On the back of the CD case, in the right upper hand corner, like a warning on the back of a medicine bottle, an entreaty:
“Binaural Recording: Please use headphones.”
Even those of you who think they know this masterpiece of experimental electronics by David Tudor (1926-1996) will find here a unique and important collaboration in this production initiated by Pauline Oliveros, then director of the Center for Music Experiment (CME) at UCSD. She invited a group called CIE (Composers Inside Electronics). And the resulting product of that collaboration documented here advances the understanding of this music and will henceforth be an influence on all future performances.
Unfortunately for this writer’s timing, the wealth of information gathered in the course of researching this review, the sheer volume of possibilities in performance and the wider scope of historical and technical elements embraced by this work required a deeper reading and contemplation on my part. In short, it has taken some time for this reviewer to get a grasp of how to express the significance of the deeply substantive work at hand. I simply didn’t know enough about the history of electronic music and the work of this seminal musician.
So now, after some serious study, is my perspective on this landmark composition and, in particular, the deeper significance of this performance. In short, there will likely be many more performances of this work but this one will always be a standout. Not the ultimate version perhaps, but one of the most memorable.
David Tudor was a pianist who championed contemporary piano music and then began a career as a composer. But he was no ordinary composer. Taking inspiration from the composers whose work he championed, Tudor developed musical ideas with structures that contain indeterminate elements within a larger structure. Such is the case with Rainforest which was first developed in 1968 against a cultural backdrop of the height of the psychedelic sixties and the political “days of rage”, a time of artistic innovation like Allen Kaprow’s “happenings” which expanded the concepts of what constituted art, a time of wild experimentation. His work crossed paths with the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills College New Music Center). Tudor traversed some of the same territory as Donald Buchla, Pauline Oliveros, Maggie Payne, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, as well as many others.
The first iteration of Tudor’s innovative and experimental “Rainforest” was in 1968. It is a testament to Tudor’s creativity to have created a structure that contains the indeterminate sonic events called for in the score (not a formal score but a set of performance instructions) in such a way that the piece evolves with each iteration, each performance. That, rather than the varying sonic content, is the heart of this major work of contemporary sonic art.
First, this is a binaural recording, meaning that it was recorded with a technology intended to deliver the sound directly to headphones of the listener hopefully producing an experience much as would have been experienced by sitting in the audience. Earlier versions of this technology involved, basically, microphones embedded in the ear canals of an anthropomorphic head which is placed in front of the performance as a listener would sit in their seat. However, the present recording recording involved another generation of this technology which is particularly well suited to this music. Here the microphones are worn in the ears of the recordist as they meander through the space in which the piece is being performed. The result is the listener being able to (almost literally) get inside the head of the person wandering within the space and listening to the sounds created, sometimes at a distance, sometimes more closely.
Despite the entreaty that the listener wear headphones when listening to this recording (you really should try that at least once), one can play this recording as one would any other musical recording. It can also be appreciated by playing it on speakers in any space as a sort of sound installation. This piece challenges conventional concepts of music and its audience.
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 John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
OK, I admit that using the term “rogue” is a stretch. But titles of reviews should help draw the reader to it. And “clickbait” is the new “catchy”. But, in another sense one doesn’t generally think of the bass clarinet as a standalone recital instrument, even with electronics. Increasingly, it seems, new music purveyors are liberating instruments once unthinkable outside an orchestra or chamber ensemble. Jazz players have long used the bass clarinet as a solo instrument alongside the ubiquitous family of saxophones and the flute as the woodwinds that comprise most jazz ensembles,
Classical music has been slow to accept the bass clarinet until relatively recently. I don’t know when the first use of a bass clarinet either as a standalone solo or as part of a chamber ensemble occurred but certainly post 1950. Without getting in to the “whys” of this one can simply embrace the increasing presence of this instrument and its fascinating players.
Here, we get another of the subgenre of “COVID Isolation music”, itself a category worth further exploration.
