NB, I have made corrections on errors very publicly posted on the composer’s website. The changes are factual corrections and copyright citations. My blog is intended to provide the perspective of an avid listener and to promote music which I believe deserves attention and I believe I have done that. I’m always happy to correct errors of fact but I retain the right to my opinion. To be clear, I like the album very much.
I hope that my flippant title for this review does not offend. But an artist who creates new acoustic instruments of unusual tunings which he plays and for which he has written music sounds a lot like spiritual progeny to Harry Partch. Partch had no children and even if he did it is unlikely they would have followed in his footsteps. Strictly speaking, Cris Forster may be more like “nephew of Partch” given that he is following his own distinct trajectory and is doing so in a very different time. But he embodies the ethic and has made it his life’s work to compose in non-standard tunings and to create instruments capable of playing those tunes accurately and effectively. Forster is, in a metaphorical sense, a sort of spiritual progeny, one that would have made daddy proud.
Cris Forster (1948- ) was born in Brazil, became a US citizen in 1966, and earned a degree in history from UC Santa Cruz in 1970. After graduating in 1974 from Lone Mountain College (now the University of San Francisco) with a degree in piano performance, he began building his own instruments in 1975 and, in 1976 (two years after Partch died), he began a four year stint as curator, archivist, and performer for the Harry Partch Foundation. While there he maintained the original Partch instruments, created what I’m calling “Post Partch” instruments, and subsequently performing both Partch’s music and his own compositions. In 2000 he published “Musical Mathematics”, a comprehensive accounting of his researches.
It is fairly easy to write about Forster, his book, his CD. But it is extremely difficult to communicate meaningfully about the sound of his music and how these beautiful but odd looking instruments are played. To that end I will provide a few YouTube links so that readers can experience the music itself: “A child said What is the grass” (1986); “Blue Nights” (2013). These are from Forster’s YouTube channel where you can see/hear more. Don’t worry about the unusual tuning. After a few listens (at least for this listener) one begins to hear it as the beautiful music that it is, a worthy successor to the Partch legacy.
There are eleven tracks featuring selections from two large works, Song of Myself: Intoned Poems of Walt Whitman (1977) written for Chrysalis I, Harmonic/Melodic Canon, and Voice; and Ellis Island/Angel Island (1978-2023) for a larger ensemble but without voice consisting of four groups of instruments: Stringed instruments: Chrysalis I, Chrysalis II, Harmonic/Melodic Canon, Bass Canon, and Just Keys; percussion instruments: Diamond Marimba I, Diamond Marimba II, and Bass Marimba; friction instrument: Glassdance; and wind instruments: Simple Flutes. And the informative liner notes are by Heidi Forster who also plays in the ensemble.
1.Song of Myself: Intoned Poems of Walt Whitman Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 2, “A Child Said What Is the Grass?” Cris Forster: voice, Chrysalis I
2. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): X. Blue Nights David Boyden, Heidi Forster, Isabelle Jotterand, Benjamin Koscielak playing Glassdance, Just Keys, Bass Canon, and Bass Marimba
3. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): IX. Dream Time Jacob Richards playing Diamond Marimba II
4. Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 10, “The Past and Present Wilt – I Have Fill’d Them, Emptied Them” Voice and Harmonic/Melodic Canon played by David Boyden
5. Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 11, “The Spotted Hawk Swoops by and Accuses Me, He Complains of My Gab and My Loitering Voice and Harmonic/Melodic Canon played by David Boyden
6. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “I. Good-Bye” Just Keys played by Isabelle Jotterand
7. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “II. Farewell” Just Keys played by Isabelle Jotterand
8. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “III. Far Away” Just Keys played by Cris Forster
9. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “VII. Lullaby” Glassdance played by Heidi Forster
10. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): XI. Wild Flower Cris Forster and Benjamin Koscielak playing Diamond Marimba II and Bass Marimba
11. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts):“IV. The Harbor” Heidi Forster, Benjamin Koscielak, and Jacob Richards playing Glassdance, Bass Marimba, and Diamond Marimba II
The tuning sounds unusual at first but it grows on the listener. Happily there are plans to release the rest of the Whitman settings. Meanwhile we have this lovely release produced by John Schneider and Heidi Forster (with Cris Foster doing the recording and Scott Fraser the mastering) to listen to while we wait.
This release completes Sarah Cahill’s monumental survey of piano music written by women which saw its first two CD volumes last year.last year. This, the third volume titled “At Play”, follows the first two as seen below. This trilogy is not, of course, the last word, the end on the subject of piano works by women. There can be no last word but these selections are a reflection of Cahill’s perspective as a performer but also a producer/programmer whose scholarship and advocacy are well known and respected worldwide. These releases speak to women, certainly. But they also speak to audiences in general, producers, and fellow musicians. They comprise a careful sampling of some three hundred years of music which effectively demonstrates that “there’s gold in them thar hills” (after all Cahill is a Californian). Here’s hoping that this survey will help start a metaphorical gold rush to unearth the gold that can be found in this neglected music.
