Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.  It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir.  It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent.  She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.

Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice.  Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century.  Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.

Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career.   She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career.  The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry.  Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.

In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.

Starkland Captures the Exploding Pianist: Kathleen Supové’s “Eye to Ivory”


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Starkland ST- 233

Kathleen Supové is one of a handful of new music pianists whose repertoire choices are such that anything she does is worthy of at least one listen and most frequently many more.  (She was previously reviewed on this blog for her wonderful The Debussy Effect album from 2017 on New Focus recordings.)  Starkland, analogously, is a label whose choices of both repertoire and artists is similarly reliable.  So it is with this most recent release.

Five composers are represented on 16 tracks.  All but one utilize some form of electronics (computer, sampler, etc.).  It is difficult to characterize the sort of choices Supové makes except to say that she leans toward the experimental but includes a variety of genres that run the gamut from minimalism to obtuse and complex experimentalism.  The issue here is not the genres but the quality of the performer’s choices and that is what makes this release so compelling.

The title track is by the still too little known Mary Ellen Childs (1957- ).  Eye to Ivory (2005) is a commission written for Supové is described in the brief but useful program notes as a composition focused on the sound densities of the various ranges of the keyboard and one which requires a variety of movements by the pianist (including sitting standing, etc.).  Obviously the visual component is not captured here but the sound clusters, no doubt analogous in some way with the movements, make for compelling listening.

Talkback IV (2010/12) by one Guy Barash, a composer new to this reviewer’s ears.  It is described as one of a series of pieces exploring the interaction between the piano and a computer in real time (i.e. the computer responds to what the piano is playing.  Barash does the real time digital processing.  Here is some of the edgy, perhaps even somewhat obtuse (to the casual listener I think) music where Supové and Starkland excel.  Its not easy listening but it is substantial enough to prompt this reviewer to bookmark the composer’s internet page (you should too).

It is with Rama Broom (2000) by Nick Didkovsky aka Dr. Nerve (1958- ) that we begin to hear a more intimate music making via the use of the performer’s voice speaking a text of her own composition. Written for this artist, the piece is an opportunity to showcase her dramatic abilities both as a writer and as a vocal performer.  There are algorithmic composition processes here but the music belies these complexities and what comes through is the drama in music, text, and performance.  Play this one on Halloween (that’s all I’m gonna say).

Also of 2000 vintage and continuing the intimate aspects of this album is the next selection, “In the Privacy of My Own Home” written by the Bang on a Can composer Randall Woolf.  He is also Supové’s husband and a composer of serious note.  If you haven’t yet encountered his work then you owe it to yourself to do so.

The intimacy of the work involves Woolf’s sampling of the pianist’s various types of laughter and playing the laughter on a sampling keyboard more or less simultaneously with the piano.  This twelve movement work has got to be this writer’s favorite of the group both for its melodic invention and the novel use of what is basically involuntary sounds made by or provoke from the pianist.  It’s like, “tickle me, I want to play piano” and it is a piece full of good humor and also deeply personal, even kind of sweet actually.  Will this be played by other artists using Supové’s sampled laugh or will they need to be tickled and sampled?  It is a delightful work.

Dafna Naphtali is yet another composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, also one with a fascinating, now bookmarked, internet page.  Her work Landmine (1999-2017) is another work written for Supové and another work involving real time interaction between a computer (which alters the timbre of the piano).  Its four movements are named with computer code (which adds a curious dimension especially to the tech challenged such as I).  And yes, this is probably one of the more obtuse and complex works but one which, with the curation of this artist, demands at least a listen or two.

Enjoy this album for its sonic beauties (Silas Brown’s mastering is always an event in itself) but also as a sort of advance guard suggesting the path of music yet to come.  It is in some ways similar to the CRI SD 288 recordings discs by the late Robert Helps from 1971 which helped guide this writer into the realms of new music.  It is a rich realm.

 

ICE Plays Music of Du Yun, a Powerful Collaboration


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New Focus/Tundra Recordings

This disc was this reviewer’s first hearing of music by the Chinese American composer Du Yun and OMG, as they say.  Just WOW on so many levels.  The ten tracks contain music written between 1999 and 2015.

