Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


choi20190001

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.

choi20190007

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.

choi20190015

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.

choi20190008

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.

choi20190010

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.

choi20190003

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.

choi20190012

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.

choi20190014

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.

Post Holy Minimalism? New Music from Lithuania


Starkland ST-231

All ready for Women’s History Month is this fine offering which features a fine young woman composer from Lithuania. It comes on the radar of Starkland Records and, happily now, to a new listening audience.

I sincerely hope that no one takes umbrage at my off handed categorization of this music as related to minimalism but I’m not sure what else to call it. This 70 minute work is divided into 10 sections which have poetic titles. It is scored for piano, violin, cello, and electronic sound. It comes from an area of the world (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) where individual national identities have long been overshadowed by the annexation of the former USSR. In the last 20 years a style related to minimalism has emerged as a characteristic style from this region (primarily in the work of Arvo Part). Some of that is here but this music is at least a generation removed and has evolved its own identity at the hands of this new composer.

In an unusual (though not unprecedented) move this album was recorded and produced entirely by the composer in Lithuania. In addition some of her fine color photography is featured in the liner notes (which are mostly by the composer). The production values are very much consistent with the high quality one expects from the Starkland label. In addition it must be noted that this is the simplest and sanest packaging now being used for CDs. None of that fragile plastic and still a functional storage sleeve.

So the next question (also common with Starkland releases) is: Who is
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė ? Well she is one of the emerging generation of composers from Lithuania. That, along with her having studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I actually started his Wikipedia article many years ago but his and other articles on new Lithuanian composers is limited still) suggested to me that she may be of the branch of minimalism which hails from this part of the world (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Wrong, but not entirely.

Like a lot of emerging composers we have here an artist fully schooled in a very wide range of musical techniques and possibilities. On first listen one hears elements of drone, ambient, minimalism, extended instrumental techniques, and mysterious but effective use of electronics with this small chamber ensemble. The effect is frequently almost orchestral but also capable of great stillness and silence.

In the liner notes by the composer she speaks of being inspired by her observations whilst visiting Notre Dame in Paris. She speaks of a rather impressionistic notion of hidden or lost beauty. So I guess that throws impressionism into the mix. The composition does have metaphorical devices which do suggest the emerging of ideas and themes from an initial chaos or, to use Ives term, a “silence of the druids”. One must get to the 4th track to really get a sense that there is actually a piano trio on this recording. Very effective actually and then it fades back into the chaos and then the silence.

The album opens with silence into which a drone gradually makes itself known. These meanderings take the listener on a journey which is essentially the artists sonic vision as she walked through and around the iconic cathedral. The listener doesn’t even hear really more conventional musical sounds until about track 4 and concepts like melody and harmony take on a different meaning in this context. It is a large arc of a composition that embraces both chamber and orchestral textures as it tells its sonic tale of the composer’s visions and returns to the chaos of the unfocused mind at the end.

This puts this work in the realm of the earlier release (also on Starkland) of Ingram Marshall’s Alcatraz (1982) and Eberbach (1985). Eberbach was later released with its originally intended photographic component along with Alcatraz on a recent DVD on Starkland. And Mr Marshall provides some insight and reassurance in his liner notes for In Search of Lost Beauty. He affirmed for this listener that one needs to listen more than once to perceive the beauty found herein.

Recorded and produced entirely in Lithuania the artists include Indre Baikstyte, piano; Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene, violin, and Povilas Jacunskas, cello. The recording, done in Lithuania was mastered by the always reliable Silas Brown back here in the United States assures the quality listeners have come to expect from this fine independent record label.

Alan Courtis’ “Buchla Guitar”, an Homage of Sorts


Firework Edition Records FER 1122

The late Donald Buchla (1937-2016) Invented many instruments from his keyboardless Model 100 (pictured here is a Buchla 200), the Marimba Lumina, but no guitar. So along comes one Alan Courtis and he creates what Buchla did not live to invent.

Courtis is an Argentine guitarist who was the founder of the group Reynols who collaborated in recordings with Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros was one of the composer/design consultants with whom Donald Buchla collaborated along with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick. So this album returns this busy, eclectic musician to his roots back to the days of the Tape Music Center.

Well, it surely doesn’t sound like a guitar for much of the time but the star here (or maybe co-star is more accurate) is the Buchla 200 which is the instrument through which the composer processes his guitar and which widens the range of what he can do with his instrument immeasurably. This album will remind listeners of the work of Morton Subotnick and perhaps early Pauline Oliveros.

There are four tracks, no titles, just absolute music. Courtis is clearly skilled and schooled in the operation of the Buchla 200, so much so that his guitar playing is rather eclipsed. This is likely by design. This is in many ways a tribute to Buchla and peaen to the heady days of radical invention that was the Tape Music Center (later moved to Mills College) and its luminaries

This is not easy listening but it it is a must for anyone interested in the various orbits which surround this historic and creative enclave. I don’t know if this album will appeal to many listeners but it is a huge effort and is, in effect, another brick in the wall as far as the history of electronic music on the west coast of the United States (and its dissemination to Argentina and points beyond)..