I recall my fascination with Cahill’s earlier commissioning project which resulted in her CD “A Sweeter Music” (2013). I recall attending a very preliminary recital at Mills College where she did brief run through of some of the compositions and spoke about the project. She later toured the music (sometimes with John Sanborn’s wonderful accompanying visuals, sometimes without). Little did Cahill know that she hit upon a genre of classical music dear to this listener’s heart, that of politically inflected classical music. As a result, my interest in her artistry and choices of repertoire escalated tremendously (I heard two of her Bay Area recitals of this music and reviewed the recording in the early incarnation of this very blog). So another project, this time supporting female composers, with even greater dimension than that earlier project has similarly grabbed my attention in this landmark collection of music by women composers which has largely been neglected by mainstream artists, producers, and programmers.
This trilogy of recordings hardly solves the egregious neglect of this music but it does contribute rather authoritatively to the canon (there is one now) of music by non-male composers. Cahill is not the first artist to do this, and there are multiple ongoing projects exploring the work of female composers, but this project deserves top billing as it casts a mighty wide net with its three volumes covering about 300 years (of neglect). These recordings of some 30 pieces are but a fraction of music by women composers in this pianist’s repertoire. But, more than simply righting wrongs, this is about celebrating a legacy of artists getting their due recognition. (The “bad idea” Biblical metaphor of hiding a lamp beneath a basket comes to mind). Just look, er, listen at/to what’s been under that basket!
This now completed trilogy doubtless will not mark the end of Cahill’s advocacy but it will stand as a major manifesto of sorts and will hopefully bring more performers and producers to be open to performing and recording them. Simply hearing these recordings exposes the listener to music of stunning substance selected by an artist whose curatorial radar is finely tuned and whose choices will speak definitively to listeners (and likely fellow performing artists) for years to come. (N.B. Listeners would do well to check out Cahill’s YouTube channel where one can find a gold mine of music which reflects the scope of her performances and advocacy, not just for women composers, but for an amazing range of artists.)
This third volume is entitled, “At Play”. Like the previously released volumes, this collection gets a collective title that vaguely hints at the character of the music herein. The sequencing of the music is, like the previous two volumes, pretty much chronological. The essential program notes by Ms. Cahill (in all three volumes) provide just enough background to provide useful contexts for the listener. And you have to love the “Cahill and friends” photo galleries (on each volume) reflecting the deeply personal nature of this undertaking. That may sound hyperbolic but just listen to this music and feel the love, the passion, the connections, the sincerity, and the incisive playing. (Should I throw in a “Pied Piper” metaphor?) Listen and you’ll likely get hooked.
There are 16 tracks comprising nine works by nine female composers over nearly three centuries. Four of the nine works receive here receive their first (or first commercial) recordings. As noted earlier, the track sequence is chronological. (N.B. That makes 30 + works over the 3 CDs), a little less than half of the total commissions.
We begin with the last of 9 sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Her lifespan covers the classical to the early romantic eras in western musical history but recordings of her music didn’t begin to appear until about 2006 when Jérôme Dorival published a biography of her. Listeners will likely find this music similar to that of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven but with a level of virtuosic writing that anticipates Chopin and Liszt. This three movement sonata was published in 1811. This is apparently the second recording of this work as another new music champion, Nicolas Horvath, released a recording of all nine of these in 2021, further testament that time has come for this composer (and perhaps women composers in general).
Next is the Thème varié, Op. 98 (1895) by Cécile CHAMINADE (1857–1944). This late romantic composer is probably the only name with which most listeners may be acquainted. A recording of her Concertino for flute and orchestra (1902) continues to receive attention by classical broadcasters but most of her work remains very little known. Cahill makes a strong case for this music with her interpretation of this virtuosic early romantic styled work. She is far better known in her native France. It is time we see what the French have been hiding.
Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909–1969), represented here by her Scherzo (1934), has gotten recognition in her native Poland but has only fairly recently become known internationally. This early work, less modernist than her later work, has apparently been recorded before but is new to this reviewer’s ears. Bacewicz was a prolific composer and this fine piece, a virtuosic showpiece, is likely to encourage listeners to further explore her extensive catalog which includes Symphonies, Concertos for violin, viola, cello, and for piano, 7 string quartets, symphonies, operas, songs, and much more.
Now Cahill brings us into present time, featuring living composers, beginning with the music of Chinese-American composer Chen YI (b. 1953). Guessing (1989) is a small piano piece which incorporates a Chinese folk song in a set of variations.
This is the first commercial recording of this music. To be honest, I am not familiar with much of this composer’s work (nor most of them here) save for Oliveros and Wong) but this piece as with all the selections here are sufficiently intriguing to prompt listeners to explore further. That is the point of an anthology such as this, to spark curiosity, suggest another path for the journey. Mission accomplished.
