Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

A Major New Cello Concerto from Esa-Pekka Salonen


Perhaps this is a stroke of marketing genius or maybe some luck is involved but this recording has success written all over it. Yo-Yo Ma is without a doubt one of the finest musicians of our time. The LA Philharmonic is a world class orchestra with a world class conductor at the helm. And though this is but the first encounter by this reviewer with Salonen’s music this work suggests that his compositional skills are at a similar level. 

There is but one work on this disc, a large and very listenable cello concerto which dates from 2016. While the work is clearly modern in its style overall it leans toward romantic and impressionistic textures. Using his conductor’s mastery of the orchestra Salonen traverses territory that embraces the sound of composers such as Ives, Messiaen, Debussy, Barber, etc. Listeners will find familiar gestures but this work is not at all derivative. Rather it ultimately sounds like a complex but very connected improvisation between the soloist and the orchestra neither of whom have easy tasks (though they all play flawlessly).

The rather brief program booklet is basically a program note by the composer/conductor and it is most lucid. It might have been nice to hear as well from Mr. Ma but that is aminor criticism. This is a gorgeous piece given a characteristically powerful performance and this writer was simply enthralled from beginning to end. Now I guess it’s time to look into more of this man’s music. 

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Tim Brady’s Happiness Handbook, massed guitars, massed invention


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Starkland ST-232

This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland.  The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases.  You can find a listing on his web page here.  Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs.  Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham.  That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists.  Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.

In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016.  Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound.  It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here.  One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall.  All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet.  The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.

The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar.  If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well.  The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.

Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars.  This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.

And now the music.  The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic.  Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work.  This is practically a miniature symphony.  It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.

Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album.  It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work.  I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds.  Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.

Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope.  (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.)  Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example.  This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.

Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage.  This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy.  Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.

Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision.  The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are.  So much for happiness.

Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall.  Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again.  As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern.  There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony.  It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.

 

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.

Jennifer Koh and Kaija Saariaho, a Glorious Collaboration


Cedille

The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of  a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).

Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.

There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.

Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.

On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;

Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.

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.

Collectif9: No Time for Chamber Music or Mahler Lite


Collectif9 based in Montreal bills themselves, aptly, as a “string band”. This is their second album and I haven’t heard the first but this one is a hoot!

Drawing on the age old practice of transcribing music for chamber groups which used to be common in taverns and such back in the 18th and 19th  centuries they create delightful riffs on the music they chose.  Here they chose Gustav Mahler. If the appellation of my title, “Mahler Lite” seems pejorative fear not.  This album is sheer delight.

There are 8 tracks drawing variously from the first, second, and fifth symphonies as well as Das Lied and the Wayfarer Songs.  The last track is a fantasy by Philip Hersant on themes of Mahler.  Nine musicians, all on bowed string instruments, do a marvelous job of evoking a big sound out of their ensemble.

Transcription is a true art and this is a shining example.  Anyone familiar with Mahler’s work will find a comforting familiarity in these pieces.  What struck this listener was their ability to evoke the orchestral instruments with some clever extended techniques.  Tympani, trumpets, trombones, tympani, etc. are all slyly and successfully implied in their playing.

While the liner notes don’t go into much technical detail they are all the average listener will need.  The charming thing here is the reproduction of the painting (apparently common in nurseries in Austria) which inspired the third movement of his first symphony.  If you don’t know the painting it depicts a bunch of animals carrying a dead hunter which, perhaps, they have killed.  And it is printed on the fold out liner notes.  Mahler uses Brother John (in a minor key) as a starting place for a set of variations with the intent of evoking this image.

The design by Kanelloscob.com deserves mention.  It deserves a closer look.  They manage to integrate a group photo, a track list, credits, commentary, and a large reproduction of that nursery art.  And they do it all with paper, no plastic to crack and become unusable.  It’s low key but a really beautiful production.

Collectif9 is John Corban, Yubin Kim, Robert Margaryam, and Elizabeth Skinner on violins; Xavier Lepage-Brault and Jennifer Thiessen on violas; Jérémie Cloutier and Andrea Stewart on celli; and Thibault Bertin-Maghit on double bass (who actually did these wonderful transcriptions).

Of course the music is the main point and that is the best reason to buy this disc.  Who knows? Maybe we’ll start seeing/hearing chamber groups like this in our coffee shops. Wouldn’t that be cool?