While this album came to me as a digital download (something which tests the limits of my technical skills) it does contain at least a little bit of liner notes. More would be nice but Courtis and Reynols seem more concerned with making interesting sounds and compositions and seem rather unconcerned with telling us how they got there except in the most general ways. Bravo Mr. Courtis.

Don Buchla in his last major appearance performing at Other Minds 20.
Don Buchla at a Buchla 100 at the Other Minds Festival 20 in 2015

Clarice Jensen Solo Debut Album


jensenmiasmah

Miasmah Records MIA041 

Another refugee from one of those new music groups comes forth with a debut album.  This time it is cellist Clarice Jensen who also serves as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).  And what amazes this listener is the sheer diversity one can find in solo cello recordings.

This recording focuses on the special tunings by La Monte Young student Michael Harrison who has carved his own unique compositional style as well as some interesting work by the late Johan Johannson and by the soloist herself.  

There are 4 tracks: 
bc by Clarice Jensen and Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cello Constellations by Michael Harrison 
For this from that will be filled (a) by Clarice Jensen
For this from that will be filled (b) by Clarice Jensen

While there are consistencies between the sound world of these pieces they have their own identity.  Johansson’s work opens the disc and sets the tone for all that comes after.  This is not simply a cellist with a set of cool effects pedals.  Rather this is a soloist seeking to become one with her instrument (which includes the electronics).

Michael Harrison’s work is heard too infrequently.  The former student of La Monte Young carries on the tradition of exploring new tunings in a manner one might expect of the next generation of this practice.  Harrison (no relation to Lou) creates dream like worlds with the psychological  effects of these tunings and this work is a stunning example.

Jensen plays the two parts of the title track, “For this from that will be fulfilled”.  Multiple generations beyond the kitschy “one man band” novelty concept, Jensen’s playing must be a mesmerizing live experience.  This track was originally designed to accompany visuals by one Jonathan Turner who did the striking photography of the album’s cover.

The review copy lacked liner notes (a personal bugaboo) and the press release and notes on the soloist’s site and that of Bandcamp also tell precious little.  Fortunately this is music which speaks pretty directly and can easily be  enjoyed with no knowledge of whence it came.  Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Jensen’s playing is magical.

Jensen in performance (photo from web site)

Metafagote, Rebekah Heller on Solo Bassoon (mostly)


hellerfagote

For this listener, traversing contemporary music concerts in the 1980s there appeared a trend to modify the traditional look of classical performers. The first striking example I can recall is the venerable Kronos Quartet performing all in tight black leather outfits. And there are performers who have an intentionally different look such as violinist Nigel Kennedy or Kathleen Supove whose look is decidedly unconventional. Focusing on attire could conceivably detract from a musical performance but the previously mentioned performers have in common with the performer on this disc both virtuosity and a distinctly different look which seems integral to their performance delivering decidedly unconventional music.  The photography by Corrie Schneider creates a striking and evocative cover image giving her a sort of superhero ambiance.  Why not?

Rebekah Heller, of course, is also one of the members of the wonderful ICE Ensemble, one of the finest working chamber groups focusing on contemporary music. ICE has in common with groups like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, ACME, and others the fact that they are populated by some of the finest young musicians who seem to be able to meet any challenge…er, commission thrown at them. In addition many of the musicians in these groups are also interesting composers.  The others have a profound interest in new music that match their skills and passions oh so well.

In Metafagote Rebekah Heller presents 4 works on 4 tracks.  Rand Steiger (1957- ) is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and Cal Arts.  Steiger has been at UC San Diego since He is a 2015 Guggenheim Award recipient and though his discography is adequate this writer sees his name, hears his music too infrequently.

Steiger’s work opens this disc with Concatenation (2012) for bassoon and live electronics.  Steiger is skilled in writing for both conventional instruments and for high tech electronics including spatialization, live processing.  Steiger’s work is assertive, pretty much freely atonal, and packs a punch emotionally if memory serves.  There was a vinyl record (this composer is younger than me by one year and I’m guessing still hoards at least a selection of LPs.  The work was Hexadecathlon: “A New Slain Knight” (1984), basically a horn concerto for horn with chamber ensemble.  It burns in my brain still, wonderful 6 minute cadenza at the end too.

Back to Concatenation, it is a sort of all consuming experience, a sound bath if you will.  The timbres achieved with the combination of bassoon with electronics creates some grand, almost orchestral textures.

The second work is by one Jason Eckhardt (1971- ), a name vaguely familiar but his work is new to me,  Eckhardt earned a B.A. from Berklee in 1992 followed by an M.A. (1994) and a D.M.A. (1998).  He has studied with James Dillon, Jonathan Kramer, Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  That provenance gives one an idea of what to expect…complexity.  And he dishes that out for solo bassoon.  Heller is up to the challenge in this piece, “Wild Ginger” (2014) from a series of pieces based on native plants in the Catskills.  Again, why not?