Franghiz ALI-ZADEH (b. 1947), born in Azerbaijan, incorporates elements from her ethnic heritage into modern classical idioms. Music for Piano (1989/1997) utilizes Cagean-like preparations, in this case a glass beaded necklace laid across the strings. The resulting sound, evoking Alan Hovhaness and/or Henry Cowell at times, is intended to evoke that of the traditional Azerbaijani string instrument called “tar” (not a reference to the recent film). The composers use of different scales also seems to derive from folk models. The piece is in several sections delineated by dynamics and by register in which is, I believe, an ingenious use of register used to control when to allow for those prepared strings to sound. The piece is by a composer with a wide expressive pallete and the ability to use those methods judiciously toward her unique creative ends.
Next, in the briefest entry at just over 4 minutes, we get one piece from a set of commissions (all by women composers) Cahill made to honor the 100th birthday of American composer Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Pauline OLIVEROS (1932–2016) submitted this work (her first notated composition since the 60s) which uses her own unique approach to indeterminate composition in Quintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford (2001), here in its world premiere recording. Oliveros, who exerted a profound influence on a generation of composers, performers, and listeners via her work in electronic music and improvisation, but most powerfully via her “Deep Listening” concepts which effectively define the role of the listener as being a part of the compositional process.
Hannah KENDALL (b. 1984) is a black British composer whose three movement “On the Chequer’d Field Array’d” (2013) is based on the 1763 poem Caissa by Sir William Jones and depicts the three sections of a game of chess. The lengthy Elizabethan styled poem can easily be read as protofeminist given that the female chess piece heroically wins. Read it if you don’t believe me. And there are musical metaphors as well. It is these: mindplay, middlegame, and coda into which the work is divided. The music, like the poem is an intimate perspective which invites the reader (or hearer of the music) to create their own meanings here.
Aida SHIRAZI (b. 1987), an Iranian born composer, takes the performer inside the piano. Her blandly titled, “Albumblatt” (2017) belies her deep understanding of the piano and its possibilities. This is arguably the most avant garde (or modernist if you prefer) composition of the trilogy. Cahill’s choices reflect her eclectic approach to music programming.
In addition to a chronological approach, this trilogy is stylistically diverse. This music borrows from forbears such as John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as Henry Cowell. This meditative music only reveals itself fully to the focused listener. This is like an etude comprised of sounds you rarely hear (intentionally) from a piano. Played much of the time inside the piano but also at the keyboard more conventionally, the piece also demands close attention to dynamics (down to silence). Here is where the recordist’s art shines through. The subtleties of dynamics and the ability to capture the variety of harmonics evoked. Of course said performer had to accomplish rather large postural changes and do so silently if the performance adheres to the score, lol. And both are accomplished here in what sounds like a single take. This is a pretty great listen.
Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI (b. 1956), a native Chicagoan poet and composer is given the last word with her, “Piano Poems” (2020). Last but not least by any means is a testament to Cahill’s singular but relevant choices as well as her advocacy of young composers as their stars begin to rise. This artist is new on my radar but one that will remain there. As both poet and composer, this young artist, commissioned by Cahill with a request that the music be about poetry, specifically by fellow (adopted) Chicagoans Gwendoline Brooks (one of this formerly Chicagoan reviewer’s personal faves) and Richard Wright.
The response was these 4 meditations on Brooks, Wright, and on the composer’s own poetical musings. The language here seemingly derives, appropriately, from 30s to 40s jazz of Ellington and Basie and a seemingly latter day version of that in the last two pieces describing the composer’s own literary utterances. Both virtuosic and apparently written by a composer very familiar with the instrument, a fitting and hopeful glimpse to the future.
Each of these discs contains at least one piece that reflects a deeper than average commitment by the performer. Cahill’s collaborative wok (with Dr. John DesMarteau) in the Agi Jambor sonata in volume I, her advocacy of Teresa Wong premiering the first performance of (She dances Naked…),the justly celebrated bay area artist’s selection on volume II. And her reaching out to Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI for a commission (in volume III) all reflect another valued aspect of this performer.
The recording by Matt Carr is very listener friendly demonstrating serious skills at times in dealing with the many sonic challenges. This album and its two predecessors belong in any serious collector’s library. If the future is indeed female, then this is a fine soundtrack. Listeners, performers, Brava!!
This is the most recent recording by Italian pianist Agnese Toniutti. (her third release by my research). It is also the most recent recording of John Cage’s masterful Sonatas and Interludes (1946-8) for prepared piano, a defining work for that unusual instrument. It has been recorded at least 30 times but is rather rarely heard in live performance.
John Cage is perhaps best known for his challenges to the philosophy and the very definition of music itself epitomized in his infamous silent piece titled 4’33” premiered in 1952. The composer eschewed the notion of a “masterpiece” but irony loving “fate” would hand him that title at least for this set of pieces.
Toniutti, a graduate of The Conservatory of Venice, seems to be as much a researcher and activist as she is a widely skilled pianist. While doubtless schooled in the commonly played repertoire for her instrument, she favors new music and music undeservedly neglected in her performances and recordings as well as the commissioning of new works and finding yet unplayed that strike her fancy.