It is truly a tour de force on many levels. No surprise that this artist has received so many accolades. This sampling of her work by the always interesting International Contemporary Ensemble released by the increasingly vital New Focus recordings (on their TUNDRA imprint).  There are no fewer than ten works on ten tracks.

This has been one of those “How could I have missed this…” experiences.  There is a wealth of music here ranging in style from free jazz to modernism (think Darmstadt perhaps) to world music and they blend well the style of this major Chinese-American composer.

She is the recipient of numerous prizes (including a Pulitzer for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017).  She is the regular recipient of commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Opera America, and the Asian Cultural Council among others.  She is also a Guggenheim fellow.

The poetic, sometimes cryptic titles of her works and the liner notes are brief but succinct. The serious listener will want to know more about the composer and her wide ranging talents.  She writes for every genre and ensemble from opera to solo work and from intensely personal music to clever collaborations.

Add to this the fact that the performers are from the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble (also known as “ICE”).  Anything they do is worth the adventurous listener’s attention and this album supports that contention most successfully.  The irony of  that acronym is hard to miss in the composer’s grant from the Carnegie Foundation’s “Great Immigrants” program.  Perhaps that can rescue the association of said acronym to art rather than regressive politics.

As usual with New Focus (the parent label of this TUNDRA release) the recording is lucid and does justice to the music.  The cover design alone is a striking portrait of the composer (another reason to lament the 12 x 12 format of LPs as a size standard).

It took this listener several listens to begin to grasp this music.  It is varied and sometimes complex but it is always compelling and seems to have depth and substance.  If you don’t know this composer this is a fine place to start and if you already know her work you will want to add this fine recording to your collection.

 

Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

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Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


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Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016.  Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion.  Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world.  She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.

I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016.  She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album.  Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream.  The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete.  Don’t stand too close, lol.

It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release.  Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions.  The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.

Downes’ own words from her informative website:

I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early  life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own:  a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.

This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her.  She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West.  I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara.  Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).

She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert.  The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life.  One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work.  According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.

As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively.  Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead.  Brava, Ms. Downes.  We’re watching and listening.

 

Channeling Casals’ Bach: Amit Peled


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It was in 1936 that the famed Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals performed and recorded the now familiar Bach Cello Suites.  Long thought to be intellectual and technical exercises not intended for public performance these works languished for nearly 200 years on manuscript alone.  Casals pretty much single handedly has made these masterworks a staple of the cellists repertory.  Since Casals there have been numerous readings of these works and no sign of any flagging interest.

It is difficult to imagine any really new perspectives on these works and, aside from Kim Kashkashian’s wonderful transcriptions for viola, one gets basically the musician’s take on the music.  So here comes the Israeli cellist Amit Peled who, since 2004 has had the honor (and attendant responsibilities) of playing Casals’ own cello, a 1730 Gofriller personally loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  So in this first volume (second one not out yet as far as I can tell) is the first time Bach’s masterful Cello Suites have been sung by this instrument since it was in Casals’ hands.

What we have here is a sensitive and committed performance that many will want to hear perhaps as “channeling Casals” but ultimately we have a gorgeous performance by a fine musician channeling his own talents and sensitivities to produce a quite viable performance (are those gut strings I hear?).  Perhaps there are nostalgic aspects here as well but whatever your preference, be it channeling, nostalgia, or simply a great performance of these masterpieces you will find all these here.  Can’t wait for volume II.

From Appropriation to Incorporation, Cornelius Boots’ Innovative Shakuhachi Trilogy


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Portrait of composer/performer Cornelius Boots from his website

If one pays any attention to creative music in the Bay Area the name Cornelius Boots will come up with some frequency.  He is a good example of the rich cross cultural traditions which have flourished in this area.  California was (and is) in many ways the ground zero of east/west collaborations and Boots contributes his unique take on music and on some unusual instruments.  He is known for organizing the world’s first Bass Clarinet Quartet named, “Edmund Welles”.  He characterizes himself as, “Pied Piper of the nerdy, strange and enlightened.”  How California is that?

