My 2018 in the Arts


One of the Theater Organs at House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI, a really fun place to visit.


I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.

Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.

This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.

Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.


The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.

Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.

And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.

One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.

Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.

OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.

Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.

Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.

This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.

I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.

I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.

Steven Kemper’s Mythical Spaces


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Ravello Records RR 7980

It is this writer’s opinion that the category “electro-acoustic” carries such a wide range of connotations that it is of limited use to a listener.  This album is so characterized and here simply means that both electronics and acoustic instruments are used.  Even the concept of electronic music is difficult since such a designation. Playlists on Spotify and iTunes usually points the listener to a form of pop/dance music if you search for electronic.  Further complicating things (and I think this is at least in part the point here) the electronics here include fixed media (electronics which does what it is programmed to do and does not interact with the performers or simply plays alone) and robotic electronics as well as electronics which interacts with the performer.  You will have to check the composer’s web page for more information on what exactly the “robotic” media are.

This is cutting edge in the sense that it is experimenting with new media in combination with more traditional media (and simple electronics is now “traditional media” having been superseded by the new fangled).  The actual sound of this music seems to inhabit a rather spare sound world akin perhaps to that of late Morton Feldman but with more brevity. These pieces last from 1.5-10 minutes on average and demand some concentration on the part of the listener.  Think maybe a cross between Feldman, Webern and say Subotnick.

Now one could conceivably play this music at a low volume in the manner of so-called “ambient” music. There are not many dynamic changes here to take you away from that sort of reverie.  But that does not really seem to be the composer’s intention. These are concentrated little essays, each seeming to explore the parameters of its context, fixed media, live instruments, robotic media, and combinations of these.

Steven Kemper is a new name to this writer.  His education and wide interests are available on his web site.  While he has an impressive bibliography with cutting edge research interests in music and sound this appears to be his first CD.

There are 15 tracks which comprise 5 works.  Mythical Spaces (2010) is for percussion with fixed media in 5 separate movements.  Breath (2015) is for fixed media alone in one movement.  Lament (2015) is also in one movement and is scored for flute with interactive media.

The longest single movement comprises In Illo Tempore (2012 rev 2017) is scored for saxophone, bassoon, AMI (automated monochord instrument), and CARI (cylindrical aerophone robotic instrument).  It clocks in at 7:48.

Last but not least is The Seven Stars (2012) for amplified prepared piano in 7 movements.

Live performers include Mark Truesdell, percussion; Wayla Chambo, flute; David Wegenlaupt, saxophone, Dana Jessen, bassoon, and Aurie Hsu, prepared piano.

This is music which requires some serious concentration from the listener.  Hearing/seeing this live might provide some additional aspects due to these strange electronic/robotic instruments but the point here seems to be one of an inner voyage which, if you focus you listening energy, transports you into this composer’s imaginary spaces.  Whether you will enjoy this or not is difficult to say but it is certainly worth the effort.

 

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


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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!

 

The Piano is Calling Me: Nicolas Horvath’s New Music Pilgrimages


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Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces.  That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.

Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions.  He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.

His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass.  He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.

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The artist standing in one of his installations.

We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014.  I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep.  But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”.  What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.”  It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage.  The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.

Nicolas Horvath (c) Jean Thierry Boisseau

Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)

Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning.  He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.

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Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.

Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977.  He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École  Normale de Musique de Paris.  At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.

In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs.  He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine.  Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified.  Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work.  He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.

Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music.  He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005),  some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted  in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold.  Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.

Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds.  Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances.  Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience.  He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score.  It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm.  At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.

His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog.  And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.

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The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra.  His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution.  This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm.  The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.

His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012.  It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer.  This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works.  It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes.  (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.).   He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos.  At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released.  He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.

I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive.  He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects.  And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself.  Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.

A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works.  Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height.  Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents.  His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.

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Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

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Hortus Records 100 (2012)

A very unusual choice for a debut recording.  Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work.  He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions.  One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.

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Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.

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Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall.  These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.

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Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres.  Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.

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Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.

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Demerara Records (2016)

Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

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Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music.  Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..

Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music  while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire.  The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls.  He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B.  Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.

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.

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)

Game of the Antichrist, a spectacular new music drama by Robert Moran


 

Cover of Game of the Antichrist

Game of the Antichrist (Innova 251)

 

Despite the title, this is neither a Stephen King adaptation or that of a given miniseries.  This is an actual medieval mystery play which was performed to disseminate religious ideas during that period.  The medieval passion plays are better known but eclectic composer Robert Moran managed to find an actual drama and added to it his unique blend of experimentalism, minimalism, jazz and lyrical melodies to create this visually and musically striking (there is a Video here) setting of this forgotten little play.

Moran (1937- ) studied in Vienna with Hans Erich Apostel, a student of both Berg and Schoenberg.  He earned a master’s degree from Mills College having studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.  He has produced everything from electronic music, to happenings involving whole cities and has written in musical styles derived from chance operations to minimalism and is not afraid to write beautiful melodies.  His collaboration with Philip Glass in The Juniper Tree (1985) is a fine example of his facility with vocal writing and music drama.

This drama is performed in a cathedral space and Moran takes advantage of the resonant space by the inclusion of Alphorns, harp and organ whose tones are transformed in part by that space.  Musical styles vary suited to the unfolding drama and work well with the staging of the piece.

Moran, who professes a love of opera since about the age of 9 or 10 has a great sense of the dramatic and for beautiful vocal writing.  He says he listens to operas all the time.  His 2011 Trinity Requiem was written for similar forces and performed in a similarly resonant space also to great effect.  And his sense of eclecticism allows him to select from a wide variety of musical styles and effects.

