Belated Happy New Year and My Personal Best


Having taken a bit of a hiatus in blogging I am now preparing to get back to work on several projects languishing in the digital storage of WordPress and the recesses of my own mind.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty”.  As I read further I’m sure I will find many more such milestones and, in the spirit of this blog, will explore connections to music and musicians.

Among the issues pressing for my attention in the beginning of this year are Black History Month, the upcoming Other Minds 19 and some overdue reviews of recent recordings.  I haven’t looked further into 2014 as yet.

I have actively avoided creating one of those “best of” lists that are ubiquitous at the end of every year.  I do read those lists but have no desire to compete at this point by creating yet another.  I have, however, taken a look back at the most viewed blog posts published in this blog.

Aside from my Home Page, About Page and Archives the top ten posts for the past year have been:

1. Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion (actually my all time most viewed post)

2. Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge

3. Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)

4. Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings

5. Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience

6. Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries

7. Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in Berkeley

8. A Fitting 100th Birthday Celebration for Conlon Nancarrow

9. Undercover Performance Practices in the Bay Area

10. The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann‘s Appreciation of the Composer

You can certainly expect me to address some of the subject matter in these most read posts.  Revisiting the site of the crime is a time-honored tradition.  I responded with “shock and awe” at the amount of hits that the Chatham article evoked (418 hits in one day, my top score).  My follow-up gallery of some of those 100 guitars did become my 11th top viewed of the past year.

But as intoxicating as that boost of views was  I will not be able to resist focusing on that which finds its way into my attention for whatever reason.  I am grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from Adam Fong, Charles Amirkhanian, Steve Layton, David Toub, Tom Steenland, Tim Rayborn, Philip Gelb and all of my readers.  I apologize in advance if I have left someone out of this impromptu list but hope that my gratitude is understood among you as well.

 

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Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries


My earliest listening adventures in new music, the ones that shaped my present interests, included the early Odyssey vinyl which contained Steve Reich’s tape piece of 1966, “Come Out”, Frederic Rzewski’s 1974 recording which contained Attica (1972) and Coming Together (1972) and the RCA budget disc of new music which contained Penderecki’s harrowing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). In addition to satisfying my fascination with new sounds they were also pointedly political in their messages.

In late 2008 or very early in 2009 I read of a recital to be held at Mills College premiering some of the pieces in a set of piano pieces commissioned by Sarah Cahill called, “A Sweeter Music”, a title taken from a speech by Martin Luther King. I was already familiar with Cahill’s fine pianism and her support of new music. Pieces had been commissioned from Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. I think this was a significant set of commissions and I am happy to read on Cahill’s website that a recording will be forthcoming from Other Minds records.

The recital was a very informal affair in a small concert room at Mills. Many of the pieces were in stages of rehearsal and none of them had the later added multi-screen video projections which were created by Cahill’s husband, the fine videographer and filmmaker, John Sanborn. The audience was small and only a few pieces were actually played but Cahill discussed the project plans and afforded the opportunity for the audience to examine the actual scores.

Needless to say I enjoyed the evening. I spoke with Ms. Cahill and asked if she knew of any books on the subject of political classical music. She concentrated seriously for a moment, searching her knowledge of the literature and replied, “No, I don’t know of any, you should write one.”

That idea has continued to intrigue me so I have decided to begin a series of blog posts on what I do know about contemporary classical music written with the intention of stating a political or social issue. It didn’t take much thought or research to know that this would be a big topic.

At some point I will need to construct a sort of taxonomy of the types of political music to more widely define the area. Fo)r now, though, I decided to limit my research to music written after 1950 by non-pop composers (much has been written about folk/pop political music) which was written with the intention of stating and/or influencing a political or social issue.

I found a great article by Kyle Gann (he always seems to know about music I like, including his own) which appeared in 2003. It is a fine starting point for these efforts.

I will begin by trying to construct a list of such music and, in addition to the pieces listed above, I would suggest  Rzewski’s magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1968), Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (1960), Hans Werner Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968), George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

I am open to suggestions in the construction of this list and welcome comments as I attempt this project.

Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings


Close your eyes and listen intently in the darkened hall.  From the back of the hall comes first a growling gutteral sound in an unfamiliar language.  This is followed by beats on a drum and the sound of a rattle.

