Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.  It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir.  It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent.  She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.

Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice.  Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century.  Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.

Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career.   She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career.  The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry.  Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.

In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.

ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

Manhattan in Charcoal, a chamber opera by Gene Pritsker


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Manhattan in Charcoal
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The efforts to establish a new and functional role for opera in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have produced a wide variety of styles.  One can certainly see the 1976 Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach as a landmark in these efforts in the conventional opera house but the development of chamber opera pioneered composers like recent National Medal of Arts winner Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman (both of whom created innovative works in this genre before Einstein) deserve attention as well.

This recording appears to fit into that tradition of chamber opera.  Manhattan in Charcoal (2014) by Gene Pritsker with libretto by poet Jacob Miller requires six singers and a narrator along with a chamber ensemble of about a dozen musicians.  I don’t know much about how this piece has been staged but it works well as theater for the ears.

I knew little of Pritsker’s work prior to receiving this disc for review and I read that his repertoire of techniques range rather widely from classical, to jazz, rock and rap influences.  So I embarked on a bit of a learning mission.  Fortunately I found his You Tube channel here.  I found his web site a bit too busy and distracting even if it does seem quite comprehensive.  (I dare you to try to sleep after confronting his oeuvre.)

Here is a man born in Russia, moved to Brooklyn at age 8 and attended the Manhattan School of Music graduating in 1994.  While there he teamed up with conductor Kristjan Järvi to create the Absolute Ensemble.   He counts approximately 500 compositions ranging from solo pieces to orchestral and vocal works.  My journey of learning left my head spinning but it was not an unpleasant spin.  Pritsker’s work incorporates jazz, rap, beat boxing and eclectic instrumentation as well.  He has been active in the Manhattan downtown scene and may very well be the next generation of musical magicians to successfully grace that hotbed of musical eclecticism.

His style is mostly tonal and any experiments appear to have been done prior to the composition of the present work.  I must say that his eclecticism and embrace of a wide variety of musical devices puts me in the mind of some of Stravinsky’s work at  times.  But Pritsker is not derivative, rather he wields a large pallete.

What we have here is a form of cabaret, well suited to small venues and friendly to audiences.  It is well within the style and practice of such music and this piece is a good example of the updating of those traditions with contemporary instruments, music and modern performance practice.

The story is not unlike that of La Bohéme and, though hardly Puccini from a musical perspective, is as much a reworking of that old gem as West Side  Story was a reworking of Romeo and Juliet.  Here, however, we don’t see the romantic guise of Puccini but rather the unnecessary tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet beset not by family rivalries but by economic and social realities and perhaps by the inability to see them for what they really are.

This is apparently the first opera (of six) by Pritsker for which he did not write the libretto.  I’m not sure what impact that has had on his overall effort but his ability to set the English language to music is admirable.  All in all a thoroughly satisfying little drama which leaves the audience questioning these issues much as the protagonist has done.

The Ensemble Formerly Known as Zeitgeist (?), Music by Scott Miller


Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

ADDENDUM:  Mr. Miller kindly supplied the correct composition dates for the pieces in this album and they have been placed in the text.  Also I was pleased to receive a link to their discography:(http://www.zeitgeistnewmusic.org/discography.html)  I hope that is a recent addition and not my oversight (apologies if it’s an oversight).

 

I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review as I am a long time fan of the Minnesota based Zeitgeist ensemble.  This varied ensemble has been a vital part of the new music scene in Minnesota since about 1977 (I still have some of their vinyl LPs).  Happily they are in the process of making these out of print items available again on CDs via their website.

Curiously there is very little on the ensemble’s web site or on the internet in general on the history of this group prior to about the year 2000  A Google search yields few references to this group and Discogs does not have much listed in their discography of Zeitgeist.  Their Wikipedia page is also in serious need of updating. The Innova records site is perhaps the most useful in identifying the albums released by this group in its various configurations and solo or other collaborations by its members (though the re-release of the older discs are not distributed there).  I realize that this group began in the pre-internet era but perhaps it is time to clarify this and present a comprehensive history and discography of this significant new music ensemble.