The end result is, for this reviewer, a very successful integration of the composer’s various skills and influences.  It would be hard to imagine a better setting of this piece.  He starts with an anonymous text from Quirinus Monastery Cloister Tegernsee in Bavaria ca. 1150 and, with Alexander Hermann, creates a realization for performance.  The piece is scored for children’s chorus, vocal ensemble, soprano, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, oboe, english horn, Alp horn, Bar piano and organ.  In addition there are two other defined ensembles consisting of harp (representing the Heathen and his Babylonian followers), guitar, recorders and synthesizer (representing the Synagogue and Jerusalem), trumpets, horn, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion (representing the Church and its Devotees).

There are roles for dancers and, in the performance depicted on the CD cover, choreography by Jarkko Lehmus and Bettina Hermann design by George Veit and menacing puppets created by Fabian Vogel.  Unfortunately there are no current plans to release a DVD of this work but settling for the music alone is hardly a terrible sacrifice.  Moran brings his eclectic musical range, knowledge of opera and music theater combined with careful selection of dramatic text to create a piece that can work as aural theater as well.

The disc concludes with another piece, Within a Day (2014), of aural theater which, in this case, has no specified stage actions.  It is a collaboration with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, Edward Shocker’s improvisational ensemble.  It is an example of Moran’s ability to write less determined music as well as his ability to collaborate with other creative artists.  The piece premiered at San Francisco’s Center for New Music in January, 2014 and subsequently recorded in Lisser Hall at Mills College in May, 2014.  It is a collective improvisation based on what appears to be an indeterminate score by the composer.

This is a clearly different music with more abstract aims and it contrasts strangely with the music drama but this is a good example of Moran’s facility with the art of composition as well as collaboration (Can you get more collaborative as a composer than an indeterminate score?).  This more ambient sort of music is a little sonic theater for the mind based loosely on Moran’s interest in Tibetan texts invoking the gods and goddesses through their chants.

This disc made one of my best of 2014 and I highly recommend it for listeners interested in music drama and sound theater.

Composers of Northern California, Other Minds 19


OM 19, the final bow.  Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

OM 19, the final bow. Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

This past Friday and Saturday the San Francisco Jazz Center hosted the 19th annual Other Minds Festival concerts.  This is the first year not to feature an international roster.  Instead the focus was on composers from northern California.  (Strictly speaking these composers’ creative years and present residence is northern California.)  It was not a shift in policy but a focus on a less generally well known group of artists who have not enjoyed the exposure of east coast composers but have produced a formidable body of work that deserves at least a fair assessment.  In fact these concerts presented a fascinating roster of composers from essentially three generations.

The first generation represented was one which came of age in the fabled 1960s and included electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, AACM founding member Roscoe Mitchell and proto-minimalist Joseph Byrd.  The second was represented by Wendy Reid, Myra Melford and John Bischoff.  And the youngest generation by Mark Applebaum and Charles Celeste Hutchins.

The program opened on Friday night with a sort of pantomime work by Stanford associate professor of music Mark Applebaum.  The piece, called Aphasia (2010) consists of an electronic score to which the composer, seated in a chair, responds with a variety of carefully choreographed gestures.  The result was both strange and humorous.  The audience was both amused and appreciative.

Applebaum's Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble.  Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble. Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s graphic score Metaphysics of Notation (2008) was projected overhead while the ensemble played their interpretations of that score.  The ensemble, dubbed the Other Minds Ensemble, consisted of most of the composers who participated in the festival including Mr. Amirkhanian displaying his facility with  a percussion battery among other things.  (Presumably Roscoe Mitchell, who was reportedly not feeling well, would have joined the ensemble as well.)  Mr. Applebaum was conspicuously absent perhaps so as to not unduly influence the proceedings.

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble's interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble’s interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

The piece was full of minimal musical gestures, humorous events like ribbons strewn across the stage and the popping of little party favors that emitted streamers.  The ensemble appeared to have a great deal of fun with this essentially indeterminate score which they are instructed to interpret in their own individual  ways.  It was a rare opportunity to see and hear Mr. Amirkhanian (who is a percussionist by training) as well as an opportunity for the other composer/performers to demonstrate their skills and their apparent affinity for this type of musical performance.  Again the audience was both amused and appreciative.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

The third piece by Applebaum featured the composer with his invented instrument and electronics playing on a balcony stage right with a projection of himself on the big screen.  He produced a wide variety of sounds from his fanciful computer controlled contraption that seemed to please the audience.  This is the kind of unusual genre-breaking events which tend to characterize an Other Minds concert.

The second composer of the night was the elusive Joseph Byrd who is perhaps best known for his cult classic album The American Metaphysical Circus by Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies from 1969.  A previous band, The United States of America released a self-titled album which received critical acclaim in 1968.  Both are apparently out of print but available through Amazon.

Joe Byrd studied music with Barney Childs and worked with La Monte Young, cellist Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono and Jackson Mac Low.  Byrd went on to produce a great deal of music by others and also wrote music for films and television but his own compositions have only come to light again recently with the release of a New World CD released in 2013 which presents his work from 1960-63.  Mr. Amirkhanian said that it was this disc that got him interested in inviting Byrd to Other Minds (Byrd also taught at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.).

This is the sort of musical archeology for which Other Minds has become known.  Amirkhanian is known for his ability to find and bring to performance and recordings music which has been unjustly neglected.  Hopefully this appearance will be followed by more releases of Byrd’s other music as well.

Byrd was represented here by performances of Water Music (1963) for percussionist and tape with Alan Zimmerman (who was one of the producers of the New World album) played the spare percussion part which integrated well with the analog electronic tape.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd's Water Music.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd’s Water Music.

