Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


gannchrom

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Wonderful Survey of Helmut Lachenmann via his Clarinet Music


aestheticapp

New Focus FCR 196

Helmut Lachenmann (1935- ) is a composer who has been “on my radar” for some years now but, like a lot of names I get, I had yet to hear much of his music.  Along comes Gregory Oakes  from, of all places, Iowa.  The Midwest in the United States doesn’t have much of a reputation for embracing the avant garde (though they actually do).  So into the CD player goes this one and…wow, I really need to hear more Lachenmann and whoever this Oakes guy is I want to pay attention to what he is doing with that clarinet.
Admittedly this disc languished a bit before I heard it but I am now glad I did.

This disc consists of only three tracks comprising three works by this major German composer from three different periods in his career.  Dal Niente (Interiur III), Trio Fluido, and Allegro Sostenuto.

Dal Niente (1970) is for solo clarinet and, as the title prescribes, the music is to be played as “from nothing” the meaning of the title.  In fact this seems to be practically a textbook of extended techniques for the clarinet.  But far from being a dull accounting of dry techniques, this is a tour de force which will challenge the skills of even the most experienced players.  It is quite musical and listenable but the virtuosity will knock your socks off.  Oakes pulls it off with a deceptive ease that demonstrates his rather profound knowledge of his instrument.  It is easy to see the seeming cross pollination between the avant garde and free jazz here.

Next up is Trio Fluido (1966-68) which is a respectably avant garde trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion with Matthew Coley, percussion, and Jonathan Sturm, viola.  Like the previous work this one is also about extended techniques (for all three instruments this time).  This is a fine example of mid-twentieth century modernism and deserves a place in the repertoire.  All three musicians are challenged to play their instruments in unconventional ways and the effect is almost like some of the electronic music of the era.  It is a complex and pointillistic texture that has a strong and serious content.

Finally Allegro Sostenuto (1986-88) is another trio, this time for clarinet, cello, and piano.  So while this work would make a fine companion work to the Brahms clarinet trio the work is unambiguously avant garde in the finest Darmstadt traditions.  It is, at about 30 minutes, the longest piece here and it reflects the further maturity of the composer as he creates another challenging but almost surprisingly satisfying work.

This album serves as a nice way to be introduced to Helmut Lachenmann and to get to know some major new champions of the avant garde.  And one would do well to stay informed about the work being done by this fine new music clarinetist.

 

A Major Peter Garland Work


garlandlandscape

The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year.  It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”.  It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases.  For the record they are:

The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)

Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)

Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)

Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI  S 247)

Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)

Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)

Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)

Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)

John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)

And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician.  Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context.  But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.

pgarland

Peter Garland

He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd.  He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins.  Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists.  Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas.  Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:

  • 1982 Matachin Dances (EP, Cold Blue)
  • 1986 Peñasco Blanco (Cold Blue, reissued on Nana + Victorio, 1993)
  • 1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
  • 1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
  • 1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
  • 2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
  • 2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
  • 2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
  • 2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
  • 2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
  • 2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
  • 2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
  • 2017 The Birthday Party (New World)

Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents.  And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety.  Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.

This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland.  In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments.  This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.

Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.

Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.

John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes.  Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists.  This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus.  As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great.  This one was really done right.

 

Eric Moe, Uncanny and Affable (and very interesting)


moeuncanny

New Focus FCR 212

Here I sit with an album by a composer with whom I have no familiarity.  Fortunately Eric Moe has a delightfully tenacious public relations department (at least with this particular record label) whose prompts did finally get me listening.  OMG, it says “electroacoustic”.   That could be really bad or obtuse.  Well, I did promise to review it so here goes.

Eric Moe (1954- ) is a composer with a very well organized web page.  A quick glance at that web page informs that this is the 12th or so disc from a man who boasts what looks like a list of over 100 compositions.  Moe is also a performer and participates on this disc.  This graduate of Princeton (A.B., Music) and Berkeley (M.A. and Ph.D., music) teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is also an active performer of both his and others’ music.

moekeyb

This discs contains 6 composition for solo instrument (mostly with) electronics.  Now that combination has given this writer pause because the genre given the name “electroacoustic” can be a mixed bag.  Sometimes these works can be ponderous or obtuse with meanings obvious to the composer and, hopefully, the performer.