The Sonatas and Interludes, now some 80 years old doesn’t really qualify as “new music” per se nor can it really be called neglected having been recorded 30+ times. In the context of this release this cycle of pieces seems to function much as a new recording of the Goldberg Variations or the late Beethoven Sonatas might function to introduce the skills of a musician whose trajectory was aimed at the conventional recital hall circuit. Toniutti clearly has other plans.
I won’t attempt to compare this most recent interpretation to the other available recordings. I believe this recording does much to validate the music as an essential work in the western canon of art music and to display the estimable understanding and widely skilled competence of the performer whose work is and will continue to embrace new music and advocate for that music to earn an esteemed place in the minds and hearts of listeners and other performers.
This is a very enjoyable recording whether it is to be a collector’s only recording of this music or one that stands most favorably in comparison to previous recordings. If this is to be your first recording of this work or if you simply want to hear another interpretation, you will not be disappointed. This is a wonderful performance.
Pianist Agnese Toniutti previously released a very forward looking recording on Neuma Records. The 2021 release pictured below is a collection of much more recent music. I listened numerous times and didn’t feel I “got it” well enough to say something reasonably intelligent (if not insightful) until this second release. And while I may not fully understand these “subtle matters” I now have a better context.
This collection which I had yet to review represents Toniutti’s understanding and appreciation as well as her apparent mission to expand the experimental repertoire for piano. Here is a fascinating set of composers, each with a unique view of her instrument. Just listen, trust this artist. You’ll be glad you did.
Keep your eyes and ears open for Agnese Toniutti, an advocate for and a master of the avant garde. And to Ms. Toniutti, I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
This release appears to be as much about the musician as it is about the music. Ives’ second piano sonata has had numerous recordings since John Kirkpatrick’s landmark recording of 1948. It is a gargantuan work that requires formidable technical skills simply to play it and interpretive skills at a very high level. Here is a recording by an artist who certainly possesses the skill sets required.
Pianist Philip Bush has spent over twenty years playing, teaching and recording. He is well known in new music circles as a versatile and committed artist very familiar with Charles Ives’ music. Doubtless many have heard his work but his name is far better known among his peers than his listeners. Why? Well despite at least 24 releases his role as accompanist or ensemble member leaves his name recognition to his fellow artists and to fans who read credit listings on those recordings. This writer is reminded of another artist of a previous generation whose skills were unquestioned but his name less known. I’m talking about the wonderful Gerald Moore whose work as an accompanist graced many recordings of the 50s, 60s, and 70s where he worked alongside many different instrumentalists and singers. Moore’s charming album, “The Unashamed Accompanist” (1955) is a good humored tour of the hard work of the accompanist, the unsung hero. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Bush is an exact match for this analogy, but this album certainly puts him more in that soloist spotlight than any other he has done.
Despite many recordings of this masterpiece, ostensibly a landmark of American modernist composition, this work has yet to achieve the prominence it deserves in the recital hall. Bush’s performance along with his very clever inclusion of lesser known Ives contemporary, Marion Bauer’s Six Preludes for Piano, Op. 15 (1922) helps to provide context for the listener. Bauer was later the first American to study with Nadia Boulanger whose pedagogy would shape the careers of many of the great composers of the 20th century in many countries. The preludes are apparently included here as representing American music played more commonly in recitals of that time.
For a thorough summary and perspective on the Concord Sonata I have found Kyle Gann’s recent book on the subject to be illuminating. Ives himself felt the need to “explain himself” when he wrote a little book to be published concurrently with the sonata. Ives’ title for his book “Essays Before a Sonata” provide the inspiration for Gann’s subtitle (Essays After a Sonata). Ives’ near constant revisions add to the difficulties in even determining a final version of the score itself. The composer’s revisions and the partial recordings he did of the work add to the performer’s burden in the performance of the work. There’s even optional parts for flute (included in Bush’s recording played by Jennifer Parker-Harley) and for viola (not in Bush’s recording).
The Bauer preludes are far more conservative musically than the Ives of course but one could argue that nearly everything contemporary with the Concord Sonata sounds conservative by contrast. Bauer’s Op, 15 are relatively early works in her output. She lived and worked another 33 years after these little works which were apparently influenced by French Impressionism. There is no indication that Bauer and Ives ever met or discussed music but her work was the new music more commonly heard than that of the roughly concurrent work of Ives. The use of the stereopticon style slide on the album cover, a current technology of the time, also serves to provide a charming nostalgic reference to an era about to experience many rapid changes historically, technically, and conceptually in which the Concord becomes an American work analogous to The Rite of Spring (1913) as a signpost of the beginning of another era.
Despite the complexities, Bush’s reading of the Concord and the Bauer preludes are eminently listenable. That clarity is ultimately the value of this release. This recording is a wonderful opportunity to hear the artistry of a dedicated artist and academic. It helps make a case for the Concord to be recognized as an important work whose complexities are made clearer with each interpretation. Bravo, Professor Bush!
