar works by William Duckworth, Jeroen van Veen, and Simeon ten Holt.
Horvath is truly in his element here and his performances are hypnotically engaging. I can’t imagine these works being done better but, that said, they are attractive concert pieces for adventuresome pianists to program. Above all these are listener friendly despite the feel that they are almost a sort of textbook or manifesto by the composer which describes in music his vision of minimalism/post-minimalism.
If you’re a fan of minimal/post-minimal music this is a must have. but beware and remember to budget for the forthcoming 3 discs. You will want them all.
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.
Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.
Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).
The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.
Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.
Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.
The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.
The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.
We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.
Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.
The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.
This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.
Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.
The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.
This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.
The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.
Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black
At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.
I can recall with delight the first time I heard a banjo in a classical piece. It was the 1936 score to the Pare Lorentz film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” by Virgil Thomson. In one of the movements of the suite extracted from the film score Thomson writes a set of variations on an American folk song, a practice he shared with his contemporary, Aaron Copland. The sound of the banjo was both jarring and charming and marked, for this listener, the first time hearing this vernacular instrument in a classical context. Then there was John McEuen, then of the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” including his transcription of the (familiar to young pianists) Sonatina by Muzio Clementi on one of their folk/rock/country albums.
So the release of these 24 Preludes for Banjo by Adam Larrabee, expertly played by John Bullard seems a natural next step. Bullard has previously released an album of Bach played on the banjo and seems intent on expanding the classical repertoire for his instrument. Here, rather than having transcriptions of music originally written for other instruments, we have music written directly for the banjo. Larrabee, an accomplished banjo player echoes Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in this set of 12 preludes (with 12 more yet to be recorded to complete the set of 24).
Composer Adam Larrabee strikes a pretty amazing balance writing brief pieces in each of 12 keys, alternating major and minor keys for contrast and incorporating, as Bach did, baroque dance forms. He connects to the twentieth and twenty first century by using some post baroque dance forms such as waltz, barcarolle, and mazurka. He even manages to further blur the lines of genre by penning an homage to rocker Rick Ocasek.
Rather than being intimidated or overwhelmed writing music which will inevitably invite comparisons with Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, etc. Larrabee never overplays his hand and sticks to short, simple forms devoid of unnecessary complexity. These are pretty much etudes on how to write for banjo and they provide a tasteful, entertaining set of examples that can serve as a great starting point for future compositions and future composers interesting in writing for this unusual folk instrument. I can’t wait for volume two.
The banjo, best known in both black and white vernacular or folk music, traces its origins to west Africa and come to this country as a biproduct of the transatlantic slave trade which began in 1619. Similar instruments can be found in other countries whose participation in the slave trade brought people who subsequently constructed these instruments for their personal use.
Now the utility of Bullard’s instrument is being consciously expanded and welcomed more fully into a place in a genre to which it had not originally been intended. It works.
When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.
At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.
It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.
Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.
When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.
Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.
I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.
The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.
Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.
In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).
After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.
To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.
Receiving this album for review the fact is I actually shed a tear when, upon opening my mail, I found the cover of this album cause my emotions to jump to regions of nostalgic memories deeply treasured.
Another fact is that, due to COVID 19, the virtual stoppage of all live concerts, and shifts in my scheduling priorities I had stopped following the career of Mr. Gibson (1940-2020) for the last few years and I wasn’t even aware that this disc had been released. I had heard that he had died in October, 2020. Gibson is a musician I first encountered, as most people had, via his omnipresence at concerts of the Philip Glass Ensemble where he was a founding member. Gibson’s performances of the saxophone solo in Glass’ “Facades”, which I first heard in 1980, are forever etched in my memory. And I caught pretty much every concert they did in or near Chicago from 1980 to perhaps 2000. So that little personal history gives you some idea as to why seeing this album was a “gut punch” of emotion to me.
I lifted this discography of Gibson’s releases from discogs.com and it does not include his work the Philip Glass Ensemble in which he was a member since 1968. It is probably not definitive but it provides some perspective on Gibson’s range of repertoire and his musical affiliations.
