Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


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All is set up in the diminutive performance space at CNMAT.

Jenny Q. Chai is a graduate of Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music.  She is trained as a pianist but she is in the process of expanding that role somewhat.  Chai is one of an unusual group of people called “synaesthetes”, that is, people who see sounds and hear colors.  Her program tonight is entitled, “Sonorous Brushes”.

I am not a synaesthete and it is most likely that most of the audience was more like me.  The actual prevalence of synaesthesia in which stimulation of one sense (such as sound) simultaneously stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway (such as color or emotion) is estimated to occur in about 4% of the general population (estimates vary).  This condition is unusual but is not pathological.  The interest or the challenge here is the artist’s attempt to convey her personal synaesthetic perceptions in a way that can be understood by those not similarly wired.

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Chai spoke eloquently about her research to the audience.

The program was divided into sections.  In the first Chai performed some mostly conventional repertoire from the early twentieth century namely Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen.  The four Debussy pieces with which Ms. Chai opened this recital (two etudes, “Pour les huits doigts” and “Pour les quartes” and preludes 11 and 12 from book 2) left absolutely  and no doubt as to  and the artist’s virtuosity and interpretive skills.  She then launched into a Ravel homage by one Frederic Durieux followed by Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes and a  truly athletic Messiaen piece.  Understandably these pieces inspired visual creations by this artist and seemed to be the seed for her ongoing research.

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It is curious and somehow very fitting that this musical exploration begin with music that was inspired by the visual.  Impressionism was pretty much paralleled by the music which appears to have been inspired by the visual art, an early argument for synaesthesia.  There is little doubt that many artists (and non-artists) have had this condition for better or worse but it is likely that such unusual perceptions would have been classified as pathological and not the topic of polite conversation back in the 19th century and before.

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On this night it would be not merely a topic of conversation but an introduction to research which began with a grant Chai received from the French government for research into synaesthesia and presenting these ideas to a wider audience.  Far from pathology, this could even be seen as a deficit in those who lack this ability.  The key then is to explore synaesthesia as a potential asset.  Of course a complete and detailed explanation was not the goal of the evening.  This was to whet our appetites.

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Composer Jarosław Kapuściński explains some of the technology behind his compositions and the visual art that accompanied these performances.

 

This next part of the program involved the work of Jarosław Kapuściński (Warsaw, 1964-) whose two pieces were slated for the last portion of the program.  He is, since 2016, the chair of the music department at Stanford University and no doubt spends time with CCRMA (Stanford’s equivalent of CNMAT) investigating music, sound and computers.  He spoke of being inspired by a calligrapher who was also well known to Ms. Chai, a Chinese woman and master calligrapher named Shanshan Zhao (the film was done at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music).  While he did not go into great detail the composer basically shared his visual inspirations and spoke a bit about how his composition program “listens” to the performer (see the photo with the two mikes inside the piano below) and responds in some way.  This sounds like another chapter in the book which includes David Behrman’s early computer/performer interactive experiments.  Some 50 years later (this piece, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” is from 2018 and got its US premiere here tonight).  Another generation shows its expertise.

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Note the two black microphones inside the piano. No, its not the Russians.

The title, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018) references Ziqi, a man whose listening was so perfect that the musician destroyed his instrument after Ziqi died because he knew he would never find a better listener.  This ancient Chinese story (approx 770-476 BC) is also about the merging of sound and image in its way.  Several calligraphies are displayed in process during the performance with the music reflecting the moods of the Chinese characters being displayed.  Each movement involves a different Chinese character and a different attempt at calligraphy.  There may be extramusical references here but the music does a satisfying job of standing with the visuals and further analysis can be left to musicologists and program annotators.

In addition Kapuściński is no stranger to Asian arts.  He has explored eastern musics and incorporated aspects of them into some of his works.  He is also no stranger to computers and their use in composition.  His appreciation of disparate artistic techniques effectively spanning 5000 years and utilizing them effectively is a mark of genius in this writer’s opinion.  This is a challenging piece for the soloist but it is a sensual journey for the audience.  While the geekier folks (this reviewer definitely included) would like to know much more about the technical aspects of this gorgeous music, suffice it to say that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying the art.

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Chai playing the interactive piano part to the visuals in “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018), This was the California premiere.

This was followed by another visual/musical collaboration, Side Effects (2017) also by Kapuściński involves music set to videos by Kacper Kowalski who shoots from a perspective 150 meters directly above his subjects.  Think a latter day Koyaanisqatsi (do I need to footnote that reference?).  Again we see affecting music which captures the composer’s reaction to the visuals.  I didn’t get the sense that there was any computer interaction here, just some good music to some stunning visuals.

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Chai playing the music to the visuals in “Side Effects” (2017)

The capacity audience (the room capacity is only 49) was very appreciative and gave a standing ovation which compelled no less than two encores.  Forgive your reviewer for not being able to recall the first but there seemed to be a new magic afoot when this pianist launched into the second, a wonderful rendition of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It was a loving and intense interpretation (no doubt full of colors as well) and it left the audience satisfied as a dessert would cap the climax of a fine meal.  Brava, Ms. Chai.  And thank you Mr. Kapuściński.

My 2018 in the Arts


One of the Theater Organs at House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI, a really fun place to visit.


I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.

Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.

This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.

Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.


The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.

Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.

And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.

One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.

Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.

OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.

Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.

Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.

This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.

I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.

I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.

Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


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Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steven Kemper’s Mythical Spaces


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Ravello Records RR 7980

It is this writer’s opinion that the category “electro-acoustic” carries such a wide range of connotations that it is of limited use to a listener.  This album is so characterized and here simply means that both electronics and acoustic instruments are used.  Even the concept of electronic music is difficult since such a designation. Playlists on Spotify and iTunes usually points the listener to a form of pop/dance music if you search for electronic.  Further complicating things (and I think this is at least in part the point here) the electronics here include fixed media (electronics which does what it is programmed to do and does not interact with the performers or simply plays alone) and robotic electronics as well as electronics which interacts with the performer.  You will have to check the composer’s web page for more information on what exactly the “robotic” media are.

This is cutting edge in the sense that it is experimenting with new media in combination with more traditional media (and simple electronics is now “traditional media” having been superseded by the new fangled).  The actual sound of this music seems to inhabit a rather spare sound world akin perhaps to that of late Morton Feldman but with more brevity. These pieces last from 1.5-10 minutes on average and demand some concentration on the part of the listener.  Think maybe a cross between Feldman, Webern and say Subotnick.

Now one could conceivably play this music at a low volume in the manner of so-called “ambient” music. There are not many dynamic changes here to take you away from that sort of reverie.  But that does not really seem to be the composer’s intention. These are concentrated little essays, each seeming to explore the parameters of its context, fixed media, live instruments, robotic media, and combinations of these.

Steven Kemper is a new name to this writer.  His education and wide interests are available on his web site.  While he has an impressive bibliography with cutting edge research interests in music and sound this appears to be his first CD.

There are 15 tracks which comprise 5 works.  Mythical Spaces (2010) is for percussion with fixed media in 5 separate movements.  Breath (2015) is for fixed media alone in one movement.  Lament (2015) is also in one movement and is scored for flute with interactive media.

The longest single movement comprises In Illo Tempore (2012 rev 2017) is scored for saxophone, bassoon, AMI (automated monochord instrument), and CARI (cylindrical aerophone robotic instrument).  It clocks in at 7:48.

Last but not least is The Seven Stars (2012) for amplified prepared piano in 7 movements.

Live performers include Mark Truesdell, percussion; Wayla Chambo, flute; David Wegenlaupt, saxophone, Dana Jessen, bassoon, and Aurie Hsu, prepared piano.

This is music which requires some serious concentration from the listener.  Hearing/seeing this live might provide some additional aspects due to these strange electronic/robotic instruments but the point here seems to be one of an inner voyage which, if you focus you listening energy, transports you into this composer’s imaginary spaces.  Whether you will enjoy this or not is difficult to say but it is certainly worth the effort.

 

Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


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I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer.  Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist.  I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album.  I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.

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Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002).  This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).

The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation.  The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier.  And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well.  Can you say eclectic?

The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.

In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas.  One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though.  The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.

The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect.  The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011).  The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.

I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing.  Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse.  I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues.  I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming.  It is as though this is too much for a single release.

Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well.  The Sonata seems to be the highlight here.   It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.

There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone.  The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what.  This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.

The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets.  Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well.  Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming.  This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.

 

 

 

Couloir, a Wonderful New Cello and Harp Duo


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This is an beautiful album.  The main attraction is the world premiere recording of Serere (2012) by James B. Maxwell in two versions separated by a shorter piece by Nico Muhly.  Ravello Records brings us a wonderful Canadian duo, Couloir consisting of Ariel Barnes on cello and Heidi Krutzen on harp.

Maxwell, a Canadian composer, is new to this writer but the present work suggests that there is good reason to pay attention to this artist.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of two versions of the same piece on one disc but it does allow for close comparison.  It is basically an intimate and episodic piece of chamber music which is filled out with some electroacoustic material in the second version.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive because this is an engaging and enjoyable listen and a piece which seems to contain a certain depth and wisdom which suggests a well crafted work.  Both versions are clearly challenging from a technical aspect but all seems to be integrated in service of the music and not simply empty effects.  The second version of course has a fuller sound due to the augmentation of the electronics.  Both versions benefit from multiple listens and I certainly don’t intend to set this disc aside for a bit.

This is actually my first encounter with Nico Muhly’s work.  I have certainly heard of him but I am not familiar with any of his other work so I have nothing against which to compare the present piece except in the context of this disc.  Given that, this briefer piece, Clear Music (2003) is also finely wrought and engaging.  Maryliz Smith plays celeste on this track.  It functions basically as an interlude here but it does help clear the palate (so to speak) without taking the listener too far out of the musical context.

The recording from 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia is clear and pleasant and the performances are simply wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering and Preserving a Legacy: Tod Dockstader: From the Archives


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Starkland ST-226

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release.  The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history.  Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles.  Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books.  Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb.  It is an amazing disc on many levels.

This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015).  Starkland’s  first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition.  Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing.  He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).

As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015.  He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more.  Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show.  He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions.  The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created.  Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.

Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music.  Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.

Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time.  Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.

Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6.  Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works.  He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015.  There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.

For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal,  a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate.  She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new.  Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading.  She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.

The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces.  They are all dated between 2005 and 2008.  The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer.  One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future).  At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.

The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission.  I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.

The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family.  The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets.  I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy.  Bravo gentlemen!

Release is scheduled for November 18th.  You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.