There are five selections with composition dates ranging from 1983 to 2020 and composers from the still underappreciated Isang Yun to a new name, Hidiaki Aomori, a composer and friend of the soloist. And the remainder are risen and rising stars including the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, Grawmeyer Award winner Unsuk Chin, and the prolific Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.
The Fujikura work opens this isolated recital with a melancholy piece which appears to be a set of variations and has the character of a cadenza calling upon both technical and interpretive skills of the performer. And do I hear a nod to minimalism at the end? “Contour” (2020) is a fine opener where Lee displays her technical skills and insight to the composer’s vision.
Then its back to 1985 with one of the technical peaks of Boulez’ work at IRCAM, “Dialogue de L’Ombre Double” for bass clarinet with inscrutably complex electronics. This once leading edge example of the avant garde in its day actually sounds a bit dated but the soloist here seems to humanize the piece with her warm interpretation. And, despite what you may hear in the other tracks here, it is the only one using electronics on this disc.
Isang Yun (1917-1995), the late prolific Korean master is beginning to get more of a reckoning, and this 1983 piece, “Monolog for Bass Clarinet” is a fine entry to the expanding recorded oeuvre of this mid/late-twentieth century embattled and neglected genius. This piece speaks deeply of alone-ness.
Unsuk Chin (1961- ), a rising star and Grawmeyer Award winner is represented by a bass clarinet solo from her much lauded opera “Alice in Wonderland”. This stand alone solo, titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” is a maze of hallucinatory nods to Gershwin, Carl Stalling, and perhaps Prokofiev (in a “Peter and the Wolf” sense) using multiphonics and seems to expand the possibilities of this instrument to limits which might only be transcended with electronic assistance.
Hideaki Aomori‘s “Split” is a rather personal addition, a submission from one friend to another, a gift from one alone to another alone. It is another fine solo work which sits stylistically somewhere between the technical extremes of Boulez and Unsuk Chin and the more melodic work of Fujikura and Yun.
This is a very personal disc on many levels and it is a fine calling card by which to introduce listeners to this fine musician.
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.
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.
While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.
There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?
A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.
Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.
Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.
Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.
Like many innovative young artists in New York City in the early 60s Meredith Monk had to train musicians to work with her unusual vocal methods. Her first album, Key (1971), was the first time her vocal art began to be dispersed outside the intimate, neo-bohemian loft space where the album was recorded. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 Monk moved to Manhattan where she and many other young, creative experimental musicians populated what became known as the “downtown scene” or SOHO. Many musicians worked with her over the years including composer/cellist Robert Een, Pianist Anthony De Mare both of whom incorporated their extended vocal techniques learned in the loft of the master herself.
Bang on a Can was formed from a very similar aesthetic (that of providing an alternative to the “uptown scene” which generally refers to the “establishment” or “mainstream” of classical music epitomized by Julliard and Lincoln Center. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can and their subsequent touring group, Bang on a Can All Stars (begun in 1992) can be said to be another generation’s effort to achieve what Monk and the many musicians who followed such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, among many others whose musical vision stood in contrast to the established uptown, more academic leanings.
It was Bang on a Can’s transcription of Brian Eno’s famous studio produced album (no live musicians), “Music for Airports” that demonstrated their ability to revision some of the work of their forebears and bring it into the concert hall. This is pretty much what we see here in this loving collaboration/tribute to one of New York’s finest composer/performers from the early downtown/SOHO era.
Monk began her artistic life as a dancer and dance/choreography remains an essential part of her artistic vision. 2014-2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith Monk as a performer. “–M—EM–O-R—Y —-G-A—-ME—” (2020) is a wonderful production which sits somewhere between a “greatest hits” record and that of another generation’s reverent celebration of a unique artist. Bang on a Can shares the duties of transcription and performing with Monk and her ensemble. Most of Monk’s work involves (generally) one to five musicians (playing minimalist style music) onstage but here we see an expansion into a larger ensemble not unlike her collaborations which resulted in one of her largest works, the masterful “Atlas” (1993) produced by the Houston Opera. (Would that a new recording of Atlas may eventually come from such a collaboration).