Slowly the primitive creature comes up the center aisle growling, chanting, reciting and playing his drum and rattle moving slowly towards the stage and into view in the light.

He is seated on the stage and continues his chanting, speaking and playing.

He is playing unfamiliar instruments and telling unfamiliar stories.

There is both precision and passion in his playing and reciting.

Tim Rayborn is a resident of Berkeley, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer, familiar to local audiences in both his solo performances and with his group Canconiér.  His area of focus is authentic performance of music and poetry of the middle ages and before.

But how does one determine the authenticity especially as one goes further back in time and finds fewer records and accounts of how these performances sounded?  In the pre-concert lecture Mr. Rayborn spoke of this project, ‘The Far Famed Ones-Music and Poetry of the Vikings’.  He told the audience that there are no scores of this music and, like the languages in which the poetry was written, we have only the barest clues as to how these things must have sounded some 1000 years ago.

The clues, he explained, come from archaeology, linguistics and a few extant bare threads of oral tradition…there are pieces, an immense puzzle that some scholars say can’t or shouldn’t be solved.  But Rayborn asserts that these puzzles, if not able to be completely solved, are worth time to approximate the answers.

In a very real way this music, this performance is entirely new comprised of minimal facts, educated scholarship, conjecture.  No one can ever know what this body of work sounded like without travelling back in time to hear it.  Failing that we have the laborious work of Rayborn and his fellow scholars attempting to piece together an approximation of this work, not unlike the re-creation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (albeit without the attendant dangers)…a few pieces of evidence held together with educated guesses producing something new, an opportunity to hear these reconstructions of music and ritual as it may have existed those thousand years ago.

viking01 (18)

The stories and poetry, like the music are very different from what we think of when we use those terms today.  The performance of these poems integrating music were a medium of entertainment and communication in a pre-literate society.  They varied greatly from one performance to the next dependent on the performers choices.  Even the musical instruments varied in style and construction.

In a sense, all performance is an approximation.  Any musical score or performance text require interpretation and vary from one performance to the next dependent on the artists’ choices.  But choices are more limited in work whose performance practices and directions for performance are more completely communicated and understood.

With this work Tim Rayborn reaches further back than almost anyone has into the darkness of the dark ages to attempt to illuminate some portion of these traditions that would later evolve into poetry, prose and musical compositions.  The Viking Age lasted from the 790s to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  And while history knows this era for its battles and plunders it was not devoid of culture.

Rayborn is an affable, genial man who is first a serious scholar and a performer second.  He speaks with great precision leaving as little ambiguity as possible as one finds with serious academics.  His joy and enthusiasm, love for this work combine with that scholarship to make his performances a riveting experience.

He described this performance (January 27th, 2013) at the little church hall in Albany as a ‘work-in-progress’ evolving over time, being tweaked with each new performance to reflect the scholarship and the instincts of the experienced performer.  Rayborn is part scholar, part musician and part actor.  He is as serious, precise and joyous in each of these endeavors.

Following the opening comments there was a brief intermission which led into the performance without interruption (as the performer requested) of all the pieces on the program.

What followed was an integrated program of performance, poetry, song and music making of perhaps one hour’s duration.  There was drama and humor in this entertaining mix.  The audience sat respectful and engaged to the end when Rayborn stepped out of character to acknowledge the conclusion.  And the far-famed ones came just a little bit closer.

The audience stood applauding loudly this ‘new’ old music dredged from the darkness of the ages like relics recovered from a peat bog, and restored as best as anyone can to most closely resemble what they originally were.  What was once thought lost to time has now been restored.

Impossible, you say?


einsteintrain

The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”

Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa, Theresa Wong in Berkeley


Lewandowski piano

A view of the inside of the piano showing Lewandowski’s alterations.