The Dance (CD, Album) Orange Mountain Music 70072013
Relative Calm (CD, Album)New World Records 80783-22016
Jon Gibson’s Visitations Otoroku2017
Violet Fire – An Opera About Nikola Tesla (2xCD, Album) Orange Mountain Music70182019
Songs & Melodies, 1973-1977 (2xLP, Album) Superior ViaductSV1732020
David Behrman with Jon Gibson & Werner Durand -Viewfinder / Hide & Seek (LP, Album, Ltd)Black Truffle BT08220211
Gibson’s brand of minimalism resembles Glass’ at times but Gibson’s eclecticism, his mix of styles bear the fingerprints of a style which will be easily recognized by listeners familiar with some of his previous albums.
This is an album’s worth of music written for a performance piece with choreography by the wonderful Lucinda Childs (who choreographed Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and commissioned Gibson in 1981 for this piece). Relative Calm (1981) is in four sections (or movements) each with its own character.
1. Relative Calm (Rise) (1981) Composed By, Wind, Keyboards, Autoharp, Sounds [Field Recording] – Jon Gibson Keyboards – Joseph Kubera Percussion – David Van Tieghem
2. Q-Music (Race) (1981) Composed By, Keyboards – Jon Gibson Keyboards – Joseph Kubera
3. Extensions RC (Reach) (1981) Sopranino Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson
4. Return (Return) (1981) Keyboards – Joseph Kubera Percussion – David Van Tieghem Saxophone, Composed By – Jon Gibson
Gibson’s fondness for jazz is evident here but the dominant style is the composer’s brand of minimalism. Relative Calm was commissioned and choreographed by Lucinda Childs with decor by Robert Wilson, it received its world premiere by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company at Théatre National de Strasbourg in Strasbourg, France on November 26, 1981. It’s wonderful and it is a blessing to have this recording available.
This was released in 2016 on New World Records and is now available for streaming on Bandcamp. The excellent liner notes are by Kyle Gann and Dean Suzuki tell you pretty much all you need to know and the album sounds great. Thanks, Mr. Gibson, RIP.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Pamela Z first came to this writer’s attention when the fine Starkland label under the very insightful guidance of Tom Steenland released a cutting edge, surround sound 5.1 DVD release in 2000 which featured her along with other similarly interesting musicians in a forward looking recording.
The first CD dedicated entirely to Ms. Z’s work was also a Starkland release (A Delay is Better, 2004) was quickly added to my music collection when I was still a Chicago resident. Since moving to California in 2005 I have had the pleasure of seeing Pamela’s work live on numerous occasions (something which I highly recommend). She is a fascinating performer to watch as well as hear. These releases are the only ones dedicated entirely to her work currently available to the general public though her crowd funded DVD, Baggage Allowance may be obtainable through her web site. Much of her presence on recorded media is as a collaborator so this new disc of largely new work is a truly welcome addition to her catalog and an opportunity to see a unique talent.
Her visual presence and gestures are an important part of her work but it is the hearing part with which we are concerned here. Philip Blackburn at Neuma records has chosen to release a new disc consisting of performances of more recent compositions. Z maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing world wide and her quirky creativity has not failed her. Let me say that I use the word “quirky” just to indicate that her work is unique, a technological expansion of the tired “one man band” cliché in which she uses a variety of compositional electronics (some made exclusively for her) to facilitate her uniquely recognizable style. It is difficult to describe her work in a way that can easily be understood without actually having heard her work. Suffice it to say that, generally speaking, she works with live recording and subsequent looping of those sounds. She is able to turn loops on and off as the piece progresses. Her texts come from a variety of sources, including found texts. And the presentation of these texts are sometimes sung and sometimes spoken.
She has had great success as a collaborator with spoken word narration, singing (she also has a beautifully trained soprano voice), and performing with other musicians. These collaborations are listed on her web site and are worth your time to explore.
The photo of the back cover of this new album serves both to provide a listing of the tracks but also to display one of the wearable electronic devices mad for her which she uses (to pleasantly theatrical effect) in performance. From her web site: “She uses MAX MSP and Isadora software on a MacBook Pro along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound and image with physical gestures.”
Z is a vocalist, an operatically trained singer and voice over artist who has pioneered the use of complex delay and looping systems to produce her work. She is apparently enamored of language (she has studied English, French, Italian, and Japanese). Her combination of spoken and sung passages combined with the looping/delay technology, and, increasingly, writing for other instrumentalists is the basic medium(s) with which she works.