So what we have here is a combination of transcription, performance, but most importantly a respectful sharing out of a mutual educational experience between Monk’s ensemble and that of BOC. There are nine tracks comprising nine distinct compositions from Monk’s oeuvre. BOC composers provided transcriptions of “Spaceship” (Michael Gordon), “Memory Song” (Julia Wolfe), “Downfall” (Ken Thomson), “Totentanz” and “Double Fiesta” (David Lang). The other tracks appear in transcriptions by members of Monk’s ensemble: “Gamemaster’s Song” and “Migration” (Monk), “Waltz in 5s” (Monk and Sniffin), and “Tokyo Cha Cha” (Sniffin).
Monk’s ensemble in this recording consists of Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, and guest artist Michael Cerveris. The Bang on a Can All Stars include Ashley Bathgate, cello and voice; Robert Black, electric and acoustic bass; Vicky Chow, piano, keyboard, and melodica; David Cossin, percussion; Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, and voice; and Ken Thomson, clarinets and saxophones. The expansion of the ensemble adds favorably to the sound (as it did in Atlas) and the transcriptions enhance the music (as was the case in “Music for Airports”).
The 2012 collaboration produced by Monk’s House Foundation deserves mention here because it is a crowd sourced two CD production of covers by a variety of artists paying homage to Monk’s work. It is not clear if this release had any influence over the Memory Game album but it does speak to the influence of the artist.
Fans of Meredith Monk and her various music/dance/theater works will find a comforting familiarity in these performances of music which, at one time were the leading edge of the new and experimental, now become familiar and, more importantly, embraced by another generation who clearly took the time to look, listen, and understand the work of this now acknowledged American Master. Those unfamiliar will find this a great introduction to Monk’s legacy.
Though chosen from a variety of compositions which date from 1983 to 2006, this selection comes together in a satisfying unity. The very tasteful album design is itself an homage to the look of Monk’s ECM recordings (under Manfred Eicher’s direction) who released the majority of her work. Kudos to the production team of David Cossin and Rob Friedman whose work here is among the finest of Bang on a Can Allstars’ recordings and a very satisfying addition to Monk’s discography. The little liner notes booklet includes an essay by the composer as well as a copy of the lyrics to “Migration” and “Memory Song”, just enough to inform and not overwhelm the casual listener. This is one fantastic release.
Hanzhi Wang with her Pigini concert accordion (publicity photo from the internet)
On the first day of February, on a sunny day in Santa Barbara, rising star Hanzhi Wang presented a solo recital in Hahn Hall at the matinee hour of 4PM. Despite the beautiful weather a substantial crowd gathered for this event which was part of the always notable UCSB Arts and Lectures series.
This young performer only recently came to this writer’s musical radar a few months ago. Subsequent research revealed her to be a marvelously accomplished musician. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and her Master’s degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a student of Geir Draugsvoll. First Prize Winner of the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Ms. Wang’s debut opened the Young Concert Artists Series in New York in The Peter Marino Concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and her Washington, DC debut opened the 40th Anniversary Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center.
Her interesting and rather eclectic program was artfully designed to showcase her strengths. One of those strengths is certainly her ability to communicate with her audience both is her brief but lovely introductions to her performances using a microphone kept near her seat as well as in her radiant persona which communicates a humility and pleasant affability. Of course the most important communication to be heard on this afternoon would be the musical.
She began with a couple of Bach pieces which, like most of his keyboard music, can be done equally well on harpsichord, piano, and now, accordion. It is here that she showed her virtuosity and interpretive skills which reflected an obvious affection for the material. Though scheduled to perform the famous Chaconne she chose instead to present these shorter, entertaining pieces.