I’m guessing that my title has its origins in the Benjamin Britten piece, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. That phrasing has been used by the likes of Phill Niblock and King Crimson to title retrospective compilation discs. While the disc under consideration here is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective it is a fine representation of the chamber music of the late great Ben Johnston (1926-2019).
Johnston, a former associate of Harry Partch (Johnston played in Partch’s ensemble) was a composer in his own right. His ten string quartets are a landmark of the genre. Two of those quartets are featured here played by the Lyris Quartet (Nos. 4 and 9) along with what is apparently his last composition, “Ashokan Farewell” (1999) scored for an octet in which the Lyris is augmented with flute, clarinet, bassoon, and double bass.
Like so many composers before him, Johnston was fond of incorporating folk tunes into his compositions. The composer’s fourth quartet (included here) from 1973, which incorporates “Amazing Grace”, is likely his best known work. Despite its incredible complexity (nicely summarized in Kyle Gann’s lucid liner notes) this set of variations keeps that familiar tune near the surface and effectively make for music that is friendly to the audience, easy on the ears. It’s single movement clocks in at just under 12 minutes, the piece ends long before listeners have time to worry about that complexity.
Not all of the quartets incorporate familiar tunes but they explore various aspects of just intonation tunings. The ninth quartet (1987) is about twice the length of the fourth and is set in the familiar four movements that characterize the majority of the classical string quartet literature. The use of the classical format along with Johnston’s masterful writing also make this slightly odd sounding work just familiar enough that few listeners will find unpleasant. In fact the work is a joy to experience though very difficult to play.
Listeners may want to seek out Mr. Gann’s very readable work on microtonal tuning systems, “The Arithmetic of Listening” available. Your humble reviewer is working through this text and finding it useful in understanding microtonality.
The final work (both the last on the disc and the last in the composer’s ouevre) is a delightful set of variations on a tune called “Ashokan Farewell”, a pretty folk like melody that pervades the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. I say “folk like” because the time was written by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Johnston mistakenly believed it to be a folk song in the public domain and, seeing its possibilities for his compositional aspirations, simply used it. Like the fourth quartet it is a set of variations in a single movement of similar length. This is the world premiere recording.
Musicians include Alyssa Park, violin; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, cello; Sara Andon, flute; James Sullivan, clarinet; Scott Worthington, double bass.
In researching this review I discovered that the tune actually has lyrics (also under copyright) and they are presented below:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan The pines and the willows know soon we will part There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken And a love that will always remain in my heart
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter The magic of moving as one And a time we’ll remember long ever after The moonlight and music and dancing are done
Will we climb the hills once more? Will we walk the woods together? Will I feel you holding me close once again? Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever? Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping Over the lake the stars shine They wonder if you and I will be keeping The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Those lyrics make for a fond farewell to a true musical genius who gave us both magic and music. Grab this lovely disc and honor his memory.
Igor Levit is a man of vision and of multiple talents. His pianistic skills and his vast knowledge of repertoire are pretty much unquestioned at this point. His vision is evidenced by his very personal choices in choosing what he will play and record. In my first encounter with this artist, his three disc survey of large keyboard variation works spanning three centuries including Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United…” suggested that this piece represent the 20 century with the Beethoven “Diabelli Variations” representing the 19th century, and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” the 18th, and virtually the origin of the form.
I have not heard all of Levit’s albums but those I have seem a similar pattern in his choices of what to record. They seem to serve his vision of choosing works for which he makes the case that they be included in the common concert hall repertoire. His inclusion of Ronald Stevenson’s monumental “Variations on DSCH” alongside the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues effectively issued a challenge to his fellow artists to consider including those masterworks in the canon of music commonly played in concert halls.
The two disc set considered here seems to follow that same pattern. In “Tristan”, Levit makes provocative and unusual but ultimately intelligent choices of what to play.
Here, Levit makes a charming choice of performing the late, great Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Zoltan Kocsis whose transcription of Wagner’s “Tristan Prelude” (1857-9) for piano is basically the seed from which this quasi-concept album grows. And finally, in another brilliant move, he includes Ronald Stevenson’s piano transcription of the gorgeous, angst ridden Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony 1910-11), making at least the suggestion of a connection between the 19th century of Wagner’s landmark opera and, via Mahler’s post romanticism to Henze’s 20th century Tristan whose inspiration was garnered from that same medieval epic poem.
The centerpiece here is obviously Hans Werner Henze’s “Tristan Preludes” (1974) for piano, orchestra, and tape (a rare but effective choice by this composer). He pairs this large work with curiously connected pieces such as Liszt’s very familiar “Liebestraum No. 3“ (1850), and the less familiar Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir” (1851). Liszt, a contemporary and supporter of Wagner, was the virtuosic showman, the “Liberace” of his day. This helps provide the listener a historical context as well as a contrast to the severe intensity and harmonic rebellion of Wagner’s “Tristan”.
Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, this is only the second recording of this major Henze work (wonderfully conducted by the fine Franz Welser-Möst) and likely the first recording of the Kocsis and Stevenson transcriptions. I have no doubt the Liszt selections have received much attention but they are critical here to Levit’s appropriately lofty (and very much romantic) vision, that of garnering a deserved place for all of this music to be kept alive both in recordings and the concert hall.
Levit’s playing is slow paced, full of romantic angst, and full of nuance. His pacing and his use of a wide dynamic range create an atmosphere that is both dark, and meditative. This album has the deep substance of Levit’s personal vision, a glory to behold. The gauntlet has been laid down.
Let me start with a positive image from a brief photography trip which I managed this year. It was one of the highlights of what has been a difficult year for many of us. Weather, politics, COVID, itinerant employment issues, financial, and personal difficulties were an encumbrance but now stand in relief to the many positive aspects of 2022.
First, let me say that nothing musical fell into the category of “worst of” so fear not, what follows is essentially my “best of” from 2022. In my head I blame the aforementioned encumbrances for delays and sheer lack of production on my part. Whether that is the ultimate truth does not matter really so here, for better or worse, is my celebration of the positive experiences enumerated in this music blog in 2022.
My first post for the year struck a sad note. It was my personal tribute to a composer, A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb described George Crumb, who had been one of my “gateway drugs”, so to speak, which helped put me on the exciting roads of new music upon with I continue to travel with great joy. Recordings of his complete works are still being released on the visionary Bridge Records.
Carolyn Shaw’s striking and much performed “In Manus Tuas” (on solo viola as well as solo cello) was originally written for Collins. Her selections on this album, including that Shaw work, suggest to this writer/listener that she has both vision and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially that written for her instrument. She will be among the major shapers of this repertoire via her vision as well as her interpretive talents. And Sono Luminus’ superb sonics certainly helps make this a great release.
I have followed the work of Sarah Cahill since her first solo CD (music of Ravel). Like Collins, she has been an artist who, by her intelligent selection of repertoire, serves as a guide to listeners (and musicians) as well. She has championed many composers as a pianist and as a broadcaster on her weekly KALW broadcasts. Her curation of concerts throughout the Bay Area, such as her solstice concerts at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, have showcased a large variety of creative performers.
As she focuses her lens on women composers (neglected is implied) she embraces a stunning range of styles from the baroque era to the present and it seems as though she can play anything she chooses well. She is also collaborative with an amazing ability to discern the substance in the works she chooses to play. And she has discovered (or rescued?) much music from obscurity via scholarship and intelligent collaboration. Can’t wait for the next release. She is consistently interesting and relevant.
This album was sent to me by a friend. I knew the Ligeti pieces but heard them with new ears in this release and I was amazed by the Kodaly works too. Marcus Creed may not be as well known in the U.S. as he is across the pond but he should be.
This album was kindly sent to me for review by John Schneider of Microfest records. Read the review. Listen to this album. And watch for more from Chris Votek, another rising star in 2022.
Dan Lippel is one of the founders of the fabulous new music label, New Focus Recordings. Here he is acoustic, electric, conventional, and experimental but always interesting. Keep his name on your radar.
This is a gorgeously designed, very collectible art object. It is a beautiful hard cover, full color book which also contains a CD of a recording (from acetate masters) which had languished in the archives of the Eastman/Rochester Music School where Harry Partch gave this lucid lecture/performance in 1942. Mr. Schneider, who sent me the Votek release as well, fronts an ensemble called PARTCH which, in addition to performing Harry Partch ‘s work, is recording Partch’s complete works for David and Becky Starobin’s Bridge label. This one is both eye and ear candy to my ears.
Rescuing those acetate masters from obscurity is a major find that rises in significance (in the musical sense) almost to the level of the archeological discovery of Tut’s Tomb. Schneider is a musician, a composer, a radio broadcaster, and an archivist and now a sonic archeologist I suppose. He also sports a collection of authentic copies of Partch’s curious instruments which were built to play the microtonal scales required. Partch is a major American composer whose work is now gaining its rightful place among the best of American classical music.
I first discovered Mr. Susman’s work when I was asked to review a performance of another composer’s work. I heard one of his works played by the remarkable San Jose Chamber Orchestra on that same concert. Here we have another multi volume release of these lovely and significant piano works. The remarkable pianist (mentioned often in these pages) has contracted to record all 4 books of this sort of “Well Tempered Clavier” type gesture which effectively provides much insight to this composer. Nicolas Horvath, known for marathon concerts performing (and subsequently recording) all of Philip Glass’ piano music, among others. (We’re talking 15 hours or so. There is also a 35 hour live rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” on you tube.) Who better to record these? The remaining three volumes are due some time this year. Who better to take on this post minimalist set of pieces? Can’t wait for the next volume.
Yolanda Kondonassis is about as household a name that you can find among harpists. These five minute (more or less) pieces are a significant addition to the solo harp repertoire. They are forward looking works for her instrument. Very interesting work, excellently performed.