A second piece, Animals (1961) was performed by the brilliant and eclectic bay area pianist Sarah Cahill with Alan Zimmerman and Robert Lopez on percussion and the fiercely talented Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Richard Shinozaki, violins, Charlton Lee, viola and Kathryn Bates Williams, cello).  This was another piece with soft, mostly gentle musical gestures involving a prepared piano and predominantly percussive use of the string players.  It was interesting to contemplate how this long unheard music must have sounded in 1961 but it was clear that it communicated well with the audience on this night.

Animals (1961)

Animals (1961)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

Following intermission we heard two pieces by Mills composer/performer John Bischoff.  The first was Audio Combine (2009) which featured Bischoff on this laptop producing a variety of digitally manipulated sounds.  It was followed by Surface Effect (2011) with creative lighting effects/animations that nicely complemented the laptop controlled analog circuitry.  Bischoff’s music is generally gentle and clear.  It belies the complexity of its genesis in state of the art computer composition and performance for which he is so well known.

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

All this led to the final performance of the evening by Don Buchla whose modular synthesizers were developed in the early 1960s with input from Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Buchla also designed the sound system for Ken Kesey’s bus “Furthur” which featured in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

The conclusion of Friday’s program consisted of the American premiere of a Drop by drop by Don Buchla for Buchla 200e, electronically controlled “piano bar”  (another Buchla invention) and film projection.  The film was made in collaboration with bay area film maker Sylvia Matheus.  The sequence of images began with a dripping faucet and proceeded to a waterfall and then to emerging pictures of birds all the while accompanied by the various sounds from the synthesizer and the piano.

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Nannick and Donald Buchla receiving warm applause from the audience.

The Saturday night performances began with Charles Celeste Hutchins and his laptop improvising system.  Hutchins, a San Jose native, describes his system as related to Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system and utilizes a live graphic interface which the computer uses to trigger sound events.

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

The drawings were projected onto the overhead screen.  There seemed to be a somewhat indirect correlation between the drawings and the resultant sounds and much of the tension of this performance derived from wondering what sounds would result when the cursor reached that particular drawing object.  The audience is basically watching the score as it is being written, a rather unique experience and the Other Minds audience clearly appreciated the uniqueness.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

John Schott and his Actual Trio then took the stage to perform his own brand of jazz which seemed to be a combination of free jazz, Larry Coryell and perhaps even Jerry Garcia.  But these descriptions are merely fleeting impressions and are not intended to detract from some really solid and inspired music making.  After the conclusion of the set this listener half expected an encore.

But the program moved on toWendy Reid’s performance as we watched the stage being set up with music stands, some electronic equipment and a parrot in a cage.

Tree Piece #55 "lulu variations" with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Tree Piece #55 “lulu variations” with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Reid’s Tree Pieces are an ongoing set of compositions incorporating nature sounds with live performance.  This is not unlike some of Pauline Oliveros’ work in that it involves careful listening by the musicians who react within defined parameters to these sounds.

Lulu the parrot appeared nervous and did a lot of preening but did appear to respond at times.  The musicians responded with spare notes on violin and muted trumpet.  It was a whimsical experience which stood in stark contrast to the more declarative music of the previous trio but at least some of  the audience, apparently prepared for such contrasts, was appreciative.

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

The diminutive figure of Myra Melford took command of the piano and the hearts of the audience in her rendition of several pieces from her recent CD.  She played sometimes forcefully with thunderous forearm cluster chords and sometimes with extreme delicacy but always with rapt attention to her music.  Her set received a spontaneous standing ovation from a clearly roused audience.  She is a powerful but unpretentious musician who clearly communicates well with her audience.

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran  following their performance of Noonah (2013)

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran following their performance of Noonah (2013)

The finale of OM 19 was the world premiere of an Other Minds commission, the version for four bass saxophones of Roscoe Mitchell’s Noonah (pronounced no nay ah).  It is the latest incarnation of a piece of music that Mitchell describes as having taken on a life of its own.  It exists now in several different versions from chamber groups to orchestra.

The piece is vintage Roscoe Mitchell, a combination of free jazz and sometimes inscrutable compositional techniques which clearly enthralled the very focused performers.  What the piece seemed to lack in immediate emotional impact it made up in mysterious invention which was brought out grandly by the very experienced and committed players.

Mitchell, who was not able to attend on the previous night, appeared rather tired but played with a focus and enthusiasm that matched his fellow musicians.  Like all of Mitchell’s music there is a depth and complexity that is not always immediately evident but does come with repeated listenings and performances.

Thus concluded another very successful edition of Other Minds.  Now we look forward to the gala 20th anniversary coming up in March, 2015.

 

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

In the Mood for Food, a unique underground dinner/concert series returns to the east bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

This past Monday October 7th there was a gathering of twelve people at a small loft space in West Oakland.  This is not a neighborhood known for about anything but light industry and cheaper rents.  But there are gems to be found in nasty old Oakland, CA and this is one of them.  It was the return of an irregular (approximately monthly) series of dinners and dinner concerts hosted by local vegan caterer and chef extraordinaire (and shakuhachi teacher as well) Philip Gelb.  These concerts, according to Mr. Gelb, were inspired by the Creative Music Studio which flourished in Woodstock, New York from 1971 to 1984 which featured many of the brightest and most innovative musicians in jazz, free improvisation and experimental music.  But the inclusion of such high quality creative cooking is unique here.

View through a glass, lightly.

View through a glass, lightly.