It is easy to miss the nondescript storefront on University Avenue where this performance took place. And the promotion of this concert appeared to be mostly through Facebook and the Bay Area improvisers web site which resulted in a small but appreciative audience interested in hearing the work of Annie Lewandowski, now a music lecturer at Cornell. She is a graduate of Mills College. She has a varied resume ranging from classical piano to progressive rock bands and she presented tonight her work with extended piano techniques much like those of John Cage but with some distinctly personal twists extending Cage’s methods further. Ms. Lewandowski was hosted by Theresa Wong (also a Mills graduate), bay area composer, cellist and singer who organized the event and Luciano Chessa, San Francisco Conservatory professor, composer, musicologist, historian and performer and producer who played a couple of different roles in this evening.

performance of La Barbara's 'Hear What I Feel'

Luciano Chessa performing Joan La Barbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’

The first performance was introduced by Ms. Wong who informed us that Luciano Chessa had been kept in isolation for the last hour while the preparations were done for his performance. The piece being performed was Joan LaBarbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’ from 1974. It consists of a table upon which there are several plates each containing some object or substance. The performer, who is blindfolded, is seated at the table and the performance consists of the performers reactions to the substances and/or objects he examines with his hands alone. It is performance art that would be perfectly at home with other Dada and Fluxus-like scores.

Wong led Chessa carefully from the back of the performance space to the table containing six plates. After seating him she positioned the microphone carefully in front of him. Chessa spent several minutes with each object examining three predominantly with his left hand and three with his right. All the while during his tactile adventure he vocalized a variety of sounds evoking (presumably) his emotional response to each object or creating an audio analog for them.

As with all such scores the result leaves a wide range of possibilities to the performer. And this performance was suitably humorous and engaging. Following his examination of the last of the objects Chessa removed the blindfold and reacted to each of the objects (without vocalizing) as he examined them visually. There was an effective combination of (mockingly?) serious concentration and idiosyncratic responses that left the audience genially amused and entertained.

Lewandowski piano

Annie Lewandowski playing in the piano, on the keyboard and singing.

Wong cello

Theresa Wong playing her carefully altered and electronically enhanced cello and singing.

This was followed by a duet between Lewandowski and Wong. Both performers utilized various ways of altering the sounds of their instruments by adding objects to the strings or by exciting the strings with objects. Wong also made use of a foot pedal controlling some electronics. Lewandowski’s piano was miked and amplified somewhat.

The improvisation was started by Lewandowski with some percussive like sounds elicited at the keyboard. Wong responded sparely at first and the two seemed to trade ideas which became richer as the performance went on. Again the serious concentration was present as the performers carefully heard and responded to each others’ music making. While satisfying it was a sort of introduction or first taste of what was to come in the second half.

A brief intermission saw the performers mingling with audience members, many of whom were acquaintances and other musicians.

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

What concluded this unusual program was a trio for all three performers. Lewandowski with her prepared piano, Wong with her altered cello, Chessa with his signature Vietnamese Dan Bau and guitar. All three also sang. The performance started sparely as each introduced suggestions or themes for the improvisation and reacted to them.

Lewandowski gave a much fuller exposition of the possibilities of her instrument playing the keyboard, inside and all around the piano as well as singing. Wong also seemed to use a wider amount of sound possibilities in her playing. Chessa played the traditional Vietnamese folk instrument in all but traditional ways using devices to excite the strings and focusing on tuning and even some percussive possibilities. At one point he left the table where he was performing to pick up an acoustic guitar. After picking a few notes he walked to the back of the stage area and ascended a stair case leading to a sort of balcony that surrounded the performance space. It was at this point that he began softly singing what sounded like an Italian folk tune as he played the guitar in a most traditional manner. This gave a collage effect to the performance juxtaposing the most traditional kind of music making with the extended and experimental sounds.

Chessa remained on the balcony for a bit, then descended the staircase again and returned to the more unusual playing methods at first on the guitar and then back at the table on the Dan Bau. Following this Lewandowski began vocalizing a melody with sparse accompaniment that would have been perfectly at home in a scene from ‘Eraserhead’ at times. She was echoed by Wong’s extended vocal techniques at first and then Lewandowski and Wong began singing a more traditional sounding melody with beautiful harmonizations interpolating this singing at different points while still traversing their freely improvised instrumental playing supported by Chessa on the Dan Bau.

This made for a rather tranquil mood as they ended the second half of the concert. The audience was appreciative. And this writer was pleased to have found a gem of a concert experience by young, serious (but good-humored) and accomplished musicians in the eclectic world of the east bay.