Her Pigini concert accordion echoed the pleats in the skirt of her tasteful outfit well suited to a recitalist performing these essential works of the western musical canon. She followed these with three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)(K. 9, 159, and 146). This writer first encountered these little gems (the composer wrote over 500 of them) in the landmark recording Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in the 1970s and they are a delight on any concert program (though not programmed often enough). She handled these challengingly virtuosic works with seeming ease expertly adding dynamics to define these works to create a wonderfully entertaining concert experience.
Wang followed these with three pieces by another late baroque master, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). “L’ Egiptienne”, “La Livri”, and “Le Rappel des oiseau”. Her obvious affection for these works have subsequently sent this listener to seek out more of Rameau’s works. These works on the first half of the program were all characterized by her lovely playing, making a strong case for the role of this nineteenth century folk instrument’s role in the playing of classical music.
After a brief intermission Ms. Wang offered a twentieth century work by the late, great Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). Though not originally for the accordion the composer did utilize this instrument in some of his works. Russian composers at least since Tchaikovsky have utilized the accordion to stunning effect. And this performance was another demonstration of this young musician’s easy virtuosity and insight offering up these brief pieces inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s novel, “Dead Souls”. The music is filled with both humor and passion with echoes of the dead souls (in Schnittke’s trademark “polytsylism”) of prior Russian composers.
The soloist’s clear understanding of the modern idiom was made very clear and one need only look to Wang’s website to see that her repertory ranges across 400 years of the western musical canon. One wonders if there is anything she can’t play well.
Her last scheduled pieces came from the late nineteenth century by a composer which Wang humorously noted eschewed the accordion, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The Norwegian nationalist’s famed Holberg Suite (originally for string orchestra) sounded pleasantly familiar on Wang’s instrument.
After an enthusiastic standing ovation Ms. Wang presented three more pieces, two by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and a piece by German composer and piano virtuoso, Moritz Moszkovsky (1854-1925). These were like gifts to the audience which further demonstrated her facility with the tango inflected Piazzola and the playful, though difficult, pianism of Moszkowski.
This young woman is indeed a rising star who belongs on your radar.
Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)
The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th. The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present. Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?
Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)
This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series. Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.
A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.
The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars. The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time. It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.
The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ). It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe. It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score. On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received. It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case. The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.
Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ). Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier. The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.
Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”. As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist. This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.
The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism. Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound. According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918). Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves. It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja). And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more. At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.
The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth. The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.
The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4. This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.
Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre. György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982). Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday. The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.
The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert. This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.) It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation. The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.
This recent release by Cedille Records (which turned 30 this year) is a fitting example of their vision as well as daring. It is in some ways characteristic of Third Coast Percussion whose albums range widely in their creative explorations ranging from definitive performances of accepted masterpieces as well as of works written for them and/or co-created by them with their own compositional and improvisational skills. Their Steve Reich disc, Perpetulum, and Book of Keyboards CDs have been reviewed here and can be seen to represent the range about which I speak.
The present disc is by an English musician, composer, and producer Devonte Hynes. He is better known by his pseudonym Blood Orange under which he has released several albums whose style might be described as electronic dance music. One might think it unusual that someone who works in a sort of “Pop” genre would have his work appear on a basically “classical” label. And one would be wrong. One need only think of David Byrne’s on The Knee Plays and his work written for string quartet or the incursions into modern classical by Brian Eno on albums like Music for Airports.
So here we have three works by Mr. Hynes played by one of Chicago’s finest musical exports, Third Coast Percussion. The music was entirely written by Hynes on a digital work station, not on score paper (goodbye 20th Century) and transcribed (on to score paper) for the percussion quartet by the musicians. One of the difficulties in writing for an instrument you don’t play is learning exactly how to write for a given instrument. That is where the members of the percussion quartet add their expertise to this collaborative effort. The results will likely surprise many listeners. There are echoes (or homages) to Philip Glass and likely other such echoes as well. The bottom line is that this music will not fail to engage.