It has been many months since he last hosted one of these at his loft space.  Phil has chosen to combine his substantial cooking talents with his interest and connections with the music community to create this unique blend of freshly shopped and created vegan dishes with local and visiting musical talent.  This series, dubbed “In The Mood for Food”, is named after one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-Wai.  The series has occurred more or less monthly for the last 8 years. To date I have enjoyed the creative and varied multi-course meals (which are frequently themed to the season or to the performer’s preferences) and have enjoyed both dinner conversation and performances by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Gyan Riley, Tim Rayborn, Michael Manring, Barre Phillips, Mark Dresser, Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z to name just a few.

The meals are always multi-course, locally created, sourced and shopped meticulously by Phil himself.  He serves only farm fresh ingredients, never canned or packaged and the recipes are his personal creations.  Food is served by the chef and one or two assistants depending on the size of the audience (maximum capacity is about 20 people).  Cost ranges from $40 to $60 per person, about what you would pay at a good area restaurant.  The musicians are either people with whom Phil has collaborated or found by word of mouth from other musicians and friends.  He has had many musicians call him to ask if they can play at his venue.  Why would that be?  There is no significant publicity or profit to be had here.  The answer, I believe, is the intimacy which is a combination of the loving creation of both food and music, both raised to an art form by their execution as well as their content.

There is reportedly a cook book in the works which, in addition to many carefully tested vegan recipes, will tell some of the history of this series.  Phil is occasionally soliciting recipe testers via Facebook.  He is also known for his hands on cooking classes.

As it happened, Monday’s event did not include music but it did include some familiar faces who I frequently encounter at these dinners as well as an overall interesting collection of guests who make for great conversation and frequently share their BYOB offerings.  In fact the bartender from the great San Francisco vegan restaurant, ‘Millenium’, asked to attend and to prepare some delicious cocktails specially designed by him and incorporating some of the food ingredients to enhance the experience.  Two of the guests were the operators of a local new tempeh making business called Rhizocali and their superior product was featured in the night’s food offerings.

Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the wonderful dessert course which consisted of pumpkin waffles, spiced pumpkin sorbet and maple tea poached pears.  Characteristically the attentive chef went around offering more scoops of the refreshing pumpkin sorbet which no one appeared to refuse as they engaged each other in pleasant conversations.  It is good to have this series back again and, well, let’s just say no one walked away unsatisfied.

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles
Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Guitar Gods Go Classical? Give them a ‘Secret Rose’


Cover of "Crimson Grail"

Cover of Crimson Grail

The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.

Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.

Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’sMr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.

From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)

Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.

Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.

So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.

Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of ...

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.

Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977).   And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.

Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.

Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.

Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).

This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space.  Hope to see you there.

 

Can Videos Promote New and Difficult Music?


Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

I write music as a hobby, to learn about music and to express some ideas. I have recently discovered  You Tube to be a useful forum to find new and interesting music. I decided to post two pieces (among others) on to share and to get reactions. In the ensuing two years I have had and listens (respectively), a few favoritings and a few comments. I am fine with this.
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I also subscribe to a few channels which feature the sort of new music of which I am a fan. These channels offer videos (of varying, frequently mediocre images or even just one still image for the entire length of the piece) with a soundtrack of a wide variety of contemporary music, much of it not generally or easily available. In most cases I have found the images superfluous or even unrelated to the music at hand but, no matter, I just wanted to hear the music.

Then, in a little “aha” moment, I wondered if I could get more “hits”, more people listening to some of my music by posting videos. So I took a little time to figure out the video making program on my computer and put together two videos using a series of still images gathered on the Internet. I did try to choose images with some relevance to the music (but the videos are admittedly mediocre) and I posted these brief videos on my newly created YouTube channel one year ago.

Well, guess what, in the space of one month I got more hits than I received in a year on Soundcloud. Now this is not to denigrate Soundcloud or to promote YouTube. This is quite simply a limited experiment, maybe a pilot study if you will.

One year later the gap closed on with the first piece having more listenings on Soundcloud than You Tube and the other widening the gap with more views on You Tube .

I’m not sure how to interpret the results but I offer here a few speculations for discussion:

First, YouTube is clearly a more popular medium. It has been around longer and gets a lot of traffic. It is also set up with topics by which you can reference your music (piano music, classical music, etc.). This gives the search engine ways to index your video by things in addition to title and author which, as far as I can determine, is not the case with Soundcloud. Soundcloud allows you to tag your sounds but I am not as certain that their search engine handles them in the same way.

Second I have to wonder if the medium of the Internet either lends itself or has been developed in such a way that users are more easily drawn to the audiovisual rather than just the audio. Even unrelated or pedantic images stir more interest than watching the progress bar on Soundcloud for certain. But one could also say that the images distract from the music.

Third, I wonder if people are now actually being socialized to expect the audiovisual experience and to have a shorter or no attention span for audio alone. I wonder if this could be a factor in the attraction of audiences to concerts which don’t have as strong a visual component.
Certainly heavily produced rock and pop concerts have set expectations for their audiences. But even the experience of listening to jazz or blues in smaller venues has visual components in seeing the stage presence of the musicians and the reaction of the audience. And stage lighting generally seems to have a different character than that of a formal concert hall or chamber venue.

Of course I am talking here specifically about music which already seems to have a limited audience and one which has rightly come to expect some serious challenges in the listening experience (think Xenakis, Nancarrow, Reich, Rihm, Boulez, etc). I have many times seen the puzzled faces of musicians and composers to whom I have spoken when I share my familiarity with their work and my ongoing interest in it. They seem almost to be asking themselves what must be wrong with this essentially non-musician that drives him to subject himself to concert experiences that would bore and/or frighten and confuse many audience members. It is safely assumed by performers of new classical and free jazz that their audience will likely have limited familiarity and have difficulty grasping their compositional ideas. And in my experience many concert goers are curious (or brave) but have very little knowledge to support their understanding and appreciation of what they hear. Some purists might say that one should simply give in to the experience but I think that is naïve.