In my mind she shares conceptual space with artists like Amy X Neuberg, Meredith Monk, and Diamanda Galas, at least that is the way I have them filed in my collection. In fact, each of these performers has their own distinct style and aesthetic, each a separate origin story. What they have in common in this listener’s mind is the fact that they are women, the fact that their voice is their primary instrument, and the fact that each uses that voice, sometimes with some augmentation, to achieve their compositional and performance goals. (I nurture a personal fantasy of some day hearing one or all of these women doing their cover of a piece like Rzewski’s “Coming Together” or some similar speaking pianist type work but that’s a topic for another blog).
The ten tracks on this release represent Ms. Z’s more recent work. Taken as a whole this album has an almost existential/apocalyptic character at times. There are 10 tracks ranging from about 4 to 10 minutes each and they span the years from 2003 to 2018 with one track from 1995. The overall feel of this is rather darker in tone than the Starkland disc but it also reflects her further artistic development and that alone is worth the purchase price. The album is recorded, edited, and mixed by the artist who also supplies the brief but clear and useful liner notes.
The first track, Quatre Couches/Flare Stains is a studio mix of two pieces (Quatre Couche from 2015 and Flare Stains from 2010), two works she has combined in her live performances. So this is mix is a 2021 artistic mashup reflecting what she has gleaned from her live performances and incorporating that learning into a new compositional experience.
Unknown Person (2010) is an excerpt from the aforementioned “Baggage Allowance” (2010) which uses found texts collected during the composition process as lyrics and is a work with many metaphorical dimensions that touch on existential ideas that touch us all.
Other Rooms (2018) is constructed around vocal samples of an interview with playwright Paul David Young.
A piece of π (2012) utilizes the first 200 digits which express the value of that mathematical constant. Z recounts further details of her process in the liner notes.
Site Four (2017) is a section of music which was composed for a dance work.
He Says Yes (2018) is an excerpt from music for a theater piece.
Typewriter (1995) is the outlier here. It is one of Z’s live performance staples which utilizes the beautifully designed MIDI controllers which she wears and which control the electronics as she moves her body through the performance space. Even without the visuals, one can get an idea of this seminal work and how it influenced her later developments.
The disc ends with a trilogy of works, The Timepiece Triptych, which consists of Declaratives in the First Person (2005), Syrinx (2003), and De-Spangled (2003). This trilogy is a virtual compendium of the techniques which Z has thus far developed. Using sampling, linguistics, spoken voice, singing voice, and her signature electronics this artist presents work which functions on many levels. It is entertaining, it is thought provoking, it is funny, it is sad, it is personal, it is self referential, it refers to us all. Denotation, connotation, musical/electronic alchemy, language (both spoken and sung) all come together to create art which is engaging and, watch out, sometimes subversive.
Though I earlier made reference to my filing preferences for this and (what I consider) similar artists there is, in the end no one quite like Pamela. She is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and, of course, the Z.
The Chicago based Lincoln Trio turns their creative radar to chamber music by two now virtually unknown Chicago composers, Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and Leo Sowerby (1895-1968). (Sowerby’s music has enjoyed no fewer than 7 CD releases on this label.) Both of these composers were rather prolific and well known during their lifetimes but, for whatever reason, they are no longer household names. These are composers who wrote in a largely post-romantic idiom which one might translate as “audience friendly” and one might suggest that their home grown romanticism was eclipsed by modernism but these guys aren’t only audience friendly, these works have the weight of substance. This is not ear candy, this is serious music that reveals more depth and significance with each hearing.
On the surface these are simply two piano trios, a form which emerged in the early classical era and which continues today as a sort of genre on its own and generally is a work of three or four separate movements much like the form of a symphony or sonata. The first piece on the disc is Bacon’s trio from 1987, a late work in his oeuvre which is cast in no fewer than 7 movements, so there goes my generalization already.
The first movement, the longest of the seven, is marked “Lento” and is a slowly evolving movement which goes through many moods from quiet to intense. The second which is actually part of the first is a rather brief march tune and is followed by a slightly longer second movement entitled, “an easy walk”. The more somber mood returns in movement three entitled, “Gravely expressive”. It is followed by a more sprightly Allegro, a brief movement marked, “commodo”, and a finale which gets the blood flowing entitled, “Vivace, ma non presto.” It is difficult to characterize this piece in the context of Bacon’s other work since I’ve heard very little of his significant output but this work suggests that there’s more gold to be had in his compositional vaults.