Scott Miller

Scott Miller

The present disc is a collection of recent works by Scott Miller, a Minnesota based composer and teacher whose association with Zeitgeist goes back to 1993.  He is currently the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro Acoustic Music in the United States) and professor of music at St. Cloud State University.  You can find his work on youtube and Sound Cloud.

Now let me say here that it is my observation that electroacoustic music, while not an uncommon genre, seems to be a specialized one which, like Zeitgeist, is not consistently well-promoted.  At least that is my explanation (excuse perhaps) for my limited knowledge of Mr. Miller’s music up to this point.

The CD is a collection of six tracks with vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw on tracks  2, 4 and 6.  Each track is a separate work and they are listed in the proper order on the back of the CD case but are discussed out of order in the notes for some reason.

But now I must stop my whining and criticisms (and thinly veiled references to Prince) and turn to the actual music. This is really wonderful music, well-performed and well worth your attention.  And if the term “electroacoustic” puts you off don’t worry.  What we have here is an artist who has managed to integrate a variety of techniques into an effective musical language that transcends mere experimentalism to yield some really good music.

The first piece, the one from which the album receives its title, is Tipping Point (2010) and was originally included on the SEAMUS CD Volume 20 (EAAM-2011).  This is a remixed and remastered version of that recording from 2010.  This writer hears echoes and homages to (or influences by, you decide which) Terry Riley, Steve Reich as well as perhaps Morton Subotnick and even the thornier sound of Mario Davidovsky at times.  To my ears this is an integration of many ideas which work effectively together.

The second track, Forth and Back (2003) is the longest track and is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli.  The setting is atmospheric, appropriate to the lovely texts and the vocal writing is simply beautiful.  Carrie Henneman Shaw delivers this work with the success of interpretation that one would expect of a musician who understands the composer’s intent.  Not an explicitly virtuosic piece it nonetheless challenges the performer with sotto voce passages that I imagine are quite a balancing act for a singer.  This is a beautiful piece and the fact of its electroacoustic aspects take on far less important place than the effectiveness of the setting.

Next up is Pure Pleasure (2008) is a percussion piece.  The composer goes into some detail in the notes as to the genesis of this piece and that is interesting but so is the act of listening to it.  This is one of the more obviously experimental works here.

Twilight (2008-13) is actually a portion of a larger work, a collaboration between Miller, Pat O’Keeffe and video artist Rosemary Williams called, The Cosmic Engine.  This is a multi-media chamber opera which premiered in 2008 and this section was revised in 2013.  The text is by Walt Whitman.  Again, Shaw does a lovely job with the lyrical vocal lines.

Funhouse (2003) is a marvelous use of electroacoustic methods.  It is a piece with rather complex origins as explained in the notes but, consistent with its title, this is a fun piece to hear and, I imagine, to play.  Along with the percussion piece it represents the more overtly experimental work of this artist.

The final track, Consortia (2013), as  with Twilight, is an outgrowth or by product of work on the multimedia opera, The Cosmic Engine.  Here the composer enlists computer processing to create a sort of live polyphony with live mixing of tracks of pre-recorded and live improvisational structures based on some renaissance tunes and techniques.  I will leave it to the listener to read through the technical details but the result is a pretty entertaining piece of music.

Zeitgeist does a wonderful job here playing with passion and dedication.  I can only hope that we hear more from both Zeitgeist and Mr. Miller.

The recording done at Wild Sound Recording Studio in Minneapolis (Mark Zimmerman, master engineer on tracks 1 and three; Steve Kaul, master engineer on tracks 2 and 4-6) is lucid and warm.  The art and design by Raul Keller makes for an attractive product.  This release from New Focus Recordings belongs in the collection of any new music fan and certainly every Zeitgeist fan.

End of an Era and a Summation: In the Mood for Food Dinner/Concert Series


Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland's Chapel of the Chimes.

Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.