Now this is not to say I feel any hostility or condescension. Quite the opposite. Once the composers and performers figure out that I am simply a curious and interested consumer they are invariably extremely appreciative. (The most frequent question I get is something like, “How do you know this?”). I think it is a safe assumption that the average audience member is not steeped in the esoteric or obscure realms in which these musicians usually work and that finding such information requires more than average effort. I am appreciated as an outlier and that’s fine with me. The problem I have is that, at some level I can’t imagine why someone would not be fascinated by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Milton Babbitt, Steve Reich, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. I just find new music compelling and find myself driven to learn about it and experience it.

But I digress. My main point has to do with the level of interest gained by audiovisual vs. audio alone in presenting music on the Internet. And I can draw no definitive conclusions from such meager data but I did find a difference. I think that pretty much anything that gets people listening is probably a good thing. I am a star on neither Soundcloud nor YouTube but I
now suspect that I can find a larger audience with videos than with audio alone. Perhaps if I had some silly animal videos to which I could append my music I could achieve the digital dream of “going viral”. Or maybe not. But at least you will have listened once.

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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.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.

Black Classical Part Five


Looking at the previous four installments in this, my personal tribute to Black History Month, I decided that I needed to write one more (for now) in this series. So here I will present some of the resources I have found useful in learning about this music. While I have some knowledge in this area I could not have written these posts without these sources and I will continue to look to them to help me discover more musical gems. I hope that these essays have sparked some interest and I hope that any such interest will have ways to grow further.

The most useful general search terms formed the titles of these posts: black classical (or “African-American classical” which then limits your search to U.S. or the Americas). The term, “classical” is problematic but did serve to differentiate my searches from blues, ragtime, traditional jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, pop, rap and related genres that are more stereotypically associated with black people in music.

My focus was on composers and conductors leaving out a vast category of black classical musicians. A useful overview can be found at: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/black-history-month/2013/jan/31/timeline-history-black-classical-musicians/. This little timeline provides a perspective on the slow acceptance of black musicians in the elite ranks of producers and ensembles that define the classical music experience.

africlassical.com is a good general site that lists many black musicians and its far more up to date companion site http://africlassical.blogspot.com/ has postings of great interest on an almost daily basis has been both essential and revelatory at times (I bookmarked this blog).

Center for Black Music Research is a rich resource and also publishes an academic journal on the subject as well as many other useful and interesting publications. They also maintain a large research library of books, journals and recordings. And they cover all forms of music. An excellent resource.

But the starting point for my personal interest in this subject is the landmark set of recordings which I encountered in the mid to late 1970s. Columbia records release of nine albums entitled ‘Music by Black Composers’ is perhaps the best starting point due to the wonderful scholarship and musicianship in this set. Conductor Paul Freeman along with musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma collaborated on this set. They produced a fine overview of neglected black composers from the 18th century to the mid-20th century in an intelligent selection of music and excellent performances by American orchestras. I was pleased to find that the reissue of these albums as a 9 vinyl disc boxed set remains available for only $35 plus postage from here. I jumped at the opportunity to acquire this great reissue funded by the Ford Foundation and my order was sent to me in less than a week.

Chicago-based Cedille Records has some great releases and even more great black classical is available at Albany Records.  Search for the work of Paul Freeman on both labels.

The ultimate goal for me in all this would be to have black classical musicians and composers equally represented on recordings, in performances and in programming. But until that happens (I’m not holding my breath here) the recordings and resources thus far cited (and many that were not) will have to suffice. While I continue to enjoy discovering this music as a “best kept secret” or a limited boutique-type item I would much prefer that the art of these black musicians become common knowledge, not a political issue of which Marian Anderson‘s concert at the Lincoln Memorial has become emblematic.

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Let me end by referring my readers to my favorite fiction book about black musicians: Richard Powers‘ 2003 masterpiece ‘The Time of Our Singing‘. Powers, who is also trained as a musician, demonstrates amazing insight to music as well as civil rights issues in this sweeping epic of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled, Easter, 1939 (too long to quote here) brings the Marian Anderson concert to life in powerful prose. Read it, preferably out loud to a friend, because it will give you a history lesson and perhaps put you in touch with the emotional power and significance of that event.

Happy Black History Month to all. And happy listening.

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Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.

Left Coast Classical


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Dear friends of new music,

The annual Other Minds concert series is coming up on February 28, March 1 and 2. Now in its 18th iteration the festival seems to constantly be able to find new and interesting music from all over the world. And it gives every season’s musicians a week’s retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists program during which they perform and discuss their music with each other sharing what must be a wonderful mind-expanding experience for them.

Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco provides a comfortable venue that is both visually and acoustically well-suited to the marvelously diverse collections of composers and musicians that come together for three nights following their week-long workshop/retreat. Under the direction of Charles Amirkhanian who was music director at KPFA radio from 1969 to 1992 this concert series threatens to invade the musical consciousness and tastes of Northern California and beyond. At the very least it holds off the danger of the music scene becoming stuck in a rut. And at best it cross pollinates the DNA of the musical world to yield as yet unknown artistic mutations.

For die hard fans of new music like myself the festival provides an opportunity to hear some exciting artists whose work has interested me as well as an opportunity to widen my horizons and hear younger artists whose work is yet known only to a smaller audience. There are world and local premieres every year. And one of the thrills, at least for me, is the chance to hear artists who later rise to greater fame, “I remember when I first heard…”

This year’s line up is no less varied than previous years. Casting its usual wide net composers are included from Denmark, India, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and the United States. For me it will be the first time in which I will have had practically no knowledge before hand of these composers. But some of the performers are known to me including electronic diva gurus Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z, two Bay Area artists with distinctly different approaches to the ‘voice with electronics’ genre. Having appeared previously in the ‘Other Minds’ concerts presenting their own compositions (composers thus far have only been allowed a single appearance presumably to make room for the new) they are engaged to perform music by other composers.

