Quantum Koh: Jennifer Koh’s “Limitless”


kohlimit

Cedille 9000 191

Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor.  First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Second, the joy:  All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.

So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers.  She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.

Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.

It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.

Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.)  She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.

Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres.  Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard.  The work is in three short movements.

Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints.  The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.

Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer.  The AACM was founded in Chicago.

I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17.  The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener.  The concert took place in 2012.  Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page.  Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.

Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin.  The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion.  This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition.  But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration.  First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu .  This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work.  Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds.  This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part.  It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.

Next up is Vijay Iyer.  Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece.  It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism.  It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.

The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer.  She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”.  The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics.  The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one.  The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting.  Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.  

Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.


 

Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Sono Luminus DSL-92235

Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

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

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

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

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

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


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Starkland ST- 233

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mathew Rosenblum: Klezmer, Witches, and the Avant-Garde


Conjuring the spirits of the 1950s/ 60s avant-garde and a few musical references composer Mathew Rosenblum (1954- ) enlists the klezmer spirit of none other than David Krakauer and master conductor Gil Rose with his wonderful Boston Modern Orchestra Project to bring life to this klezmer clarinet concerto.

The concerto, titled, “Lament/Witches Sabbath” (2017) is a tour de force for the soloist and certainly a challenge for the large orchestra.  Using elements of klezmer style along with musical references such as Berlioz in suggesting the evil sabbath revels the composer creates an unusual but fascinating canvas.  Nothing evil here, just some truly exciting musicianship. In addition we hear various noisy avant-garde effects and even voice overs reminiscent of Robert Ashley.  Ultimately it is also a species of classical which has a sociopolitical view and this is both memory and homage to the composer’s past, lamenting the suffering and pondering the evil that fueled it.

Krakauer’s facility with his instrument is simply astonishing.  He has the klezmer thing down but he also brings with him a great virtuosity as a classical clarinetist and a working knowledge of free jazz.  It’s not clear how much creativity this soloist was allowed within the constraints of the piece but the bottom line is that it works very well.  Gil Rose’ expertise in handling all this potential chaos is impressive as always and he delivers ultimately a very enjoyable performance despite those noisy avant-garde moments.  Indeed it is Rose’ ability to select repertoire with which he can grasp and from which he can conjure a compelling performance.  It is Rosenblum’s family biography taking him from the pogroms of the Ukraine to the United States.

The second track (of 4) is a solo for percussion.  Again the avant-garde remains interesting and both performance and recording communicate well with the listener.  Northern Flicker (2013) is no filler, it is an interesting, if rather brief, work.  Lisa Pegher is the busy soloist.

Falling (2013) is a complex work involving pre-recorded audio as well as a chamber group in a song cycle based on the James Dickey poem of the same name.  It is a retelling of an incident in which an airline stewardess who died when she was sucked out of a defective emergency exit in the plane and fell to her death.  The cycle recounts an imagined look into her psyche as she fell to her death.  It is an affecting, if unusual, presentation but Rosenblum’s judicious use of modern elements  while still using recognizable melodies and more traditional techniques make for a listenable, if harrowing, experience.

Here the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble consisting of Lindsey Goodman, flute; Eric Jacobs, clarinet; Nathalie Shaw, violin; Norbert Lewandowski, cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; and Oscar Micaelsson, piano/keyboard join with soprano Lindsey Kesselman with conductor Kevin Noe to produce this rewarding work.

Finally we get another large work, this time for multi-tracked string quartet with percussion titled Last Round (2015) which is also biographical in that the composer is attempting to evoke a time in the 1980s when he frequented an establishment with fellow composers.  The composer, in his entertaining and informative liner notes recounts his time with fellow composer Lee Hyla and friends and seeks to evoke elements of the downtown scene of that era.  This is a rather large work with its own complexities but one which speaks easily to an audience, even one not experienced in the time and place the composer attempts to evoke.

This is a marvelous recording of a music by a composer unfamiliar to this writer (until now) whose work deserves your attention.

Beethoven, Bartok, and Davidovsky with the Julliard Quartet


The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.

The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.

He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.

Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.

As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.

Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


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Orange Mountain Music OMM 0132

Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

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Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.