For a variety of reasons I have not been able to spend any time with this blog for the last month or two but recent events tell me that I must find the time to get back online and publish.  My apologies to all who are awaiting reviews and such.  They will now be forthcoming.

This past Saturday night June 27, 2015 is among the last of this East Bay series which has been with us for the last 10 years.  Philip Gelb, vegan chef extraordinaire, shakuhachi player and teacher has announced that he will be relocating to New York in the next few months.

I personally discovered this series shortly after I moved to the bay area.  In a nondescript West Oakland neighborhood in a modest loft live/work space I found a vegan dinner which also featured a performance by Bay Area composer/performer Pamela Z.  One concert/dinner and I was hooked.   The opportunity to meet and hear many wonderful musicians and enjoy the amazing culinary magic was just too much to resist.  I have been a regular attendee at many of these concerts and they all are valued memories.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Phil, who studied music, ethnomusicology and shakuhachi has been a familiar performer in the Bay Area.  In addition to performing and teaching the Japanese bamboo flute, Phil has run a vegan catering business and began this series some ten years ago modeled on a creative music series founded in part by the late Sam Rivers.  As a musician Phil has gotten to know many talented and creative musicians who performed on his series.  Phil is a friendly, unpretentious man with great talents which he successfully combined here.

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Phil and sous chef Cori preparing the evening’s feast.

The 20 seats were sold out for the annual Masumoto Peach dinner.  At the peak of the harvest each year Phil has put together multiple course dinners featuring locally grown organic peaches from the now four generation Masumoto family orchard near Fresno .  In fact a recent film (information on the Masumoto page linked above) has been made about them called, “Changing Seasons” and one of the filmmakers was in attendance.  There was a short discussion with Q and A at one point.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

No music this night but wonderful food and friendly conversations filled the evening.  The meal began with, of course, a taste of the actual peaches.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

The next course, a peach tomato gazpacho.

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Followed by a grilled peach salad with cashew cheese balls, arugula radicchio,, pickled red onions, and a cherry balsamic dressing.

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Oh, yes, a nice Chimay to quench the thirst.

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And then tempeh char siu wontons (from the local Rhizocali Tempeh), flat tofu noodles, a really great hot peach mustard and peach sweet and sour sauce.

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The main course: peach grilled seitan, peach barbecue sauce, roasted corn and peppers, and some crunchy fried okra.

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And, for dessert, peach rosewater cake with peach walnut sorbet.  As is his custom Phil went around offering more of that sorbet which most folks, present writer  included, availed themselves.

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

But, as I said, this tradition is coming to an end.  Not to fear, however.  Phil is in the process of writing a cookbook sharing the secrets of his culinary mastery and the book will also document some of the many musicians whose talents graced many an evening here.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil's loft a few years ago.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil’s loft a few years ago.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

So this little sampling of photos provides some idea of the scope and significance of this series.  Happily it is being documented in a book for which an Indiegogo campaign is presently in process.  You can donate and receive any or many of a variety of perks ranging from a copy of the book for $40 and perks including an invitation to celebratory dinners planned in both New York and Oakland.  My copy and my dinner invite are reserved.

There are 34 days left in the campaign at the time of this writing and the project is now at 106% of its funding goal.  This is a piece of Bay Area music and culinary history that will please music enthusiasts and those who appreciate creative vegan cuisine.

Here is a list of musicians taken from the campaign site to give you an idea of the scope of the series:

Tim Berne – alto saxophone (Brooklyn)

Shay Black – voice, guitar (Berkeley via Ireland)

Cornelius Boots shakuhachi/bass clarinet

Monique Buzzarte – trombone, electronics (NYC)

Chris Caswell (2) – harp (Berkeley)

Stuart Dempster – trombone (Seattle)

Robert Dick (flute) NYC

Mark Dresser (2) – bass (Los Angeles)

Mark Dresser/Jen Shyu duet – bass, voice/dance

Sinan Erdemsel – oud (Istanbul)

Sinan Erdemsel/ Sami Shumay duet – oud, violin

Gianni Gebbia – saxophones (Palermo, Italy)