The Sowerby Trio is from 1953 and is a large work clocking in at nearly 40 minutes. It is cast in the more or less classical tradition of three movements. The first two are large Brahmsian movements which are followed by a (somewhat) shorter finale. Cedille has revealed much of the rich legacy that Sowerby has left us and this trio serves to validate the choice of focusing on getting more of this man’s work to the ears of eager listeners. It is a major addition to the repertoire and this reviewer hopes that this recording may help this work to be a more regular part of live programming.
The trio discharges its duties with an amiable virtuosity which demonstrates their passion for this work. As usual, the recorded sound is top notch. This is a great chamber music recording as well as another fine document of Chicago’s rich musical history, world class music by world class performers.
Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).
This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.
While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.
Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.
Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.
The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.
The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.
The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.
It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.
Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.
Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.
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.
From the gorgeous photography of the cover, to the choices of the musical selections, their interpretation, and recording this is a love song to two fine Chicago composers, Frank Ferko and the late great Leo Sowerby. Here are two full discs of eminently listenable and fulfilling organ music by two of the best composers to write for that instrument in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Organs, at least the types of organs you’ll hear in this recording, are unique instruments built specifically for the site (usually a church) in which they will be used. As such they are a part of the architecture and are themselves works of art. If you’re a fan of organ music you have to have this disc. It is sonically beautiful and full details and specifications of each of the instruments recorded here are provided in the excellent liner notes and the Chicago born David Schrader is a truly fine organist (as well as harpsichord and fortepiano player). He has no less than 26 releases on this label alone, all worthy of a place in any serious collector’s library. One of the great added values of this release is its attention to providing the technical specs of the instruments involved (every one of these instruments is a unique construction) and those with an interest in such details will be thrilled with the liner notes which do justice to listeners who crave such details (this listener included of course).
Cedille Records has already done much to bring Sowerby’s music to listeners in several previous releases but this is the first recording they’ve released of his organ music. Frank Ferko, a well known working composer in Chicago (and points beyond), was also previously represented on this label by the release in 2000 of his fine Stabat Mater.
The first disc (of two) is dedicated to the music of Frank Ferko (1950- ) and all of these are world premiere recordings. While Ferko is a church musician this music is not typical liturgical fare. His work echoes the traditions of the great romantic church organist/composers like Marcel Dupre, Olivier Messiaen, Cesar Franck, Charles Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, etc.
All of the music on these discs is for organ alone and titles like “Mass for Dedication” fall into the category of “organ masses” (generally a French tradition) in which music is used liturgically but does not accompany choral settings of the texts generally associated with the sections of the mass in what is known as “alternatim practice” where the organ plays during moments that would normally contain sung texts. It is almost like incidental or film score music which is intended to create a mood for the ritual on stage or on screen.
Ferko, trained as an organist and studied composition and music history. He has worked as a church musician in various Chicago area churches and his compositions have gotten worldwide acclaim and performances. His Stabat Mater (1999) was released on CD by Cedille and his “Hildegard Organ Cycle” (1995) based on the music of Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1107) are major works worth your time.
The works on this recording are a wonderfully representative selection of Ferko’s compositional achievements and will doubtless want the appreciative listener wanting more. He clearly understands how to write for the organ. His basically tonal style is very listener friendly but clearly a style that represents the composer’s vision.
Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was a Chicago composer, church musician and teacher. This disc presents a nicely chosen selection of Sowerby’s solo organ compositions. This is another in a series of releases presenting the too little known compositions of a man who was pretty well known during his lifetime, especially in Chicago where he taught for years at the American Conservatory of Music and served as organist at St. James Episcopal Church. Cedille has presented the world premiere recording of Sowerby’s Pulitzer Prize winning cantata, “The Canticle of the Sun” (1944), the composer’s second (of five) symphonies, and some of his orchestral tone poems. Cedille takes its mission seriously as it methodically documents the work of Chicago composers and musicians.
Unlike the Ferko disc, the selection of Sowerby’s compositions is decidedly non-liturgical and reflects his skills as a composer for the concert hall (of course the church becomes the concert hall here). In fact it was Sowerby’s Violin Concerto of 1913, premiered by the Chicago Symphony that brought the composer early recognition in his career.