The third track contains, “Following” (2014) for solo bassoon from a composer whose inspiration also sometimes comes from plants.  Dai Fujikura (1977- ) is a prolific Japanese composer who also comes from a legacy of complexity having studied with the likes of Boulez, Taketmitsu, and Ligeti.  Fujikura’s music may be complex but his music tends to have a softer edge, more like Takemitsu than Boulez.  Again Heller demonstrates her technical skills that rise to meet the challenges posed here.

Last but not least is a piece as large and encompassing as the Steiger.  Felipe Lara (1979- ) is an accomplished Brazilian composer.  He is represented here  by, “Metafagote” (2015), the most recent of the compositions here.  It is scored for bassoon and 6 pre-recorded tracks.  One is naturally put in the mind of Steve Reich’s counterpoint series for soloist playing against multiple pre-recorded similar instruments.  The piece also can, and has been, performed by a soloist with 6 other bassoonists.

While the Reich notion is not the worst place to start, this piece is anything but minimalist.  Rather it is distinctively modernist.  It is a virtuosic exploration of some fascinating possibilities of the lowly bassoon.  Lara owes more to free jazz at times in this epic, almost a concerto, piece.

I don’t know how many bassoon fanciers are out there but if you like new and experimental music of a virtuosic nature this is a great bet.

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.

Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble


tbrady

Starkland ST-230

Two years ago Starkland released Instruments of Happiness which was this writer’s introduction to this artist.  As a result I traversed the wall of artistic apartheid and ordered more of his work through the Canadian Music Centre.  This is an important and well organized site for anyone interested in Canadian classical artists.  (Hint: there are a lot of good composers up that way.)

Tim Brady (1956- ) is a Canadian composer and musician who is best known for his work with multiple guitar ensembles (from 4 to 200).  Of course knowledgeable listeners will logically place him in the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars” category.  Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca come to mind as probably the best known in this genre.  What is important is that, in the same way that Branca sounds very different from Chatham, Brady has his own sound developed over years of playing and composing.  In addition to his compositions for guitar ensembles he writes for more traditional classical ensembles including chamber music, concerti and symphonies.

This latest release to storm the bastion of artistic apartheid known as the US/Canadian border is Brady’s second release on an American label and it appears to be a quantum leap.  Here we get to hear Brady’s chops in handling a large orchestra.  He can no longer fit only into the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars”.  The two works on this disc are Desír (2016-17), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra and Songs About Symphony No. 7 (2016-17).  Both works were written for the Victoriaville Festival.  Both reflect his development as a composer.  And that is why you want this disc.

The concerto Desír is in a pretty standard three movement format.  This is not his first concerto for the instrument.  Perusing his substantial list of works one finds two other concerti for electric guitar and ensemble.  It is Brady’s principal instrument and one he clearly knows from it’s acoustic components to all its electric extensions.  What is a revelation for this listener is hearing how skilled Brady is at writing for traditional classical instruments as well.  At one time the electric guitar was pretty much anathema in the classical world but Brady and his ilk have pretty much made it into simply another addition to the orchestra by creating a large and fascinating repertoire.

Desír presents a challenge for both orchestra and soloist but manages to be both contemporary and eminently listenable.  Brady’s palette is basically tonal with nods to rock and minimalism as well as references to the larger classical world.  And it is the larger classical world with which Brady is concerned in the second work on the album, Songs About Symphony No. 7.  No, this is not about Brady’s 7th (it looks like he is on his 8th, going on 9th symphonies himself) this is about Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th and its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.  It was the Leningrad premiere and it took place in the midst of the actual siege of Leningrad.

doug-smith-web-300x450

Poet Douglas Burnet Smith

The text is by one Douglas Burnet Smith (1949-), a Canadian poet.  His text reflects the thoughts and impressions of various people in reaction to the Leningrad premiere of this major work.  This work demonstrates Brady’s extreme facility for vocal writing.  A quick perusal of Brady’s works list confirms that he has produced operatic works before and his skill in this area is unquestionable.

This piece is essentially an orchestral song cycle and can be favorably compared to works such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.  The major difference is that the text of this work is clearly anti-war.  The various characters describe the horrors of war from their various perspectives and what holds these commentaries together is that they all make reference to the performance which took place in the midst of the awful siege of Leningrad.  The “Bradyworks Large Ensemble is ably conducted by Cristian Gort.  This is complex music but he manages to make it all work as a listenable whole.

gort

Cristian Gort

Shostakovitch’s work, despite it’s lack of vocal settings, is clearly an anti-war piece and, like many of his works, is concerned with social justice and human rights.  Brady’s work uses that historical performance as a context to share the various characters’ impressions in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion and his writing here is stunningly good (meaning both text and music).  The two soloists, soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo, are clearly up to the task from spoken word to full blown operatic power.  It is not clear if the arts can affect social justice but this is one damn good try.

Having listened to Instruments of Happiness and a few more of Brady’s Canadian CDs it is fascinating to hear his development as a composer.  It is not clear if he has reached his peak but he is certainly up there showing no signs of anything but the progress of a major artist.  Bravo, Mr. Brady!  Keep it coming.