Vinny Golia- winds (Los Angeles)

Lori Goldston – cello (Seattle)

Frank Gratkowski (2) – clarinets, alto sax (Berlin)

Daniel Hoffman/Jeanette Lewicki duet violin, voice/accordion (Berkeley, Tel Aviv)

Shoko Hikage – koto (Japan-San Francisco)

Yang Jing – pipa (Beijing)

Kaoru Kakizakai (4) – shakuhachi (Tokyo)

Marco Lienhard shakuhachi (Zurich-NYC)

Mari Kimura – violin, electronics (Tokyo-NYC)

Yoshio Kurahashi (5) – shakuhachi (Kyoto)

Joelle Leandre – contrabass (Paris)

Oliver Lake – alto sax (NYC)

Riley Lee (2) shakuhachi (Australia)

Jie Ma – pipa (China, LA)

Thollem Mcdonas Jon Raskin duet piano/sax (wanderer/Berkeley)

Roscoe Mitchell – alto, soprano saxophones (Oakland)

David Murray – tenor sax (Paris)

Michael Manring (5) – electric bass (Oakland)

Hafez Modirzadeh – winds (San Jose)

John Kaizan Neptune – shakuhachi (Japan)

Rich O’Donnell – percussion (St. Louis)

Pauline Oliveros (2) – accordion (NY)

Tim Perkis/John Bischoff duet computers (Berkeley)

Barre Phillips solo and duet with Mark Dresser – contrabass (France)

Alcvin Ramos shakuhachi (Vancouver)

Tim Rayborn/Annette duet oud, strings, recorders (Berkeley/Germany)

Jon Raskin/Liz Albee duet sax/trumpet (Berkeley/Berlin)

Jane Rigler – flute (Colorado)

Gyan Riley (5) – guitar (NYC)

Terry Riley (2) – voice, harmonium (universe)

Diana Rowan (2) – harp (Berkeley/Ireland)

Bon Singer/Shira Kammen duet (voice, violin) (Berkeley)

LaDonna Smith/India Cooke duet (2) violin, viola (Birmingham, AL, Oakland)

Lily Storm/Diana Rowan – voice, harp (Oakland/Ireland)

Lily Storm/Dan Cantrell (2) – voice/accordion (Oakland)

Howard Wiley – tenor Saxophone solo and duet with Faye Carol voice

Theresa Wong/ Ellen Fullman duet

Amy X (3) – voice, electronics (Oakland)

Pamela Z – voice, electronics (San Francisco)

The South Shore by Michael Vincent Waller, Radicalism in Context


In 1976 the premiere of Henryk Gorecki‘s tonal and melodic 3rd Symphony stood out as unusual in the context of the usual avant-garde fare heard at the annual Warsaw Autumn Festival.  I recall a similar experience when I first heard the music of Lou Harrison given his association with Henry Cowell and John Cage.  It was not what I expected to hear.

This young composer graciously sent me a copy of this, his major label debut for me to review. I noted that it was on the Experimental Intermedia label which was founded by Phill Niblock and is known for recording of a great deal of challenging and interesting avant-garde music by various composers including Phil Niblock, Jackson Mac Low, Guy Klucevsek, Ellen Fullman, David Behrman and many others. I have been a great fan of this record label for many years and own most of their titles.  But what I heard listening to this beautiful 2 disc set of relatively short pieces mostly for acoustic instruments seems radical in the context of this label’s usual fare.

The Southern Shore  XI  136

The South Shore
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Don’t get me wrong.  This does not appear to be conservative music.  Waller has studied with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Bunita Marcus giving him a healthy pedigree in the avant-garde.  Indeed his earlier works were concerned with alternate tunings.  By earlier works, of course, I am only referring to a few years before the present music under consideration here because this composer, not yet 30, is presenting a fully developed sound.  Here he is concerned with alternate scales, church modes as opposed to the western diatonic scales.  There are a few instances of the use of quarter tones but, for the most part, he seems concerned with exploring the impact of different modes within the tuning of equal temperament which dominates western music.