Hynes’ style might be described as post minimal (as might a lot of dance music) with an eclectic spectrum. The first work, For All Its Fury is a sequence of 11 distinct sections ranging from just over a minute to just over six minutes for a total of just over 35 minutes of music. One hear the variety of musical ideas that comprise the composer’s style (s). Rather than try to describe or identify these styles I will only say that the music is a journey which is designed to be experienced as a whole. As such it is a very listenable and engaging piece. It is followed by two single movement works titled respectively Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing, each coming in at around 12 minutes.
While there are some clues to the meaning or intent of the music and titles the listener is basically left with the sound object to contemplate. But wait, and this is perhaps one of my tired “memes” but the design and artwork of the album and accompanying booklet are themselves a joy to behold as visual objects (oh, for the 12 inch by 12 inch format). Perhaps there are clues one might glean from this packaging as meanings underlying the sounds therein but I would be seriously remiss to fail to credit Sonnenzimmer, the collective output of artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi. And the photographers Stephanie Bassos and Timothy Burkhart of People vs. Places, another collaborative. These images are strikingly beautiful and they serve to augment this release in a way that can’t be done on radio or any of the streaming services. What we have here is closer to an art object with sound. Congrats to Cedille, Third Coast Percussion and Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Happy New Year to all!
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
Blacken the Cursed Sun (Lamb of God)
Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath and Dio)
Until You Call on the Dark (Danzig)
Damaged Soul (Black Sabbath)
No Quarter (Led Zeppelin)
Side B: Salvation
Hymn to the She Dragon of the Deep
The Devil Points
Taste of Nothing
Year of the Gost God of the Flute
Behind the Wall of Sleep (Black Sabbath)
Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. II
This second disc:
Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
The Wayward Meteor (Man or Astroman?)
Obscured by Clouds (Pink Floyd)
Baby Bear Drinks Tea
One Brown Mouse (Jethro Tull)
Green Swampy Water
Snake Dreams of Dragon
Sycamore Trees (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)
Creature Within the Atom Brain (Roky Erikson)
Shadow of the Wind (Black Sabbath with Dio)
The Greening of Mount Subasio
Hung from the Moon (Earth)
Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin)
Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. III
Here now is the latest release:
Side A: Kung Fu Flute
Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (Fishbone)
Return and Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee Movie Themes)
Death of the Samurai
Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Kill Bill movie music)
Big Boss (Bruce Lee movie theme)
Kung Fu and the Silent Flute (David Carradine theme music)
Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix)
Rebel Rouser (Duane Eddy)
Side B: Buddhist Blues
Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part II (Pink Floyd)
The Mysteries of Harmony and Focus
You’re Gonna Find Your Mistake (James Kimbrough)
It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James)
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.
Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.
This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.
This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.
This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.
The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.
Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.
Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman. But don’t let his showmanship fool you. He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos. He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either. Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era. He too sometimes worked with a portable organ. In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ. This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.
Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord. Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.
One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence. Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash. Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page. The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him. C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.
All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers). So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc. I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work. It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943). Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name. (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)
Carpenter posing with his touring instrument
Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining. I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music. I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra. Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach. And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard. They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.
How do you follow the Rachmaninoff? Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)? Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks. It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ. It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout. It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.
And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937. Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937). He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well. Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.
If you like organ music you will love this album. And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels. Enjoy, and play it loudly.
Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.
Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them. And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression. He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.
I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music. Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked. That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. And so it continues. But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.
With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music. Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right? Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats? Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.
John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture
Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider. As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these. They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording. The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience. Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research. Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH. These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates. This release is solidly built from the ground up.
PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat
PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)
The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions. It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962). This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it. It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”. The piece has been recorded twice before. For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom. Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.
Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning. These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these. They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.
Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will). Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons. Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name. It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967). Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.
Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950). It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected. There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial. This deserves to be heard again and again.
Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history. First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music. It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.
Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web
The second bonus is a real gem. Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942. This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009. But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording. Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.
It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work. Bravo!!
There are seemingly more string quartets performing these days than ever before and they are fine musicians. Whether we’re talking about the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Pacifica, Telegraph, etc. all contain truly finely trained and virtuosic musicians. The problem is to distinguish one’s self (or one’s ensemble) in some way. I’m not going to go into how each of the mentioned string quartets have done this so don’t worry.