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Neuberg recently appeared doing her own arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ‘California’ in a well-received performance with 9 other bands playing their arrangements of the other nine tracks from Mitchell’s classic album, ‘Blue’. This wonderful concert was reviewed in a previous blog. She will perform along with virtuoso percussionist William Winant and his percussion group in the world premiere of Canadian American Aaron Gervais ‘Work Around the World’.

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Pamela Z is also well known and is pictured above in a performance at the annual Chapel of the Chimes Summer Solstice concert. The world premiere of her Kronos Quartet commission, ‘And the Movement of the Tongue’ for string quartet and electronics occurs on February 20 and 21 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. She will be performing an improvisation with another soloist with electronics performer, Paula Matthusen as well as her own arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ on the last day (Saturday).

While I had been aware of recorder player Michala Petri I am only familiar with her recordings of baroque music. But we will get to hear her artistry in performances of fellow Danes Sunlief Rasmussen and Paula Matthusen in contemporary pieces, one a U.S. premiere.

In addition there will be performances by Danish folk trio (recorder, accordion, violin) and Indian Bansuri master G.S. Sachdev as well as a performance by jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn.

Swedish contrabass recorder artist Anna Petrini will perform three works for contrabass recorder and electronics (an unusual combination to say the least) by three Scandinavian composers. Mattias Petersson is featured in a performance with video and electronics of his work ‘Strom’ from 2006 in its U.S. premiere.

And the second (of three) nights will feature the world premiere of a theatrical work, ‘ARA’ by the South Korean vocalist Dohee Lee featuring video and multi-channel electronics. I’m betting that this may be a major premiere.

If, as most biologists now believe, diversity is crucial to the survival of a species then the Other Minds festival appears to be mixing enough artistic DNA to keep new music alive for a couple of hundred years. I don’t know how many friends and acquaintances will be awed in 5-10 years when I tell them I was at the premiere of ‘ARA’ or ‘Work Around the World’ or try to describe the sound of a contrabass recorder with electronic enhancement but even the blank stares with some scratching their heads won’t detract from my own self satisfaction of having been there.

Hoping to see you at Other Minds,

Allan

Black Classical Part Three


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For my third installment I have chosen to highlight that series of recordings by conductor Paul Freeman of music by black composers which I mentioned in a previous blog.

In 1974 Columbia Records issued 9 LPs (originally it was to be 12) over the next few years in a series called, ‘Music by Black Composers’. The music was chosen largely by Paul Freeman who also wrote the liner notes and conducted the performances. He was assisted by musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma who contributed his knowledge of pre 20th century black music and also edited some of the pieces for performance.

This set of records was featured by my local radio station (WFMT in Chicago) at the time of its release and opened my listening mind to to this cornucopia of fascinating classical concert music by black composers. The series was so titled in part because it included music from many countries and also because it was released before the term ‘African American’ became Le mot juste (but that is another story).

The series was apparently recorded and released 1974-78 and re-released in 1986 as a set under the Columbia Special Products label. Historically it was an important set of releases much like the series curated by David Behrman called ‘Music of Our Time’ which featured some truly cutting edge music by composers writing in the sixties and seventies. To be sure the black composer series was not cutting edge modernism like that series but gains its cutting edge from collecting in one set music from the 18th to the mid-20th century by a set of composers who, other than having been trained in the discipline of music performance and composition, held in common only a skin color darker than ‘white’.

Billboard announced the plan to issue these records in 1973 saying that they were the fruit of a collaboration between the Irwin-Sweeney Miller Foundation of Columbus, Indiana and, with the encouragement of Dominique-Rene de Lerma, the school of music at Indiana University in Bloomington. Citing “campus politics” professor de Lerma reported that Indiana had lost interest so he phoned Paul Freeman (conductor with the Detroit Symphony at the time) and advised him to contact the ‘Afro-American Music Opportunities Association’ whose support then helped launch this series. The original plan was to release four albums per year for at least three years but a great beginning soon slowed and the 9th album (pictured above) was the final release in the series.

Coming twenty some years after the voting rights act of 1965 it retained the some cachet of the civil rights movement and likely was produced at that time in the hopes that this might help sell the albums to consumers. I don’t know who ultimately bought these albums or what their total sales were but I know that some visionary producers at WFMT piqued my interest and that I bought many of these records and listened with interest when they were scheduled to play (I religiously perused the monthly program guide).

The original releases went out of print in a few years. There was a CD set (currently out of print) compiled by the Columbia University (Chicago) Center for Research in Black Music funded by the Ford Foundation that released a selection of the Detroit Symphony performances (now a pricey collector’s item) from that set as well as a reissue of the complete set on vinyl records with the original cover art and program notes which remains, I am happy to report, available by mail from the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana www.music.org.