Cançonièr at the Berkeley Festival Fringe


Full moon presides over exsanguinous tales.

Last night, local early music ensemble Cançonièr performed in what was their last appearance until next year.  In the somewhat noisy parish hall of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church this four member ensemble played a slightly condensed version of a program they have been touring for the last year or so.  It was a program called ‘Black Dragon’ with music from the first half of the 15th century, the time of the reign of Count Vlad Dracula, the historical antecedent of the vampire character.

Cançonièr is a four member ensemble co-directed by Tim Rayborn and Annette Bauer.  The other two regulars are Shira Kammen and Phoebe Jevtovic.  All are amazing instrumentalists and scholars in their own right and all play in other ensembles and groupings.

Tim Rayborn is a medieval scholar , multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer.  Annette Bauer is a recorder virtuoso, multi-instrumentalist and singer.  Shira Kammen plays vielle (antecedent of the violin/viola), medieval harp and sings.  And Phoebe Jevtovic is a singer who also does double duty by playing a small bell set in some of the pieces.

Annette Bauer demonstrates her virtuosity on the recorder.

Tim Rayborn

Tim Rayborn providing context and performing.

The group goes beyond their scholarship (which is excellent) and puts their performances in context.  They provide translations of the words they sing (frequently in dead or antiquated languages) and they connect with their audience with a pleasant sense of humor as well as drama.

Shira Kammen playing the vielle.

They clearly enjoy playing together and seem very connected, deriving great pleasure from making music.  And they produce a beautiful sound with their intricately crafted replicas of the instruments of the time.

Phoebe Jevtovic sings accompanied by Tim Rayborn on the lute.

One complaint.  The location of this church at Bancroft and Ellsworth makes for a bit of urban distraction provided by sirens and traffic.  And there were apparently other activities going on in the church complex which could be occasionally heard.  But the musicians and audience handled the distractions in a good-natured manner consistent with the rest of their performances.

They began and ended their intermissionless program with a narrative drama with music partly sung, partly spoken or intoned but performed with characteristic flair by Tim Rayborn accompanied by himself on frame drum and the ensemble.  This was a jaunty upbeat sounding piece at the outset that gives way to the narrative talking/singing about the infamous subject of this performance here called Dracula of Wallachia.  The language here sounded like an old German dialect and after the brief but harrowing telling of the story in speech and song (the speech gratefully rendered in English) the jaunty music of the beginning returns to conclude the piece.  One can imagine this being performed in a tavern or inn by a troubadour or group of musicians for the guests.

Rayborn then spoke to the audience providing more context by explaining that tonight’s music is from the time of the Count’s reign but that it is not known if he indeed had musicians in his court.  And for those who do not know the story of ‘Vlad the impaler’, as he was known, this is pretty grisly stuff.  Reality programming from the dark ages if you will.

There followed two more composed songs, a folk song, a traditional Romanian dance,  a heart-rending Moldavian chant passionately sung by Jevtovic and a traditional Bulgarian dance.

I have not bothered to mention the composers’ names (which were listed in the printed program) because they are very little know and would likely clutter this little narrative.  My apologies to the composers and the scholars if I have offended in my omissions.

Left to right: Shira Kammen, Annette Bauer and Phoebe Jevtovic demonstrating their vocal collaboration.

But the next piece was by a composer familiar to anyone who has taken a course in western music history, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474).  The work of this composer, who provided a lot of sacred music for the church as well as secular pieces, was so successful that his work and his name have survived the ravages of history.  The ‘Lamentio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae’ required the vocal skills of all four in the group as well as instrumental accompaniment.  And they did so beautifully singing, we were told, in two different languages as the piece is originally written.

There followed an Italian dance, a Byzantine secular court piece called a “kratima” (spell check is practically useless here), a medieval Russian pilgrim  song and an Ottoman Turkish piece followed by a very spirited reprise of the first piece.

The ensemble clearly enjoys their music making.

All in all a very satisfying evening and a clearly appreciative audience sent this writer out into the Berkeley night not with nightmarish images but with the tunes of this joyful performance ringing in his head (medieval earworms?).  And I popped one of their CDs in my car stereo for the ride home.  I could easily hear this again.