Indian Raags for Piano made easy


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Last year I reviewed Mr. Pitts’ How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano.  It was an enthusiastic review and the book continues to have a valued place on my piano as it opens a whole world of ideas.   Now the author has done a kind and useful service by issuing this simplified version of that work.

In fact this simplified version is more in line with the rather unpracticed keyboard skills of your humble reviewer.  The author chooses 6 raags or ragas which provide a good starting point for similarly humble musicians to begin this approach to Hindustani music.

Hindustani music became pretty much ubiquitous, or at least familiarly cliché in western musical culture largely due to the efforts of Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha.  In fact it is an endlessly fascinating musical system whose logic has much to offer both musicians and composers.

In the past one had to learn traditional Indian instruments to gain much familiarity with these ancient musical systems but Pitts’ book offers an alternative to musicians whose familiarity is limited to the western keyboard.  Purists may denigrate this approach but even if it does not perfectly represent all aspects of Hindustani musical theory at least it provides a manageable entry point for amateur musicians and professionals alike.

Having struggled somewhat with the previous book I was particularly delighted to have these simplified examples which fall nearer to my skills level.  Even if I don’t wind up incorporating this into performance or compositional efforts I have no doubt that the exposure to the actual practice of this music will leave a valuable bit of programming in my neural circuits that will enhance my musical thinking and ability to appreciate other musics.

As with the first book, this too is highly recommended.  Kudos Mr. Pitts!

In the Beginning Was the Word: Other Minds 23


 

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Charles Amirkhanian performing one of his spoken word compositions at Other Minds 20 in 2015

Other Minds has been the the darling of composer/producer Charles Amirkhanian since its founding in 1993.  Along with television producer and arts patron Jim Newman he has presided over the 25 years of this renowned festival which has consistently brought the finest new music composers and performers to San Francisco.

There is little doubt that this year’s festival has to be very close to Amirkhanian’s heart.  Words have been central to his career at least since 1969 when he began his work as a producer at KPFA.  In the 23 years he spent there he presented countless hours of musical programming and interviews.  He crossed paths with most of the major stars in contemporary classical music and many stars whose genre may not be captured by the classical label.  A look at his programming choices and interviews from his time there defined new music for the Bay Area and beyond.  After his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992 he continued exploring cutting edge music and musicians bringing them to San Francisco for live performances.

His work as producer and curator has tended to overshadow his work as a composer, sound poet, and spoken word artist.  This year’s OM festival is dedicated to speech, sound poetry, and the spoken word.  It is about both the history and the present state of the art.  In many ways Amirkhanian’s 1975 release “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” on 1750 Arch Records (now on an OM CD 1006-2) can be seen as sort of the starting point for this festival.  This masterful anthology includes works by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (1939- ), John Cage (1912-1992), John Giorno (1936- ), Anthony Gnazzo (1936- ), Charles Dodge (1942- ), Robert Ashley (1930-2014), Beth Anderson (1950- ), Brion Gysin (1916-1986), Liam O’Gallagher (1917-2007), and Aram Saroyan (1943- ).

 

“Word! Thou word that I cannot speak!

At the end of the second (and last completed) act of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful opera “Moses und Aron” (1932) Moses sings, or actually half speaks and half sings this text lamenting his expressive deficits.  Speech song or, in German, sprechgesang is an invention by Schoenberg in which the singers are asked to find a point between speech and music.  Perhaps this is a good example of some of the artistic thinking going on at about the time when speech music/sound poetry began to take shape.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Some of the history of sound poetry is featured in this unprecedented 6 day festival (April 9-14).  Some of the earliest practitioners of this unusual genre include the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose composition Ursonate (1922-32) will be performed in its entirety, a rare event by itself.

Another early gem will be the Spoken Music (1930) by German-American composer Ernst Toch.  This three movement suite has been known for its last movement, the Geographical Fugue.  The other two movements, once thought lost, were discovered in sketches in 2006 and reconstructed by Christopher Caines.  The now complete version will be presented I believe on day 3.

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Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

 

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to tell the history of text sound so I will refer readers to the Other Minds website for further details.  Or you could come to the festival too I suppose.