For all the technical interest one might have in analyzing this composer’s use of modes the important thing here is the emotional impact of the music.  These frequently somber but beautiful melodies and motives speak very directly to the listener, at least this listener anyway.  This two disc set provides an excellent survey of the composer’s output over the last two or three years.

The titles are somewhat enigmatic and reflect a very personal approach.  He does not seem concerned with classical forms nor is he apparently opposed to them.  Again analysis will not reveal as much as just listening.  He creates beautiful contours of almost vocal quality at times.  I am given to wonder how he will confront music for voices and imagine that his style will serve him well.  I am tempted to compare him to Arvo Part perhaps but I don’t want to suggest that his work is derivative or, for that matter, even influenced by Part’s work.  I just get a similar feeling listening to Waller’s music.

This disc of chamber music for mostly acoustic instruments employs quite of few fine musicians who seem to be inspired to play their best by this music.  Pianists include Yael Manor, Charity Wicks, Nicolas Horvath and Marija Ilic.  Violinists include Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim-Harris, Jessica Park and Esther Noh.  Violists are Daniel Panner, Cyprien Busolini and Erin Wight.  On cello we hear Christine Kim, Deborah Walker and Clara Kennedy.  Carson Cooman is featured on Organ.  Flautists are Amélie Berson, Itay Lantner and Luna Cholang Kang.  Pierre Stéphane Meugé plays alto sax, Didier Aschour plays electric guitar (the only non-acoustic instrument on this recording), Thierry Madiot plays trombone, Katie Porter is on clarinet and Devin Maxwell plays percussion.  All play in various groupings from solo to small chamber ensembles.

The detailed and very helpful liner notes are by “Blue” Gene Tyrrany aka Robert Sheff.  The beautiful cover was photographed by Phill Niblock.

This is an album of miniatures with no track lasting longer than about ten minutes though there are works which are cast in several movements.  The pieces were all written in the last 4 years and constitute an excellent survey of this emerging talent.

Philip Gelb’s Gourmet Vegan with Joelle Leandre in the East Bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

On Sunday February 15th I had the pleasure of attending one of my favorite underground restaurant/performance venues in West Oakland.  In a nondescript neighborhood of light industry, warehouses and loft spaces Philip Gelb has been running “In the Mood for Food” (a take of the title of one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love”) his occasional dinner/concert series since 2005.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip is an amazing vegan chef as well as a shakuhachi player/teacher whose cuisine is known to a fortunate group of people which includes this writer.  Combining incredibly creative dishes sometimes at the behest of a given artist (Amy X Neuberg requested a “purple” theme and got it when she appeared ) with his wide network of artist friends, many of whom he has performed with.  Phil has been doing these occasional events with a maximum audience of about 20 people (including the featured performer) at a rate of at least once every month or two.

Potato Sorrel Soup

Potato Sorrel Soup

First let me say that I am not a vegan but if vegan fare always tasted this good I could easily make the transition (OK, I would have a hard time giving up pizza) to vegan fare.  Phil’s fresh locally shopped ingredients are transformed by his gustatory alchemy into a variety of delectable dishes in a wide range of cuisines.  His network in gourmet vegan food practitioners is rivaled only by his musical network.  Japanese is one of his specialties but I have personally partaken of various middle eastern and Caribbean cuisines with equal satisfaction.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn't get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn’t get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

This night’s selection featured a creamy Potato Sorrel Soup followed by a salad plate consisting of rich Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate, a freshly baked Homemade Rosemary Bread with Salad Greens and a tart Citrus Dressing. The main course consisted of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards, all very tasty and very filling.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards.  It tastes even better than it looks in Phil's characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards. It tastes even better than it looks in Phil’s characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

A feast such as this could not easily be upstaged but, in the little break before the dessert course, we were treated to a wonderful performance by Joëlle Léandre, the French Double Bass virtuoso, singer and composer whose work traverses a wide range of musical genre from John Cage to free jazz and categories that defy easy classification.  She has amassed a discography of over 100 albums to date and has performed with artists including Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey, Barre Phillips (who appeared at this series a couple of years ago), Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, India Cooke (also one of Phil’s previous guest artists), Evan Parker, Irene Schweizer, Steve Lacy, Maggie Nicols, Fred Frith, Carlos Zingaro, John Zorn, Susie Ibarra, J.D. Parran, Kevin Norton, Sylvie Courvoisier and Pauline Oliveros (another recently appearing artist at this series).  Oh, and she has also performed and recorded with Mr. Gelb.

