A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb


Dear Mr. Crumb,

When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.

The 1971 premiere recording

At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.

Makrokosmos I with score excerpt on cover

It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.

Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.

Voice of the Whale on the premiere recording on Columbia Records, 1974

When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.

Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.

Lorca Madrigals 1965-69

I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.

Makrokosmos III

The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.

Robert Miller’s premiere recording of Makrokosmos II

Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.

In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).

After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.

To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.

Douglas Boyce New and Exciting Chamber Music


boyce

The rather plain cover belies the contents of this album of exciting and powerful chamber music.  This is billed as a “sampler” album and it contains three works by Douglas Boyce (1970- ).  He is a founding member, curator, and composer-in-residence of counter)induction, a composer/performer collective active in the New York region.  He also has experience playing in various punk bands.

Boyce holds a B.A. in Physics and Music from Williams College, an M.M. from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1999).  He has studied with George Crumb, James Primosch, Kathryn Alexander, Robert Kyr, Judith Weir, Ladislav Kubik and Robert Suderburg.  He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

All this gives only the faintest hint of what his music sounds like.  In the three works represented here the listener will notice some influence of Bartok and mid-century modernism.  The first work “102nd and Amsterdam” (2005)  reflects a composer well schooled in writing for string instruments.  This piece is a string trio played by members of the Aeolus Quartet (Rachel Shapiro, violin; Greg Luce, viola; Alan Richardson, cello) and they are given a great deal to do.  This is an energetic piece which engages the listener immediately and doesn’t really let go until the end some 14 plus minutes later.

The writing is virtuosic and the variety of techniques employed in his string writing are engaging and never seem gratuitous (i.e. extended techniques because I can).  Despite multiple glissandi and other string effects the work, like the others on the album, are basically using the tonal language common to most western music.  This is seriously engaging and masterfully developed music.  It hooked this listener immediately.

The second work is Piano Quartet No. 1 (2009).  This is an even more visceral work true to Bartokian esthetics.  In its relatively brief 8 plus minutes the listener is taken on a virtuosic journey by the musicians of counter)induction (Jessica Meyer, viola; Sumire Kudo, cello; Steve Beck, piano)  They are joined by the wonderful Miranda Cuckson who steps out of her soloist role and moves deftly into this chamber group as the finest musicians can do.  Boyce cites influences as diverse as Robert Fripp and King Crimson but the details of that are not necessarily clear to this writer nor is it necessary to the appreciation of the work.  It is a powerful and exciting piece of chamber music.  This work left this listener a bit tired by the end (it is quite a workout) but the same ability to sustain interest and attention which applied to the first work is also present here.

Finally the Trio Cavatina (Harumi Rhodes, violin; Priscilla Lee, cello; leva Jokubaviciute, piano) presents a reading of the four movement “Fortuitous Variations” (2014).  This most recent composition is the big work on this disc.  The underpinnings, if you will, involve philosophical ideas and are elaborated well by the composer on his web site but, like the influences of the previous work, the music stands very well on it’s own.

There are four movements which seem to correspond (at least roughly) to the sonata form commonly used in such works.  Each maintains it’s character as said variations are rolled out and, as in the previous works, sustains interest easily.  This is perhaps a more ponderous work which is less direct than the previous two pieces but this most recent composition no doubt reflects the composer’s development and time will tell what direction his work will take.  There is, however, a sense that the composer has developed a personal style and is cultivating it.  Give a listen.

Most will want to hear these works multiple times.  This reviewer managed to find three separate drives which allowed uninterrupted listening to the entire disc and I know those three won’t be the last.

300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


stepanova

Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!

 

ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
(Sono Luminus DSL 92192)

For some years now I have greatly enjoyed the contemporary music coming out of the Nordic countries.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.  But I have also been aware of the truly rich musical culture of neighboring Iceland which, it seems, is less well known for its musical heritage.  Composers such as Jón Leifs and Thorkell Sigurbjornssen (among others) have created some wonderful music in the twentieth century that definitely needs to be heard more often and the present composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is certainly a rising star in the twenty-first century, a proud example of Iceland’s best

Þorvaldsdottir (in Icelandic script) was born in 1977 in Iceland.  She earned a B.A. in music composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, San Diego finishing in 2011.  She has received numerous awards, most recently the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012 for her orchestral work, “Dreaming” (2008).

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Her music can be found on 8 CD releases of which three, including the present disc, are devoted entirely to her works. The other two discs devoted to her music can be found on Deutsche Grammaphon  and, now only available as a digital download, a disc originally released on Bandcamp and now also available on Innova.  Worth noting is another disc on the Sono Luminus label that contains her chamber work, “Shades of Silence” (2012).  Here her work is presented along with that of several other Icelandic composers placing her in context with her peers.

In the Light of Air (2013-2014) is a five movement suite written for and performed by ICE (The International Contemporary Ensemble).  The work is scored for viola, piano, cello, percussion, fixed electronics and installation. There is an intended visual component here and there is a high definition video of a performance of this work on Vimeo.  It puts this reviewer in the mind of the work of George Crumb some of whose chamber works (Black Angels and Vox Balenae for example) require various stagings that are not conventional in standard chamber music performances.  You can judge for yourself as to whether the staging enhances the work but the music does stand on its own.

The five movements, Luminance, Serenity, Existence, Remembrance and Transitions flow seamlessly into one another evoking a dream-like, even impressionistic feeling.  It would appear that this composer has studied a great deal of compositional techniques and has integrated those most useful to her in her work.  We hear microtones, glissandi, harmonics, alternate tunings, vocalizations, drones, even some spectral passages.  But throughout these techniques do homage to the past by their use in this clearly 21 st Century music.  There is an overall mysterious, somber and meditative tone that seems to evoke the sometimes barren landscapes of the composer’s native Iceland.  She seems  to travel in sound worlds not too distant from Morton Feldman but also Pauline Oliveros with a dash of Debussy perhaps. I don’t know, but quality (and sometimes lack) of light north of the Arctic Circle must certainly affect the way people think and create.  But keep in mind that Iceland consistently makes the top ten lists for happiest countries in the world. Perhaps funding for the arts, such as they provide, contributes to that happiness.  When the result is music like this one can’t help but feel at least hopeful.

ICE executes the performance with their usual virtuosity and care adding another significant work to their large and growing repertoire of contemporary music.  The recording, in keeping with the Sono Luminus mission is lucid and detailed.  (Unfortunately I was unable to evaluate the DVD 5.1 audio which is included in this release.  I have no doubt that this is a great listening experience but that will have to wait until I upgrade my sound system.)

Having heard this disc and some of the excerpts of other works available on the composer’s web page I think this is an artist whose work certainly deserves attention and one whose star will no doubt rise further.   Kudos to Sono Luminus on promoting this music.  Highly recommended.