With due respect given to the past the festival will move on to the present.  San Francisco Beat Poet Michael McClure (1932- ) will make an appearance as will post beat colleagues Anne Waldman (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (yeah the guy from that cool anthology), Aram Saroyan (another guy from the classic text sound disc).

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Alvin Curran in conversation last year in Berkeley.

Other Minds alumnus Alvin Curran (1938- ) will be premiering his collaboration with Clark Coolidge entitled, Came Through in the Call Hold.  Curran’s eclectic sensibilities will doubtless result in an interesting composition.  This event alone, at least for this writer, is worth the price of admission.  And this is just the first day!

Other events include workshops, discussions of the history of the art, and even some curious variations on a theme.  Apparently the writer Lawrence Weschler is the grandson of Ernst Toch and has written a variation on the Geographical Fugue called, The Medical Fugue which will be premiered at this festival.

The increasingly ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill will be present to perform Virgil Thomson’s unusual but entertaining setting of a Gertrude Stein (a one time Oakland resident) text called Capital, Capitals.  She will accompany the men of the Other Minds Ensemble.  Jaap Blonk will be tasked with performing Schwitters’ Ursonate and, along with Enzo Miranelli will also perform other historical works including some by a couple of Italian Futurists.

Other Minds Administrative Director Randall Wong will end the evening by undertaking a performance of the late great Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody.  That promises to be a wild evening I think.

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Jaap Blonk (1953- )

Northern Europe, including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries will literally have their day.  As it turns out they are doing a great deal of creative work in this increasingly diverse genre of speech music.  Other Minds is at its best in introducing the new and the innovative from wherever Charles’ radar has tracked it down.  Indeed Mr. Amirkhanian and his wife, artist/photographer Carol Law traveled throughout these regions in the early 70s talking with and learning from these diverse artists.  (Amirkhanian’s work, Just was recorded in a Scandinavian studio during one of those trips).

As usual homage will be paid to the past with some recorded classics by Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell, and Lily Greenham.  Some new voices will be introduced including Tone Åse and Sten Sandell.  The Norwegian/Russian-American duo OTTARAS (consisting of visual poet Ottar Ormstad and composer Taras Mashtalir will also perform.   One can fully expect a mind expanding experience which will redefine the possibilities of the art form.

Auspiciously or perhaps dangerously Friday the 13th has been reserved for Bay Area talents.  First up will be the man of the hour, Charles Amirkhanian.  Hearing him do his work live is an uncommon but entirely enjoyable experience.  If that alone weren’t enough we will get to hear the even rarer public collaboration between him and his life partner Carol Law whose photography and collage work deserves wider recognition and will happily get that here.

Amy X Neuberg

Amy X Neuberg.

Trained in both linguistics and music, Amy X Neuberg will be on hand to perform her indescribable electronic cabaret including the world premiere of “Say it like you mean” and other genre bending work.  She is another valued Other Minds alumnus having given numerous performances at the festivals.

Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, another alumnus will present “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsors” which premiered at Stanford in 2016.  Enzo Miranelli will conclude the evening with his theatrical combination of movement and text in “Fame: What I Want to Say”.

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Pamela Z

The festival concludes on Saturday April 14th with Jaap Blonk followed by the wonderful San Francisco based Pamela Z who, like Neuberg uses electronics, but creates her own unique sound world.  She too is an alumnus of Other Minds.

Another composer from that great anthology, Beth Anderson, will make an appearance to perform “If I Were a Poet”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Ocean Mildew Minds”.

The finale will feature Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner performing excerpts from two works, “House with a View” and “Loose Tongues” both dealing with the lives of working class southern women.

This will be both a feast and a marathon but it promises to be one of the finest Other Minds productions maybe ever.  Come to be entertained, come to be challenged, come to expand your mind.  You’ll never be the same.  See you there.

300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


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Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!