Leandre is a friendly and engaging person both in her playing and in conversation and we all had opportunities to speak with her and experience her charming personality as she related various observations and anecdotes.  These dinner/concerts are a uniquely intimate experience which you cannot get in the average concert setting.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Ms. Léandre treated us with three separate improvisations in which she demonstrated her facility with a wide range of double bass techniques including various bowing techniques, pizzicati, percussive techniques and wordless vocals that mixed seamlessly with her very intense and passionate performances.  Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to really describe with any accuracy the music we experienced this night.  But suffice it to say that it was played in a manner that communicated very effectively with the very appreciative audience.  I asked her if she always plays with such passion and she rather matter of factly simply said, “yes”.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound  tapestry driven by Joelle's passionate playing.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound tapestry driven by Joelle’s passionate playing.

I was so taken with the performances that I failed to get a photo of the delicious dessert course which consisted of a Waffle Sundae comprised of a very fresh chocolate-buckwheat waffle covered with chocolate pistachio ice cream, maple walnuts and chocolate port sauce.  An amazing vegan sweet treat enjoyed by all.

The clearly happy audience lingered to talk with each other, with Phil and sous chef Cori as well as with Ms. Leandre who had a great selection of recent CDs and a couple of books available for purchase which she graciously signed.  Overall this was an extremely satisfying evening, certainly for this blogger and clearly for the other guests but also for our wonderful performer who left to get some sleep before her scheduled performances tomorrow at the Berkeley Arts Festival.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

 

 

2014 in review


The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Notes From the Underground, A major new recording of Anthony Davis’ orchestral music


Album cover

Album cover

In March, 2014 the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released Notes From the Underground, a major retrospective recording of the composer’s work for large ensembles.  The recording includes Notes from the Underground (1988) a two movement work for orchestra, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) a concerto for clarinet and contra-alto clarinet and Kurzweil processor and a new recording of the piano concerto Wayang No. 5 (1984) with the composer as soloist.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is conducted by Gil Rose.

There are liner notes by the composer and also by the great musician/composer/historian George Lewis (and a frequent musical collaborator with Davis).  The notes are relatively brief but contain a wealth of information and provide useful insights into both the musical processes and the sociopolitical forces that drive Davis’ music.  Davis describes his compositional processes and Lewis, a frequent musical collaborator,  places the music in historic and sociopolitical contexts.

Only the Wayang No. 5 has had a previous recording.  It was one of the two works included on the Gramavision release which included the equally engaging Violin Concerto “Maps” (1988) written for and performed by violinist Shem Guibbory.  The concerto reflects Davis’ interest in jazz as well as his study of gamelan music from whence comes the title “Wayang”. Davis has written a series of compositions for various combinations of instruments titled sequentially Wayang No. 1, No. 2, etc.  The term refers to the shadow puppet theater of  Bali which are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, an ensemble largely of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments.  Davis studied gamelan music and wrote six compositions (so far) titled Wayang of which the fifth is the piano concerto on this recording.

Wayang No. V is the earliest composition on the disc and consists of four movements.  Opening-Dance begins with an improvisatory section with the pianist playing over unresolved harmonies in the orchestra which then leads to the main section of the movement which is characterized by ostinati in the orchestra as well as on the piano.  There is a seamless transition to the second movement Undine, a slow movement with an impressionistic feel.  March also begins without pause from the previous movement.  It is a scherzo like piece where the polyrhythmic structures are quite clear.   The finale, Keçak, a reference to the monkey chant in the ritual enactment of a scene from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.  It begins with a long solo piano introduction followed  by a sort of dialog between the piano and several percussion instruments.  Davis demonstrates his virtuosity here in writing that is indebted as much to gamelan as it is to jazz and modernism from Schoenberg to Bartok, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Thelonius Monk.