The contents are:
Columbia M-32781 (1973); volume 1
Saint-Georges: Symphony concertante, op. 13 (ed. by Barry S. Brook; Miriam Fried, Jaime Laredo, violins; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Symphony no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Scena from Ernestine (ed. by D. de Lerma; Faye Robinson, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: String quartet no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Julliard Quartet)

Columbia M-32782 (1973); volume 2
William Grant Still: Afro-American symphony.
—-: 2 arias from Highway 1, U.S.A. (London Symphony Orchestra; William Brown, tenor)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Danse nègre.
—–: “Onaway, awake, beloved” from Hiawatha’s wedding feast (William Brown, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32783 (1974); volume 3
Ulysses Kay: Markings (London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Trombone concerto (Denis Wick, trombone; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32784 (1974); volume 4
Roque Cordero: Violin concerto (Sanford Allen, violin; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Eight miniatures (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33421 (1975); volume 5
José Maurício Nunes-Garcia: Requiem Mass, M. 185 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Doralene Davis, soprano; Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; William Brown, tenor; Matti Tuloisela, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])

Columbia M-33432 (1975); volume 6
José White: Violin concerto (ed. by Paul Glass and Kermit Moore; Aaron Rosand, violin; London Symphony Orchestra)
David Baker: Cello sonata (Janós Starker, cello; Alain Planès, piano)

Columbia M-33433 (1975); volume 7
William Grant Still: Sahdji (London Symphony Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])
Fela Sowande: African suite (3 excerpts; London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Lyric for strings (London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33434 (1975); volume 8
Olly Wilson: Akwan (Richard Bunger, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Richard Bunger, piano)
Thomas Jefferson Anderson: Squares (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
Talib Rasul Hakim: Visions of Ishwara (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-34556 (1978); volume 9
George Walker: Piano concerto (Natalie Hinderas, piano; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Hale Smith: Ritual and incantations (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Adolphus Hailstork: Celebration! (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Later Freeman began a series on Chicago-based Cedille records that released three further volumes of black composers’ music with his wonderful Chicago Sinfonietta as well as several CDs dedicated entirely to single black composers (more about those and more in another post).

Perhaps an innovative label such as Naxos might some day bring these Columbia recordings back into circulation in their entirety in the CD format. Meanwhile I am pretty happy with my LPs with their copious notes and full-sized beautiful graphics. If you haven’t heard this set I would encourage you to avail yourself of some of this beautiful music.

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)


James Anderson De Preist(1936-2013)

James Anderson De Preist
(1936-2013)

The recent passing of conductor James DePreist is a great loss to the world of classical music. I first encountered this man’s work when I bought a New World CD containing music by Milton Babbitt (Relata I), David Diamond (Symphony No. 5) and Vincent Persichetti (Night Dances). All performances are by the Julliard Orchestra under three different conductors of music by three different composers of about the same generation of east coast American Composers. De Priest conducts the Night Dances piece. He had studied under Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory.

De Preist had a fondness and a feel for contemporary music. Among his fifty some recordings (no reliable discography is available online just yet) he recorded music by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Easley Blackwood, Aulis Sallinen, Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke, William Walton, Nicholas Flagello and Joseph Schwantner among other more familiar names as well.

He was the nephew of Marian Anderson and cared for her in his home in Portland, Oregon until her death in 1993. De Preist was the conductor of the Oregon Symphony and served as it’s music director from 1980 until 1993. He conducted nearly all of the world’s major orchestras and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005.

His passing this February, Black History Month in the United States, got me thinking about the legacy of black classical conductors. There have been a few luminaries that also deserve attention and I will attempt a short survey a few of those whose art has touched my own life.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman (1936- ), now retired, was the founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an alternative orchestra to the Chicago Symphony which played a distinctly different program from them introducing a great deal of new music by young composers along with an unusual selection of older music and some classical warhorses. His 9 LP survey recorded 1974 to 1979 and released by Columbia Records in 1986 of music by black composers is a landmark set of recordings surveying music by black composers from various countries with some emphasis on American Composers. He followed this in 2003 with 3 CDs of music by black composers on Chicago based Cedille records and has continued to give exposure to these unjustly neglected artists. Along with his promotion of black composers Freeman has recorded a great deal of 20th century music by other unjustly neglected masters such as Leo Sowerby, Meyer Kupferman, Bohuslav Martinu, Tibor Serly, Robert Lombardo, William Neil, Richard Felciano to name a few. He recorded a delightful complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos with frequent collaborator, pianist Derek Han (the set was incorporated into the Complete Works of Mozart released on the Brilliant Classics label).

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan who I recall as having been the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 1986 to 1990 under both George Solti and Daniel Barenboim. I had the pleasure of hearing him conduct the Chicago Symphony’s fine training ensemble, The Civic Orchestra, on several occasions.

Currently he is the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a post he has held since 1990. In that time he has done much to strengthen the orchestras standing artistically and financially and he has forged alliances with the Oakland Youth Orchestra and the Oakland Symphony Chorus.

Unfortunately Morgan has made few recordings but his choice of repertoire and championing of new music continues to endear him to critics and to bay area audiences.

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

In 2011 Thomas Wilkins became the first black conductor appointed to the Boston Symphony (a city historically resistant to integration in the 1960s). He is the conductor of that city’s youth orchestra.

He was appointed music director of the Omaha Symphony in 2005 and has held appointments with the Richmond Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Florida Orchestra.

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

California born Henry Lewis was the first black musician to join a major symphony orchestra when, at the age of 16, he joined the double bass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He became the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra when Zubin Mehta appointed him assistant conductor of that same Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961, a post he held until 1965. He is credited with founding the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well

Lewis is probably better known in the media for having been married to soprano Marilyn Horne from 1960-1979.

Carl Van Vechten's portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis in 1961

Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.

Horne credits Lewis with her early development as a singer.

Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)

Charles Dean Dixon
(1915-1976)

Dean Dixon, as he was known, was born in Harlem and studied at Julliard and Columbia University. He formed his own orchestra when racial bias prevented him from working in most settings and in 1941 gave a concert at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who in 1939 famously arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been prevented by racial bias (and the Daughters of the American Revolution) from singing in any concert venue in Washington D.C.