The selection of Sowerby pieces, with the exception of a couple of tracks only available in online versions of this album, are a fair assessment of his organ works and a very good introduction to the composer’s style and compositional skills. The Organ Symphony in G Major from 1930, which occupies the last three tracks on the disc, is without doubt one of Sowerby’s most enduring masterworks. It has received numerous recordings of which this is the finest this reviewer has heard. The first four tracks are shorter but no less substantial works showing Sowerby’s mastery of this medium and his ability to engage his listeners in convincing and compelling essays which will have the listener returning again and again.
This double disc set has the feel of a landmark recording and, though many of Sowerby’s organ compositions have been recorded, many are out of print and/or difficult to find and this is one very satisfying collection. It is definitively performed, beautifully recorded, and satisfyingly documented. This one is a classic release!
Kinga Augustyn is a new musician to these ears. She kindly sent me this wonderful very recent release for review. And she certainly found a reviewer sympathetic to new music here. A quick review of her releases reveals that she has been releasing recordings since at least 2010 and, in addition to many of the “usual suspects” or “warhorses” of the repertoire, she has demonstrated a keen interest in lesser known works as well as recently minted works hoping for a place in the repertoire.
Her album count by my reckoning is up to 13 now and her musical interests appear to range from the baroque with Telemann’s 12 violin fantasies (no, not a transcription of the better known solo flute works) to the very recent works presented on the present disc. Her choices of repertoire for recording are delightfully unusual as she ventures into the work of neglected composers such as Astor Piazolla (1921-1992) and Romuald Twardowski (1930- ). And she has chosen to release an album of Paganini’s 24 Caprices rather than the Bach solo violin works (though these may come later). The point is that she seems interested in bringing out performances of music which gets less attention than the standard repertoire. Indeed she appears to be attempting to influence and add to the canon of solo violin performance repertoire.
How often can one expect to find a solo violin disc where the only familiar piece is one of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas? Well this is that disc. The earliest work here is Grazyna Bacewicz’s (1909-1969) Sonata No. 2 (1958). Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976). Along with Isang Yun’s (1917-1995) Koenigliches Thema (1976) are also 20th century pieces. And though the four movements of Elliot Carter’s (1908-2012) Four Lauds begin in the late 20th century (Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, 1984 and Remembering Aaron, 1999) they end in the 21st century with Remembering Roger, 2000 and Rhapsodic Musings, 2001.
The brief, almost “Webernian” miniatures that comprise Carter’s “Four Lauds” each have an individual character, the first an homage to Aaron Copland (1900-1990) which doubtless represents the composer via a quotation or perhaps some more personal inside reference. The Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is the longest and seemingly most complex of the group (I don’t know Petrassi’s music as well as I would like so I’m not sure about the references here). The Rhapsodic Musings are not apparently directed to any musician or composer in particular and The Fantasy-Remembering Roger does seem to embody the sound of Roger Sessions’ style.
The Berio is one of a set of 14 pieces for solo instruments (depending on how you count them) and they are a sort of compositional manifesto utilizing extended techniques. Augustyn delivers a very convincing reading of this intentionally challenging work. It is the longest single work on this recording.
This Polish born, New York based violinist has done homage to the music of her homeland before with her Naxos album of miniatures that I doubt you will find elsewhere. On this album she does homage to Polish musical culture by her inclusion of the inexplicably too little known Grazyna Bacewicz and a world premiere of a solo violin work by the well documented Krzysztof Penderecki in his 2008 Capriccio. As one who fell in love with the avant-garde Penderecki of say 1958-1972 I have not paid as much attention to Penderecki’s later works. In a pleasant surprise these ears heard this very late Penderecki piece as almost a summation including tasty bits of avant-gardist techniques along with nicely lyrical passages. I am now convinced I need to do a reappraisal of my knowledge of this composer’s later work.
She follows this with a very significant work by a criminally neglected composer, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Her Second Sonata for Solo Violin (1958) is an adventuresome work which challenges the violinist while holding the listener’s attention. It is definitely time for a major reassessment of this woman’s work and one hopes that Augustyn’s reading will help encourage more interest in Bacewicz’s work.
Augustyn next chooses another unjustly neglected composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995) whose biography including kidnapping by the South Korean intelligence officers and subsequent sequestration in a South Korean jail stirred artistic outrage which eventually resulted in his release. The piece played here, “Koniglisches Thema”(1976) brings us back to the beginning of solo violin composition by its quotation of a Bach theme. Not a theme from any of the solo violin music but rather the theme given to Bach by Frederick II of Prussia. The origin of the theme is not by Bach and its compositional origins are much debated but what is not debated is that fanciers of Bach know this theme instantly. Isang Yun writes, apparently, a set of variations on the theme, an offering of his own to the master.