 

The @realAlvin Curran at the Armory


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Alvin Curran performing from his “Fake Book” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 2014

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is  one of the finest of that maverick band of composers who came of age in the 1960s as expatriates in Italy.  Along with musicians like Frederic Rzewski, Carol Plantamura, Richard Teitelbaum, and Allan Bryant among others they formed the world’s first live electronic improvisation ensemble, “Music Elletronica Viva” in 1966.  In this time electronic synthesizers were not generally available and most of their equipment was hand made.  All the musicians have since all gone their own very creative ways but in many ways this ensemble has been their touchstone which continues to underlie their work.

Curran told this writer that it was around this time that he began working on a huge series of compositions of (at least initially) an improvisational nature which he collected under the general title of “Fake Book”.  Musicians will be familiar with the term which is roughly analogous to a cheat sheet enabling musicians easy access to many chord progressions, songs, and other pieces at their fingertips to please a wide range of tastes in their audiences.

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Curran’s Fake Book is a huge collection of scores, digital samples (no doubt he began with analog samples) and sketches.  He recently published a hefty selection of this material available on Amazon and is well worth both your time and your money for the insight it provides to this unusual composer.  The composer’s web site is an extremely useful reference but nothing can match hearing and seeing this spirited, kinetic shaman of a performer.  His creativity and sheer joy of music making is infectious and the music he makes is akin to reading diary excerpts, a musical analogy of sorts to the likes of Anais Nin, the famed mega-diarist of a previous generation.

Curran is, at 80, an energetic and endlessly creative musician, a humanist with deep convictions and quite simply an experience not to be missed.  Here is the announcement of this concert which, though this writer is unable to attend, is not to be missed.

Alvin Curran
performs
“The Alvin Curran Fakebook”
on shofar, piano, keyboard, and electronics
at the Veterans Room
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (66th-67th St.)
Wednesday March 14, 2018, at 7.00 pm & 9.00 pm
or call the box office (212) 933-5812 Mon-Fri, 10.00 am-6.00 pm

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


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Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.

The Alchemy of Diversity at Sound and Savor


 

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Freshly baked bialys right out of the oven opened the brunch.

This is another in the continuing account of my encounters with Philip Gelb’s underground vegan salon now called Sound and Savor.  For some twelve years now he has hosted a series of dinners, brunches, and cooking classes.  Many of the multi-course meals also feature some of the finest musicians, many from San Francisco and the east bay.

Today’s brunch started with fresh brewed coffee with a dollop of ginger (vegan) ice cream along with fresh baked bialys with cashew cream, pickled red onions, and “carrot lox”.  So we began with a vegan Jewish theme.  Needless to say these were delicious and the coffee helped waken anyone not ready for this 11AM start.

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The next course was a similarly delicious borscht (beet soup) with beet pakoras.  And clearly Phil has introduced this traditionally Indian dish which worked remarkably well with that soup.  Again all were hot out of the pot/fryer clearly in our view.

As Phil performed his culinary alchemy in the kitchen we were most attentively served by his assistant for this meal, Letitia, a smiling joy of a woman who seems to have the knowledge and genuine caring of customer service in her blood.  She was equally attentive to all in the crowd of about twenty diners with the usual mix of familiar faces and few new ones.  Indeed the beautifully presented courses came at just the right pace.

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The main course in this brunch was a Potato-Onion Tortilla, blood orange salad.  And once again the diversity of cultures mixed to truly savory results as the friendly conversations flowed.  At this point even the hungriest would hope for a pause and that’s exactly what happened.

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With a judicious touch of rearranging Phil prepared a performance space for the three musicians who graced us on this beautiful sunny Oakland day.  Jay Ghandi, bansuri (Indian Flute), Sameer Gupta, tablas (a staple of Hindustani music), and David Boyce, saxophone and bass clarinet (need I say a staple of jazz?).  The alchemy of the food would now find an analogy in this jam session.  Boyce and Gupta had played here about a year ago and Ghandi is a frequent collaborator with both musicians.  All three had played yesterday in San Jose and were scheduled to play in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House.  They are touring to promote their recent release A Circle Has No Beginning.  These are just three of the musicians who participated in this crowd sourced disc which is itself worth your attention.

The energy was immediately palpable as seen in this excerpt from one of three pieces they played.