While he did guest conduct the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadephia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony he left the United States in 1949 to further his career in overseas. He conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during 1950-51, was principal conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony from 1953-60 (by popular demand), the HR Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt from 1961-74, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964-67.

Dixon returned to the United States and had various guest conducting engagements with major orchestras. And he conducted the Mexico City Orchestra during the 1968 Olympics. His legacy includes quite a few recordings made in the 1950s, some of standard repertoire, but some of American music like that of Randall Thompson, Leo Sowerby and fellow black American William Grant Still among many others. These were some of the first recordings I ever heard of much of that repertoire.

He, like those who followed him, did a great deal to promote the music of Americans and of the 20th Century in general. And his recordings are an important part of his legacy that remains largely untapped (though Naxos historical has reissued some on CD, bless their hearts). The racial bias he encountered is our American legacy. Dixon once defined three phases of his career by the way he was described. First he was the “black American conductor”. Then he was the “American conductor” and, finally he simply, “the conductor Dean Dixon.”

Impossible, you say?


einsteintrain

The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”

Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa, Theresa Wong in Berkeley


Lewandowski piano

A view of the inside of the piano showing Lewandowski’s alterations.

It is easy to miss the nondescript storefront on University Avenue where this performance took place. And the promotion of this concert appeared to be mostly through Facebook and the Bay Area improvisers web site which resulted in a small but appreciative audience interested in hearing the work of Annie Lewandowski, now a music lecturer at Cornell. She is a graduate of Mills College. She has a varied resume ranging from classical piano to progressive rock bands and she presented tonight her work with extended piano techniques much like those of John Cage but with some distinctly personal twists extending Cage’s methods further. Ms. Lewandowski was hosted by Theresa Wong (also a Mills graduate), bay area composer, cellist and singer who organized the event and Luciano Chessa, San Francisco Conservatory professor, composer, musicologist, historian and performer and producer who played a couple of different roles in this evening.

performance of La Barbara's 'Hear What I Feel'

Luciano Chessa performing Joan La Barbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’

The first performance was introduced by Ms. Wong who informed us that Luciano Chessa had been kept in isolation for the last hour while the preparations were done for his performance. The piece being performed was Joan LaBarbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’ from 1974. It consists of a table upon which there are several plates each containing some object or substance. The performer, who is blindfolded, is seated at the table and the performance consists of the performers reactions to the substances and/or objects he examines with his hands alone. It is performance art that would be perfectly at home with other Dada and Fluxus-like scores.

Wong led Chessa carefully from the back of the performance space to the table containing six plates. After seating him she positioned the microphone carefully in front of him. Chessa spent several minutes with each object examining three predominantly with his left hand and three with his right. All the while during his tactile adventure he vocalized a variety of sounds evoking (presumably) his emotional response to each object or creating an audio analog for them.

As with all such scores the result leaves a wide range of possibilities to the performer. And this performance was suitably humorous and engaging. Following his examination of the last of the objects Chessa removed the blindfold and reacted to each of the objects (without vocalizing) as he examined them visually. There was an effective combination of (mockingly?) serious concentration and idiosyncratic responses that left the audience genially amused and entertained.

Lewandowski piano

Annie Lewandowski playing in the piano, on the keyboard and singing.

Wong cello

Theresa Wong playing her carefully altered and electronically enhanced cello and singing.

This was followed by a duet between Lewandowski and Wong. Both performers utilized various ways of altering the sounds of their instruments by adding objects to the strings or by exciting the strings with objects. Wong also made use of a foot pedal controlling some electronics. Lewandowski’s piano was miked and amplified somewhat.

The improvisation was started by Lewandowski with some percussive like sounds elicited at the keyboard. Wong responded sparely at first and the two seemed to trade ideas which became richer as the performance went on. Again the serious concentration was present as the performers carefully heard and responded to each others’ music making. While satisfying it was a sort of introduction or first taste of what was to come in the second half.

A brief intermission saw the performers mingling with audience members, many of whom were acquaintances and other musicians.

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

What concluded this unusual program was a trio for all three performers. Lewandowski with her prepared piano, Wong with her altered cello, Chessa with his signature Vietnamese Dan Bau and guitar. All three also sang. The performance started sparely as each introduced suggestions or themes for the improvisation and reacted to them.

Lewandowski gave a much fuller exposition of the possibilities of her instrument playing the keyboard, inside and all around the piano as well as singing. Wong also seemed to use a wider amount of sound possibilities in her playing. Chessa played the traditional Vietnamese folk instrument in all but traditional ways using devices to excite the strings and focusing on tuning and even some percussive possibilities. At one point he left the table where he was performing to pick up an acoustic guitar. After picking a few notes he walked to the back of the stage area and ascended a stair case leading to a sort of balcony that surrounded the performance space. It was at this point that he began softly singing what sounded like an Italian folk tune as he played the guitar in a most traditional manner. This gave a collage effect to the performance juxtaposing the most traditional kind of music making with the extended and experimental sounds.

Chessa remained on the balcony for a bit, then descended the staircase again and returned to the more unusual playing methods at first on the guitar and then back at the table on the Dan Bau. Following this Lewandowski began vocalizing a melody with sparse accompaniment that would have been perfectly at home in a scene from ‘Eraserhead’ at times. She was echoed by Wong’s extended vocal techniques at first and then Lewandowski and Wong began singing a more traditional sounding melody with beautiful harmonizations interpolating this singing at different points while still traversing their freely improvised instrumental playing supported by Chessa on the Dan Bau.

This made for a rather tranquil mood as they ended the second half of the concert. The audience was appreciative. And this writer was pleased to have found a gem of a concert experience by young, serious (but good-humored) and accomplished musicians in the eclectic world of the east bay.