My point here is to review this fine disc by yet another new music quartet called PULBIQuartet. They have chosen, at least in this, their second release, to continue their efforts at “genre bending”, exploring music and transcribing music that is atypical of the standard quartet repertoire. Like their colleagues they are aiming at a redefinition or perhaps a revitalization of the string quartet genre. The performers are: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; and Amanda Gookin, cello.
The album at hand, titled “Freedom and Faith” presents music predominantly written by or associated with women. Get into the Now (2017) by Jessica Meyer is classical in the sense that it uses the standard 2 violins, viola,and cello and is divided into three movements played with short pauses. Content wise this is a strong piece which requires a great deal of virtuosity and a handful of extended techniques involving percussive use of the bodies of the instruments themselves and even a few spots that require the musicians to vocalize. All in all a riot of a piece with good humor. It lasts about 20 minutes and begs to be heard again. Very entertaining!
The next 9 tracks fit into the PUBLIQuartet’s project called Mind|the|Gap which is at the heart of their efforts to breathe new life into the string quartet and, hopefully, garner some new fans. All members of the quartet share arrangement and, at times, co-compositional duties.
Tracks 4, 5, and 6 contain transcriptions of sacred vocal music by female composers. The Medieval Hildegard von Bingen’s, “O ignee Spiritus” is followed by Francesca Caccini’s, “Regina Coeli”, and then Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s, “O quam suavis est Domine spiritus tuus”. The vocal originals must be quite lovely but these works seem to retain their sacred ambiance even without the words. So ends the section which contributes to the “faith” in the title of the album.
Who knew that “A tisket, a tasket…” was by Ella Fitzgerald’s arranger Van Alexander. The PUBLIs (if you’ll forgive the truncation) do a marvelous and entertaining arrangement of this novelty song. It provides a sort of comic relief dividing the faith segment of the program to the “freedom” segment.
The next 4 tracks focus on transcriptions of popular music. These are serious pieces, not the “pop” type songs that are basically feel good or dance tunes but the type of music that is in the shadow of serious social issues. Who better than Nina Simone? These are loving and strikingly original arrangements of Herb Sacker/Nina Simone’s, “Blackbird”, Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly’s, “Feelin Good”, Nina Simone/Weldon Irvine’s, “Young Gifted and Black”, and Nina Simone’s powerful antiracist reproach in her, “Mississippi Goddam”.
These transcriptions are done in a free manner with echoes of Stephane Grappelli, Cajun music and, doubtless, references that this reviewer has not grasped. They are highly entertaining.
The album ends with another string quartet. This one is by Shelley Washington and it is a powerful piece. In its relatively short ten minutes or so she manages to create some memorable sound worlds. There are few program notes that give a clue as to the background and intended meanings of the purely instrumental works (those not derived from vocal music) but one senses political stirrings.
All in all a unique little recital which at least challenges the common notions of this chamber grouping and, frequently, succeeds.
The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series. Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex. The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.
But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event). When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step. When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”
If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music. A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key. Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought. 1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris. It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work. This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.
Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.
While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music. That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive. One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.
The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs. You can download a PDF file of the program here. It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.
One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers. Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music. Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann. His extensive information on the subject can be found here.
The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos. It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals. The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett. This was a US premiere.
Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days). This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.
Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.
Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere). The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”. It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers. What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive. Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.
Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works. She would appear in the second half of the program.
If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique. Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning. So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.
Shot of the two piano stage set up. Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.
It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket. As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo. The link to their work in that area can provide more information,
Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo
They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives. It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.
Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.
Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn. As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus. This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.
The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963). This time they performed without a conductor. Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically. This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently. And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.
Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38: Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959). Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance. The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present. What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.
The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two. Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion. This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight. It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony. The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.
This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.
Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it. With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement. This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.
On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer. The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.
This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace. Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.
Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition. Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.
Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics. The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun. Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.
Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.
This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.