This is a concerto that is more concerned more with expression than empty virtuosity though the piano part could hardly be called easy.  I am amazed that there have been no pianists who have added this wonderful piece to their repertory.  It is a very entertaining piece of music making.

The title track is the orchestral composition, Notes from the Underground (1988).  It is a two movement work dedicated to the writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for his National Book Award winning novel The Invisible Man (1952).   The title evokes Dostoevsky’s existential 1864 novel as well as Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). The composer describes it as a “riff” on Duke Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937).  It is, to this listener, a grand set of orchestral variations.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first movement, Shadow, is described by the composer as one that introduces fragments which will be heard in the second movement.  It features a prominent solo for the percussionist.  The second movement, Act is the longer of the two and is described as being written in ten steps with an elaborate polyrhythmic structures described in more detail in the accompanying notes. The writing here probably comes as close to minimalist or process music as anything the composer has done.  It is not minimalism per se  but it is perhaps proto-minimalist techniques whose roots are at least partly in jazz as musicologist Robert Fink suggests.   It produces a ritualistic and meditative feel to this richly orchestrated, reverent and mysterious sounding piece.   It is a fitting tribute to a great American man of letters as well as to the great composer Duke Ellington.

The concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) is the most recent as well as the most overtly political piece on the album and it is a gem.  It is written for clarinet doubling alto clarinet and a Kurzweil synthesizer/sampler and orchestra.  Longtime collaborator, the wonderful J. D. Parran  plays the clarinets winding his way through a balanced hybrid of styles including bebop, modern classical and free jazz styles comprising rhythmic complexity and multiphonics.  One could hardly imagine a soloist better suited for this music.  Earl Howard plays the Kurzweil which intones sampled speech of words from the Miranda Rights which are supposed to be presented at the time of an arrest.  Here they are presented strategically in poetic dialogue with the music controlled by the keyboard player.

Here again the individual movements have their own titles poetically referencing the issues which the composer attempts to invoke in this piece. He says in his notes, “I tried to approach ‘silence’ as, rather than John Cage’s apolitical world of ‘white privilege’, a much more dangerous place.”  The first, Interrogation, is intended to evoke the clarinet as being interrogated by the orchestra.  The second, Loss  features an improvised duet between the Kurzweil and the clarinet.  It ends with an homage to Charles Mingus, a major influence on Davis.  The third, Incarceration includes more text from the Miranda and the Kurzweil processes both the words and the clarinet solo.   And finally, Dance of the Other, intending to evoke the fantasy and the feeling of otherness and presumably alienation.

It is a concerto in the classical sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra and it seamlessly blends various classical and jazz harmonies and techniques which challenge the expertise of the soloist.  All the while it clearly presents a political context which meditates on the inhumanities and inequalities inherent in our “correctional” system and in our society as a whole.  As political music it lies within a grand tradition taking a place beside earlier masterpieces of that genre like Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968) and Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).  And as a concerto it is a challenge to the soloist and a delight to the listener.

This is a wonderful disc, well recorded and performed.  It presents some amazing and substantial music by one of the living treasures of American composers.  Anthony Davis has had a long and influential presence on the American music scene in his jazz performances as well as his chamber and orchestral music.  His operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Amistad(1997 ) and the more recent Wakonda’s Dream (2007) have been performed to critical acclaim. Hopefully this recording will introduce people to this composer’s works and remind those already familiar with the power and depth of Davis’ music.  Bravo to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for bringing this music to the listening public.  I hope the major orchestras and theaters and recording companies are paying attention so we can hear more from this still too little known composer.

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Music 109, Alvin Lucier’s personal view of the post 50s avant garde


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This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.

In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).

What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.

This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.

Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?

Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.