This is a dream of an album for people who appreciate modernism, new music, and undiscovered gems but Augustyn’s readings of the unfamiliar Carter “Four Lauds” and, the most recent work on the disc, Debra Kaye‘s (1956- ) “Turning in Time” (2018) are, for this listener, worth the price of the disc by themselves. Carter is no easy task for listeners and certainly for performers but she manages to find the late post-romantic/post-modern lyricism in these pithy little works. And the Debra Kaye work is “hot off the presses” so to speak, having been written just before the second of the two recording sessions that produced this album. The Kaye work is the second longest on this recording and fits well as a concluding work on this ambitious and engaging program.
New music is in need of talented musicians willing to search for and learn their work and Augustyn happily seems to be willing to fill that bill. Her acumen in being able to know music of substance when she sees it and the ability to bring those scores to life bodes well for listeners interested in this repertoire. After all it’s hard not to notice that the Bacewicz Sonata is her second and completists will want to hear that first one. But, more seriously, I look forward to the upcoming releases by this artist who, when sighted on my radar again, will not be let go without a serious listen.
I feel as though this artist is a personal discovery for me. Whilst surfing You Tube I found a series of his videos which greatly appealed to me and I contacted him via email. I learned that he was about to release his debut as a solo artist. The logistics of sending CDs by mail “across the pond” as the saying goes are fraught with financial and logistical hurdles so I was glad to find that he was releasing via Bandcamp, a music vendor and streaming service whose business model appeals more to me every day. This album is also available on Amazon music and probably other streaming sites as well.
Let me first issue a disclaimer, to wit: that I am an unreformed and unashamed Glass groupie whose live performances with his ensemble will doubtless comfort me well into my waning years. Those memories echo in my head even now.
“Dennis Weijers is a Dutch musician and composer. He followed a traditional education at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Enschede, and got in touch with experimental electroacoustic music after moving to Berlin. Dennis started to merge his accordion with electronics. Dennis works with a variety of instruments and gear (from accordions and modular synths up to a 1948 wire recorder, tape machines and more curiosities). In 2018 he did a concert series in which he performed the complete version of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. In 2021, his debut album Accordion + Modular Synthesizer was released.”
The present disc is apparently one of those “crowd sourced” deals which allows public funding for a given project not easily funded otherwise. I missed this project but I will be on board for his next release. So I delved into his online presence and found a young highly skilled man whose primary instrument is the accordion and whose interests take his composing and transcribing skills into the electroacoustic and sound installation realms. His choice of accordion as primary instrument puts him in the company of other innovators such as Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, William Schimmel, Miloš Katanić, and others to whom I apologize for not naming here. Do click on his You Tube link (provided above) to get an idea of his creative foci. They include a excerpts from a couple of sound installation works as well as a bit of Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air”.
But let’s get to the album at hand. This recently release contains a complete performance of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” arranged for accordion and electronics. This could have been done purely as a recording but it seems clear that Weijers is enamored of live performance so these arrangements can be done live (which is apparently how he developed them).
The “Opening” begins with apparently with a brief section with (apparently to these ears) a lo fi/hi pass filter which sounds like a glitch and shortly morphs into a full spectrum sound for the rest of the performance. In fact compositional notions like glitch, sampling, looping, etc. appear strategically in other movements but I will leave that to the listener to discover. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a recomposition but rather a recasting in which the artist provides a context and uses a few effects judiciously providing a personal touch much as a painter signs a painting.
This faithful, loving rendition segues into the second movement, called “Floe”. For those who have heard Glass’ ensemble do this live (as I did in 1980) you will likely feel nostalgia. The experience is one of a good transcription of a familiar piece and the nostalgia likely comes from the life memories attached to that first hearing.
The third movement, “Islands” is a glorious minimalist slow movement which serves as much to relax the listener as it does to provide a significant contrast in anticipation of the next movement.
Movement 4, “Rubric” is a manic masterpiece which I recall playing so much that I wore out those grooves on my vinyl copy. Weijers really shows his interpretive musical chops here. He makes the piece rock and his rhythmic sensibility suggest a fondness and familiarity with jazz.