I remain in awe at the curatorial and historically aware work of this truly fine pianist. Greenberg helped me grasp the historical context of the Second Viennese School in a new way with his earlier release “Book of the Hanging Gardens”. In that release he played all the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s pre twelve tone song cycle, Webern’s Variations, and the Berg Sonata which helped this listener to better grasp the historical context of this music. This small collection of works written for him reflects a collaborative and visionary ethic akin to that of Sarah Cahill’s. Keep an ear out for this guy.
I have received some good natured teasing about the fact that this, one of my longer reviews, is of a 15 minute piece of music. But this act of musical archeology by the bay area’s Kate Stenberg (who is a regular collaborator with Sarah Cahill BTW) has made the first recording of this little work. It’s Webernian duration belies a style very much in character with this beloved composer’s other work. My review was as much about the music and the recording as it was about the dedication of Stenberg to new music. This release is from Other Minds, another shining example of advocacy of new music and collaboration among composers and performers. Get it. Listen to it. And don’t miss a chance to hear Stenberg live performances or to hear anything Harrison has written.
The Chicago based Cedille label is one of my favorite classical music labels. Producer James Ginsburg has a golden ear and Cedille is the finest Chicago based classical label since the justly fabled Mercury records. All their releases deserve attention but this two disc set of little known works for String Trio written between the world wars is a feast of substantive, if slightly conservative, voices. This one is a great listen and, trust me, none of this music is in your collection.
While circumstances conspired to limit my attendance to only one of the three days of OM 26, I would be loathe to leave this world class music festival off my “best of” list. My first published blog of 2023 was of the 30th anniversary celebration which showcased Marc-Andre Hamelin’s stunning reading of Charles Ives’ massive Concord Sonata. Anything OM does deserves your attention but the roughly annual festival continues to present composers and performers from around the world. Not to be missed.
Another exciting release of Cahill’s visionary series. Like the previous volume (and the aforementioned Cedille release) the consumer will suffer no unnecessary duplications if the music herein. Fascinating and expertly done. This set (the third volume due this year) is a testament to Cahill’s encyclopedic knowledge of piano music as well as her collaborative nature and, of course, her skills as a pianist.
I’m cheating a bit here since I wasn’t able to complete my review until 2023 but this Starkland disc was released in 2022 and definitely earns its place in my “best of” list. This rising star is another one to watch. Starkland, run by the dynamic Tom Steenland is one of those labels that reliably finds interesting and substantive new music. This one is no exception. It goes a long way to alleviating my skepticism of the electroacoustic genre.
And, in order to be fair I must cheat equitably. Charles Amirkhanian kindly sent me this exciting and excellent DVD of his collaboration with his partner in life and in artistic crimes, Carol Law. My more extensive review will appear shortly but this was a major release in 2022. Amirkhanian spends far less time promoting and performing his own unique compositions so this is an especially welcome release.
Last but not least of my best of 2022 is this wonderful Neuma release which, when I began my research to write a cogent and informed review, left me stunned at how little I actually knew about composer David Tudor and the astounding dimensions of this unusual piece that evolves with every performance. After gathering a whole ton of data I finally decided that I could not write a comprehensive review without more research so I settled on a tasteful (I hope) summary with the expectation that I will write a larger piece on Tudor and his work. The review will be out very shortly. This is an amazing and significant release.
Happy 2023 to all my readers and thanks to those who kept reading my blog during more fallow times. I have many blogs currently in preparation that I look forward to sharing in the months to come. Peace, health, and music to all.
On the back of the CD case, in the right upper hand corner, like a warning on the back of a medicine bottle, an entreaty:
“Binaural Recording: Please use headphones.”
Even those of you who think they know this masterpiece of experimental electronics by David Tudor (1926-1996) will find here a unique and important collaboration in this production initiated by Pauline Oliveros, then director of the Center for Music Experiment (CME) at UCSD. She invited a group called CIE (Composers Inside Electronics). And the resulting product of that collaboration documented here advances the understanding of this music and will henceforth be an influence on all future performances.
Unfortunately for this writer’s timing, the wealth of information gathered in the course of researching this review, the sheer volume of possibilities in performance and the wider scope of historical and technical elements embraced by this work required a deeper reading and contemplation on my part. In short, it has taken some time for this reviewer to get a grasp of how to express the significance of the deeply substantive work at hand. I simply didn’t know enough about the history of electronic music and the work of this seminal musician.
So now, after some serious study, is my perspective on this landmark composition and, in particular, the deeper significance of this performance. In short, there will likely be many more performances of this work but this one will always be a standout. Not the ultimate version perhaps, but one of the most memorable.
David Tudor was a pianist who championed contemporary piano music and then began a career as a composer. But he was no ordinary composer. Taking inspiration from the composers whose work he championed, Tudor developed musical ideas with structures that contain indeterminate elements within a larger structure. Such is the case with Rainforest which was first developed in 1968 against a cultural backdrop of the height of the psychedelic sixties and the political “days of rage”, a time of artistic innovation like Allen Kaprow’s “happenings” which expanded the concepts of what constituted art, a time of wild experimentation. His work crossed paths with the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills College New Music Center). Tudor traversed some of the same territory as Donald Buchla, Pauline Oliveros, Maggie Payne, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, as well as many others.
