Written for Jacob Greenberg: Bright Codes


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Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.

Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.

The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.

The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.

The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.

“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.

The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.

Seedling for harmonium and electronics brings us back to the sounds again of a harmonium. This is the only track which has appeared before and it was on the wonderful ICE release on Starkland Records (On the Nature of Thingness).

This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.

Lux Aeterna, 20th Century Choral Music of Ligeti and Kodaly According to Marcus Creed


OUR Recordings 6.220676

I thought I knew this music. After falling in love with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) work having heard it so aptly used in Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey” I eagerly purchased both of the complete works surveys on Sony and Telefunken but these fresh, insightful performances by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under conductor Marcus Creed have made me fall in love again. And, while I have some familiarity with Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) music (he is underappreciated) I did not know his unaccompanied choral works. So this encounter was an absolute revelation.

This release succeeds on several levels. First, it is one of the always reliably fine productions from Lars Hannibal’s OUR Recordings. So, from the physical design to and the the choices of repertoire and performers as well as the sound of the recording, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the listener.

But what brings this release from competent to outstanding is the interpretive skillset of conductor Marcus Creed and the disciplined Danish National Vocal Ensemble. These are fresh, insightful readings that shed new light on these masterful composers and their work. Looking at Creed’s extensive discography it is clear that he commands a wide range of repertoire with a penchant for the twentieth century and beyond. His reading of Ernst Krenek’s massive 12 tone contrapuntal a capella masterpiece from 1941-2, “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” Op. 93 remains perhaps this challenging work’s finest interpretation in the 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and a personal favorite of this reviewer. So it should come as no surprise that he is able to breathe new life into these works.

The opening work is probably the most familiar here. Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966) was first thrust into the spotlight via its (unpermitted at the time) inclusion is the Kubrick film. This is mid-career Ligeti and one of the most effective uses of his “micropolyphony” and cluster chord harmonies. It is first heard in the Clavius Moonbase scene fairly early in the film. It accompanies the otherwise silent animation of a sort of space shuttle bus as it glides along the lunar surface. Along with the Kyrie of Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem and his orchestral “Atmospheres” (1961) work beautifully in telling the story in this film with its well known paucity of dialogue.

This opening track grabbed my attention immediately. The text, which appears in the traditional Catholic Mass and Requiem Mass is a communion hymn with the following words:

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them:
With Thy Saints for evermore,
for Thou art gracious.

But the experience of this music is positively otherworldly. Its wall of sound ambiance belies a rather complex construction which has become a landmark in the development of compositional practice. And it is vitally that this music, now nearly synonymous with the film, be heard as originally intended. It exists in both worlds now and this reading helps reaffirm it as the masterpiece it is.

The next six tracks are by Ligeti but this is the Ligeti still composing under the powerful spell of Bela Bartok. All date from 1955 but are a quantum leap back from the sound world of the first track. The two brief a capella choruses (the second includes solos for bass and soprano voices) are settings of words by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). These settings are ostensibly influenced by the composer’s early encounter with modern music in Vienna (Ligeti ultimately relocated from the artistically and socially oppressive Hungary to Austria). The second of these choruses had to wait until 1968 for a performance which provides some notion of how oppressive the Hungarian regime had been.

Those brief choruses are followed by four folksong settings which take the listener back into the sound world of Bartok and Kodaly with their respective folksong transcriptions. These are very enjoyable travels into Ligeti’s excellent but markedly more conservative beginnings.

Next is another Ligeti work but one from his later years demonstrating that he never stopped evolving as a composer. The “Three Fantasies after Friederich Holderlin” (1982) are themselves a quantum leap stylistically from the 1966 Lux Aeterna. These are also more complex settings and, suffice it to say, they are a powerful experience. What was micropolyphony in the earlier work is replaced by a more traditional style of polyphonic writing but one that could not exist were it not for those earlier efforts.

And then we come further back again to early and mid-career Kodaly in three a capella works, “Evening Song” (1938), “Evening” (1904), and “Matra Pictures” (1931). I say at the beginning of this review that I believe Kodaly’s music to be underappreciated. Indeed but I find myself with no excuse given the easy availability of so much music on You Tube and other online sources. And this is why the inclusion of this fascinating selection of the composer’s significant cache of a capella choral music is so very welcome.

Like, I suppose, many listeners I mostly know Kodaly’s work via his Peacock Variations and excerpts from his opera, “Hary Janos”. Of course I had also been aware of Kodaly’s pedagogy and his methods for learning music (and I was aware even before I saw it in “Close Encounters).

But my encounter with these fine choral works revealed to me the depth of the composer’s skills. This is marvelously written music by a composer intimately familiar with this medium and it has already sent me to exploring more of this composer’s work in all genres. It is not difficult to see Kodaly’s work as a logical predecessor to that of Ligeti. he same skill and invention the same ability to convincingly set text to music. This is a terrific release, highly recommended to lovers of choral music in general and, of course, of these two composers.

Bang on a Glass Can: Maya Beiser’s New Album


This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.

It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…

Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.

Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!

William Susman at the Movies


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I think this is the fourth disc of the music of William Susman which has come across my desk. Let me say it is a delight to hear this man’s music and experience the range of his artistry. All releases of his music thus far have been on belarca records, a label founded by Susman to promote The Octet Ensemble and other artists who share an interest in the work of Susman and many of his contemporaries.

The disc which is the subject of this review contains selections from soundtracks to three films: When Medicine Got it Wrong (2008), a film by Katie Cadigan and Laura Murray; Balancing Acts: A Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union (2008), a film by Sam Bell, Kate Stilley, and William Susman; Native New Yorker (2005), a film by Steve Bilich. But this is just one of three discs of film music thus far by Mr. Susman.

Soundtrack to the 2007 film
Soundtrack to the 2004 film

I mention these not just to create a list of Susman’s film music but also to point out that all of these scores have engaged the amazing talents of the longtime cellist of the Kronos Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, herself a composer and producer. Susman appears to be fond of collaborations with other artists.

The 2004 “Oil on Ice” won the 2004 Pare Lorentz award from the International Documentary Association. It was Pare Lorentz’s collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson that produced two of his finest film scores, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). Thomson’s subsequent music for Robert J. Flaherty’s feature length drama, Louisiana Story (1948) earned him the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a film score. Suffice it to say that film scores are a rather neglected genre, at least among non-pop composers. That is another reason to pay attention to these releases, as in “get these before they disappear”. But also because film music by concert hall composers shows a side of their work that may not be evident in concert works. It is a marriage of sound and image, a collaborative effort. Thomson’s film music was written entirely for socially conscious films of the WPA era. Susman’s work seems to be following a similar trajectory some generations later.

Now back to the disc under consideration.

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Joan Jeanrenaud provides her multitracked performances on two of the three films. As always, her artistry is welcome. Her work is evident in the first two film soundtracks. Mr. Susman, an accomplished pianist, plays piano and other keyboards on all three films. Note must also be made of another collaborator, accordion player and vocalist, Mira Stroika (a former student of Susman’s) who plays and sings on the 2008 Balancing Acts film. Among the three this appears to be the one closest to the composer’s heart, he is also one of the film’s producers. Susman plays piano and other keyboards in the final track, an uninterrupted soundtrack (some 13 minutes) to 2005’s Native New Yorker.

Susman manages to create a nuanced variety of music within his predominantly post-minimalist, sometimes neo-romantic style. It exists as subtext in the film context but stands on its own as a purely sonic experience. Fans of film music, and certainly of Susman’s oeuvre, will want to explore all of these.