Movement 5, “Facades” is one of Glass’ early hits and, as I recall, was liked even by folks who didn’t like his other music. My recollection is that this piece had originally been written for the Godfrey Reggio film, “Koyaanisqatsi” but not used. Like any good composer does it was repurposed into the present multi-movement work. This movement triggers sadness with my nostalgia as I recall reveling in the beautiful playing of the now late Jon Gibson.
“Closing” is basically a reworking, an orchestration of the “Opening” section which kind of opens the door to inviting transcriptions. It is a full orchestration of what had been a solo piano piece at the beginning. Weijers seals the deal on nostalgia when he ends this movement by reintroducing that high pass filter and adding a little vinyl groove scratches at the fade out. That brought a bit of a tear to my eye.
I don’t know Weijers age but I doubt that he was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes at the time I saw those performances but he has clearly absorbed this music this music completely and shows a deep love and affinity for it. It is a mark, perhaps of genius, that he frames his performance of the complete work with the lo fi/glitch at the opening and vinyl crackles at the end. It was a reminder to this age denying listener that this was indeed long ago. (Over 40 years).
The major work on this album is the following track. It is the performance (excerpted on You Tube) which first gave me that delightful twinge I feel when I believe I have discovered something new and meaningful. It was a performance of a too little known work by Steve Reich (Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, 1979), another minimalist composer who was a frequent visitor to my turntable. The work, roughly contemporary with Glassworks, was only recorded once by the San Francisco Symphony under Edo De Waart, is an overlooked masterpiece.
It’s impossible to miss the Dutch connections with Glass (whose 1979 opera “Satyagraha” was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam) and the only recorded performance of Reich’s Variations performed by the prominent Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Well now comes Mr. Weijers delivers a beautiful transcription and spectacular performance which very well might raise this work out of its languished state. At the very least this is a tribute to Reich.
It is wonderful to hear this Reich piece again. I have never heard it live and, as far as I know, Reich never attempted to recast it in a new orchestration (as he did with the “Octet” orchestrated and played more commonly now as “Eight Lines”). The point is that we have a younger generation encountering, appreciating, and celebrating what is now “old school” minimalism. Whether you are encountering these pieces for the first time or basking in the nostalgia of rediscovery through creative and dedicated new performances this is a truly auspicious debut of a musician who has given new life to music which clearly has endured and will likely continue to endure into further generations. Bravo, Mr. Weijers.
As if this weren’t enough the curious collector gets two extra bonus tracks if you download via Bandcamp. They are two brief pieces that provide a peek at Weijers’ other musical efforts. The first is a beautiful meditative tribute to minimalism, a gentle elegiac piece for accordion and electronics. The second, a collaboration with Koen Dijkman, a musician who appears on other releases along with Weijers. This piece has a more prog rock/improv feel.
If old school minimalism appeals to you or contemporary accordion, you will want to hear this album. But regardless I’m willing to bet that you will be hearing more from this wonderful artist. And I bristle with anticipation.
I first encountered the work of Michael Harrison (1958- ) while searching for Lou Harrison CDs. I came across the New Albion release, “From Ancient Worlds” (1992). It is a disc of short piano compositions played by the composer on an instrument of his own invention, The Harmonic Piano, which was conceived in 1979 and built by1986. Harrison was a student/apprentice of the Godfather of American Minimalism and Guru of non-western tunings, La Monte Young. He has also enjoyed a close relationship with yet another icon of contemporary music and non-western tunings, Terry Riley. Via these associations, Harrison has also studied with Pandit Pran Nath (famously a teacher of both Young and Riley) and Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan.
He holds a B.M. in composition from the University of Oregon, and and M.M. in composition from the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Reiko Füting. His collaborations put him in touch with progressive musicians on both the east and west coasts of the United States and he seems to derive a great deal of joy sharing his enthusiasm with many talented artists imparting his knowledge and learning from them as well.
Mr. Harrison’s major opus, “Revelation” (2002-7) for solo harmonic piano is a sort of manifesto or “urtext” and has been the source and inspiration for much of his subsequent work both directly and indirectly. At his 2009 appearance at the Other Minds Festival 14 he premiered “Tone Clouds” (2008) which incorporated a string quartet (Del Sol Quartet) along with the composer at the piano utilizing material from Revelation. Subsequent recordings with cellists Maya Beiser and Clarice Jensen further expanded his use of string instruments along with the piano.