However your reviewer’s neurotic fears were apparently unfounded as the tracks played some truly wonderful compositions.  Each track features a different instrument.  The instruments, in order, include a drum set played by Paul Vaillancourt, a viola played by Ellen Meyer, a solo 19tet keyboard played by Eric Moe, an unbelievably virtuosic pipa played by Yihan Chen, solo piano played by Eric Moe, and flute played by Lindsey Goodman.

Suffice it to say that all the soloists here come with a high level of virtuosity as well as the ability to interact meaningfully with the electronics.  Far from being a nightmare of impenetrable experimental music this is rather a very entertaining set of pieces which tend to avoid the worst cliches of this genre.

Rather than attempting to describe each of these pieces (a task which would likely be more painful to read than write) it is best to simply provide assurances that the combination of this talented composer combined with the more than capable soloists provides a stimulating and interesting listening experience.  These are wonderful performers with great material.

The listener will want to hear each track more than once to get a good idea of what the composer is doing but, fear not, this album is much more adventure than ordeal.  It shows a composer at the height of his powers producing art which stimulates the senses and provides an emotional experience.  While there is clearly intellect behind the creation and performance of these works they tend to speak rather directly to the listener providing a stimulating entertainment that leaves the listener with a shred of hope that classical, even modern classical is far from dead.

Kudos to professor Moe and his collaborators and a nod of thanks to the tenacious publicity folks who would not let this release go quietly into the good night.  You shouldn’t either.

Jacob Greenberg Putting Debussy in Context


hanging

New Focus FCR 192

Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation.  Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular.   Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913).  But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Book of the Hanging Gardens” Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces.  Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble.  For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold.  These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.

This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works.  We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers.  Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded.  Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”.  It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.

This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens”.  It is one of the less performed of his works.  These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs.  The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.

In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s “Tristan und Isolde” meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music.  He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.

What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.  One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here.  Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era.  Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.

Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire.  They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span.  One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.

This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well.  Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces.  His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener.  Great set.

Josh Modney’s “Engage”, New Music for Violin Solo and Not Solo


modneyengage

New Focus FCR 211

This is an awesome undertaking.  I recall when pop musicians were cautioned that it may be unwise to release a so called “double album” for fear that their inspiration (or talent) may not be up to the task.  Well here comes Josh Modney violinist and Executive Director of the Wet Ink Ensemble , a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and a performer with the Mivos Quartet for eight years.  This 3 CD set is his solo violin debut album.  And what an album it is.  There is no lack of talent, skill, or imagination here.  This is essentially three faces of Josh Modney a sort of sonic CV.

The first disc features four tracks of music by contemporary composers for violin with soprano, piano, and/or electronics.  All four are fairly recent compositions:  Sam Pluta’s “Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011), Taylor Brook’s “Vocalise” (2009), Kate Soper’s “Cipher” (2011), and Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 22” (1998).All of these are challenging for the musicians and none are easy listening but all demonstrate aspects of Modney’s skills as a musician

The second disc features J. S. Bach’s “Ciacona” or “Chaconne” (1720) from the second violin partita.  But this is not just another performance of this towering masterwork of the solo violin repertoire.  Modney has chosen to perform it in just intonation.  Now how’s that for versatile?

The effect is subtle and may even be lost on some listeners but fanciers of Bach and alternate tunings will likely find this to be anywhere from mildly interesting to revelatory.  It is a fine performance and it is interesting to hear it in just intonation and amazing to know that this performer has this uncommon skill of playing accurately in an alternate tuning on the violin.

Filling out the second disc is a piece by pianist Eric Wubbels, “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012).  This is a very different piece and I’m not sure why it was paired with the Bach except that it fit the available space.  Wubbels contribution is a sort of electroacoustic collage.

The third (and last) disc is of solo violin compositions by Josh Modney.  Again we move into contemporary and experimental compositions which reflect Modney’s skill with the instrument as well as his insights into it’s potentials.  Again there are no echoes of Bach here but rather more of the experimental/avant garde/free jazz style which dominates this album.  The solo violin repertoire is not huge so it is reasonable to assume that these little gems will find a place there.

This is a lovely production with striking cover art and excellent sound.  If you like cutting edge violin music you will have a wonderful time with these discs.  And if you’re looking for a wildly skilled and imaginative musician check this set out and get ready to be wowed.

 

 

Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


nakedeye

Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.