Boots has released a trilogy, virtually a manifesto, of his take on Shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and our current musical/cultural proclivities.  In particular he favors the Taimu, described as the “baritone brother” of the shorter, higher pitched shakuhachi which is seen/heard more commonly.  The strange breathy sound of this instrument is widely known in traditional Japanese music and it is associated with Zen Buddhist traditions (Boots uses two different shakuhachis in this recording).  Here is where I derive my title for this review.  What Boots is doing is arguably cultural appropriation.  That pejorative epithet is thrown about rather cavalierly these days but what this artist does in this trilogy is to cross the bridge from mere appropriation to incorporation.  He has absorbed the traditional aspects of the instrument and is now at a point where he can inject his own musical consciousness into and through this unique instrument giving listeners a perspective heretofore unavailable.  That is art.

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. I

There is a curious unity to this trilogy of albums which suggests a major reckoning by the composer as he draws musical conclusions filtered through the lens of his experience and the traditions of his chosen instrument.  The unique playful cover art (by Nakona MacDonald) is one of the great unifying factors here.  In fact these CDs are dense with ideas and are worthy of close scrutiny to reveal their richness and how well integrated they are into this production.  Even the numbering of the tracks segregating each disc into a virtual “side A and side B” in the tracklist are a reference and homage to the days of vinyl records.  And of course the big unifying factor is the music itself.  All the music is the responsibility of Mr. Boots who also sings.  The only other noise is made by percussionist Karen Stackpole whose stomping is credited.

This first volume (2016) consists of:

Side A: Darkness

  1.  Blacken the Cursed Sun (Lamb of God)
  2. Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath and Dio)
  3. Purgatory
  4. Until You Call on the Dark (Danzig)
  5. Damaged Soul (Black Sabbath)
  6. No Quarter (Led Zeppelin)

Side B: Salvation

  1. Hymn to the She Dragon of the Deep
  2. The Devil Points
  3. Taste of Nothing
  4. Year of the Gost God of the Flute
  5. Generuslu
  6. Behind the Wall of Sleep (Black Sabbath)
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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. II

This second disc:

  1. Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
  2. The Wayward Meteor (Man or Astroman?)
  3. Obscured by Clouds (Pink Floyd)
  4. Baby Bear Drinks Tea
  5. One Brown Mouse (Jethro Tull)
  6. Green Swampy Water
  7. Snake Dreams of Dragon
  8. Sycamore Trees (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)
  9. Creature Within the Atom Brain (Roky Erikson)
  10. Shadow of the Wind (Black Sabbath with Dio)
  11. The Greening of Mount Subasio
  12. Hung from the Moon (Earth)
  13. Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin)
  14. Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

 

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. III

Here now is the latest release:

Side A: Kung Fu Flute

  1. Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (Fishbone)
  2. Fisticuffs (Primus)
  3. Return and Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee Movie Themes)
  4. Death of the Samurai
  5. Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Kill Bill movie music)
  6. Big Boss (Bruce Lee movie theme)
  7. Kung Fu and the Silent Flute (David Carradine theme music)
  8. Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix)
  9. Rebel Rouser (Duane Eddy)

Side B: Buddhist Blues

  1. Black Earth
  2. Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
  3. Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part II (Pink Floyd)
  4. The Mysteries of Harmony and Focus
  5. Beautiful Demon
  6. Shakthamunki
  7. You’re Gonna Find Your Mistake (James Kimbrough)
  8. It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James)
  9. Breathe (Pink Floyd)

There are wide ranging references and playful references like “shakthumunki (shock the monkey)” exist alongside music obviously important to this artist including traditional blues and a curious selection of blues’ baby, rock and roll as well as some very personal compositions.  There is much to ponder here.  There are references to prog rock, movies, Lovecraft, covers of some familiar tunes.  References seem to exist here to beat culture as well as, more prominently, psychedelic culture.  But no Grateful Dead?  Well, that’s another thing to ponder as we follow the piper who calls us to join him.