So here we come to Harrison’s second release on Cantaloupe Records (his first was the Maya Beiser release in 2012) this time incorporating Tim Fain (violin), Caleb Burhans (viola), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Payton MacDonald (vocals), Ina Filip (vocals), Ritvik Yaparpalvi (tabla), and Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy winning vocal ensemble in a work which strikes this listener as a grand nearly symphonic effort reminiscent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Also, like Mahler, the composer uses non-western (Sufi) texts and (unlike Mahler) non-western tunings derived in part from Hindustani and Carnatic influences, and from his studies with Pran Nath, Terry Riley, and Mashkoor Ali Khan.
The eight sections vary in style but have echoes of Arvo Part, Hindustani/Carnatic musics, minimalism, etc. all integrated into a large form neatly bookended by a prelude and epilogue. It is, in effect, a song cycle and, guess what? It’s about the earth, well, sort of. It is, according to the liner notes by W.H.S. Gebel, music which corresponds to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in that author’s book, “Nature’s Hidden Dimension”. Maybe Mahler for the New Age?
Only the second movement, “Hayy: Revealing the Tones” derives directly from the aforementioned Revelation but it is clear that Harrison has integrated his diverse musical studies into a personal style descended from artistic and philosophical ancestors. The work struck this listener as being a successfully unified whole and a landmark in this composers still burgeoning career. This is grand and gorgeous music.
As I write this I am seeing images of the 20th anniversary commemoration of the twin towers attack and can’t help being reminded of another of Robert Moran’s works designed for resonant spaces like cathedrals. His “Trinity Requiem” (2011), written for the 10th anniversary of this tragic event, was written for the space in which it was subsequently performed, Trinity Cathedral in New York. Its setting of Psalm 23 lingers in my head as I write. The present work was written for and performed within the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg, Austria.
These two very different works serve to demonstrate the range of Moran’s creative palette and his ability to use disparate techniques to achieve remarkably personal and effective results. In the Trinity Requiem we hear a composer using fairly conventional tonal harmonies but with the unusual orchestration of children’s chorus, organ, cellos, and harps. His compositional methods, his harmonies are friendly and familiar, sweet and poignant without being saccharine.
By contrast, in Buddha Goes to Bayreuth” (2011/14), the composer uses a chamber orchestra, chamber choir, and the distinctive sound of a countertenor. And the orchestral writing involves the use of chance operations of the Chinese classic text, I Ching. As he tells it in his liner notes, the composer had been introduced to the I Ching by his friend John Cage. What is most interesting is how Moran is able to use a Cagean technique to produce his desired result and come out sounding nothing at all like Cage. It is a mark of Moran’s skills that he is able to draw on a wide variety of compositional techniques and a thorough knowledge of the subtleties of orchestration to create a sound which achieves his compositional goals.
The second part of this work, as you can see from the track listing, is nearly twice the length of the first. The second part was composed in 2011 and the first part to fulfill the request for an evening length performance piece.
Stylistically this work has more in common with Moran’s earlier mystery play, “Game of the Antichrist” than it does with the Requiem, though both are designed to take advantage of the resonant spaces of the cathedrals in which they were performed. This work relies more on the randomized chords in which Moran utilizes aleatoric structures in a way that are uniquely his. He did something similar in one of the pieces on another album reviewed here, “Points of Departure“.
This Dada-like dramatic work is but one side of Moran’s stylistic output. His sonic toolbox ranges from aleatoric and graphic scores to unabashed romanticism, from Cagean chance operations to scary minimalism (as in the yet unreleased “Spin Again” from 1982) and post-romantic singable melodies as in “Towers of the Moon” and his collaboration with Philip Glass in “The Juniper Tree”. In the end he is one of America’s finest composers whose music deserves more hearings and rewards listeners for the effort.
Producer Philip Blackburn clearly has an affinity for Moran’s work and he deserves thanks for making much of the composer’s work available in fine recordings. The entire spectrum as described above is available on recordings right now on both the Innova and Neuma labels. Get them while you can.
One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.
Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.
In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.
A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.
Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.
We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.
It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969 “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.
One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.
I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!
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.
Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.
Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)
Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.
The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.
This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.
The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.
Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.
“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.
“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.
The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.
I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.