This last excerpt demonstrates the ease of communication between these musicians who blend diverse backgrounds of jazz and Hindustani musics seamlessly into something new and wonderful.  The audience was energized to a level beyond what coffee could do and broke into appreciative applause after each piece.

The brunch ended with a dessert of (again fresh baked) Citrus Semolina Cake and more of that delicious coffee and ice cream.  And, of course, more conversation.

These events have become a regular part of this writer’s recreational time and a real reason to celebrate living in the diverse and creative east bay.  Phil’s judicious blend of cultures in his culinary experiments provide a parallel to his curation of some of the finest musicians with the only purpose in both case to entertain and enlighten.  He achieved both is a big way this day.  Thanks to all who participated.

Marin: An Unknown Danish Master Gets His Due Marvellously


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I have made no secret of my passion for the music which has been coming out of the Scandinavian portion of our planet.  My knowledge of these musical traditions is mostly limited to the twentieth century up to the present but what a horn of plenty there is to be had.  There are so many composers that it is forgivable if one of them fails to get worldwide attention and acclaim during their lifetime.  Or is it?

Well if sins of omission that have been committed all can now be forgiven and the memory of Axel Borup-Jørgenson (1924-2012) is likely guaranteed to remain solidly in the history of music of the twentieth century.  The Danes take their music very seriously it seems (check out the You Tube Channel for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra if you don’t believe me) and producer Lars Hannibal and his crew have labored tirelessly to bring this formerly obscure master most deservingly to light in this DVD/CD combo pack featuring some of his finest works.

This truly major release contains a DVD with a gorgeous animated feature synced to the late composer’s swan song big orchestral piece, Marin op. 60 (1963-70) a really beautifully produced documentary (“Axel”) on the composer featuring some of his fellow composers including, Finn Savery, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Bent Sørensen, Sunleif Rasmussen, Per Nørgard, Gert Mortensen, Ib Nørholm, Michala Petri, and producer Lars Hannibal along with family and other musicians and producers.

The animated feature looks like one of the finer entries one might find on Vimeo.  The animation was done by Lùckow Film and works well with the music.  The biographical feature does a spectacular job of placing the composer in context with his Nordic contemporaries and with contemporary music in general.  The people interviewed give about as definitive a description of the man’s work as can be done in a film biography and the intervening or connecting scenes bespeak a high level concept of cinematography that makes this film both compelling and a delight for the eyes as well as the mind.  The concept of the composer’s use of silence as a compositional tool seems to be reflected in these transitional scenes.

The CD consists of seven carefully selected pieces on seven tracks.  The disc opens with the big orchestra piece which was heard behind the animation on the DVD, Marin Op. 60 (1963-70) followed by Music for Percussion and Viola Op. 18 (1955-56), For Cembalo and Orgel Op. 133 (1989), Nachtstuck Op. 181 (1987) (played here by the composer’s daughter, Elisabeth Selin), Winter Pieces Op. 30b (1959) for piano, Pergolato Op. 182 (2011) for treble recorder, and Coast of Sirens Op. 100 (1980-85) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion, and multivoice tape.  This is truly a balanced portrait with examples of orchestral, solo instrument, keyboard, chamber and electroacoustic works from 1959-2011, a more than fair sampling of the composer’s output both by genre and by time.

The music seems to move between post-romantic tonality and expressionistic experiments such as one hears in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti.  The music is evocative and very listenable especially if one avails one’s self of the introductory film.  It certainly seemed to tune this reviewer’s ears properly.  It is helped as well by some very fine recordings that capture the subtlety of the composer’s work.

Lars Hannibal is clearly the guiding hand in this project but his genius (he is a fine guitarist as well as a producer) is his ability to engage all these fine musicians, artists, producers, and family in what is one of the most loving portraits this writer has ever seen.  Now that is the way to blast someone out of obscurity forever.

And this is but one entry in a larger project to record the composer’s complete output.  Two previous releases were reviewed on this blog and, presumably there are more to come.  But in the meantime there is much to savor here and one hopes that this will introduce this music into the general repertoire.  I’m sure Axel would be pleased to be placed as he is now among the masters of Danish composers.