The first iteration of Tudor’s innovative and experimental “Rainforest” was in 1968. It is a testament to Tudor’s creativity to have created a structure that contains the indeterminate sonic events called for in the score (not a formal score but a set of performance instructions) in such a way that the piece evolves with each iteration, each performance. That, rather than the varying sonic content, is the heart of this major work of contemporary sonic art.
First, this is a binaural recording, meaning that it was recorded with a technology intended to deliver the sound directly to headphones of the listener hopefully producing an experience much as would have been experienced by sitting in the audience. Earlier versions of this technology involved, basically, microphones embedded in the ear canals of an anthropomorphic head which is placed in front of the performance as a listener would sit in their seat. However, the present recording recording involved another generation of this technology which is particularly well suited to this music. Here the microphones are worn in the ears of the recordist as they meander through the space in which the piece is being performed. The result is the listener being able to (almost literally) get inside the head of the person wandering within the space and listening to the sounds created, sometimes at a distance, sometimes more closely.
Despite the entreaty that the listener wear headphones when listening to this recording (you really should try that at least once), one can play this recording as one would any other musical recording. It can also be appreciated by playing it on speakers in any space as a sort of sound installation. This piece challenges conventional concepts of music and its audience.
The late, great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (to those who don’t know the technology)”. A similar assertion can be said to be true of music. New music is a large and diverse repertoire that is difficult to navigate without some sort of guide to put those new sounds in context. And Charles Amirkhanian has, via his years as music director of KPFA and his stewardship as Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds (among the many hats he wears) has provided such guidance for interested listeners to new music since at least 1969.
In an unanticipated gesture of magnanimity there was, at the will call table, not the usual “items for sale”, rather there was a lovely free tote bag and a large selection of OM CDs there for the taking. Suffice it to say, I and many others went home heavier than we had arrived.
He and his hard working team (Blaine Todd, Associate Director; Mark Abramson, Creative Director; Liam Herb, Production Director; Adrienne Cardwell, Archivist; Andrew Weathers, Recordings Director; Jenny Maxwell, Business Manager; and Joseph Bohigian, Program Associate) have provided guides for adventurous listeners that have included interviews with musicians and composers, a record label dedicated to new music, and live lectures and performances of creative new music from all over the world. The annual Other Minds Festival (the 26th was presented earlier this year) has brought in a cornucopia of stellar performers with a knack for finding stars at the outset of their careers. Other Minds at 30 is truly one of the great joys of San Francisco and it’s environs.
This evening was one of the lecture recital variety. Kyle Gann, composer, writer, critic, musicologist, OM alum, and vice president of the Charles Ives Society was brought in to provide the lecture portion of the evening. In addition, this event was held at a major temple of new music in the Bay Area, Mills College (actually Amirkhanian’s alma mater). The beautiful Littlefield Concert Hall itself displays the striking work of California architect, Julia Morgan. Artistic spirits past and present were undoubtedly here this night in the history of this place as well as those artistic spirits present in the audience.
The program began with a brief discussion among Mr. Amirkhanian, Professor Gann, and maestro Hamelin. Then Gann took his place at the lectern and Hamelin took a seat at the piano where he had graciously agreed to perform musical excerpts to illustrate Gann’s lecture. Actually Gann has written a definitive and very readable book on the work destined for performance on this night. “Essays After a Sonata” (2017), the title a gentle pun in homage to composer Charles Ives who (in an unprecedented move) wrote a little book titled “Essays Before a Sonata” as a means of introducing his landmark Second Piano Sonata.
In addition to his wonderful book, Gann has had a long interest in the literature of the so called “Transcendentalists” who are the subject (or at least subtext) of this music. He even went as far as to suggest specific literary references implied in the music. The Second Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60, (written 1904 to 1915 with several subsequent revisions) is in four movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”. Gann provided a few concise illustrations in a rather brief talk that provided just enough context to assuage the uninitiated (if there were any in the audience, lol). Hamelin coordinated most amicably and then there was a short intermission.
Marc-Andre Hamelin (http://www.marcandrehamelin.com) was born in Montreal and is now based in Boston. His discography consists of over 80 albums. My own introduction to his artistry was his first release in 1988 of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Twelve New Etudes (1977-1986) and Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” (1943-47). His web site is worth your time and gives an idea of the sheer scope and acumen of his repertory choices. In fact his most recent releases include more from William Bolcom and a disc of his own compositions. In fact he gives fine performances of music from Mozart and Haydn to the present. Hamelin has performed the Concord Sonata numerous times and has recorded it twice. He performed this gargantuan work entirely from memory.
Hamelin gave an extremely focused and convincing performance, an exercise of both intellectual and physical stamina. The audience, due to their reverence for Ives, Hamelin, and the spirits present in the hall, sat in rapt attention with nary a squirm nor a cough (well, maybe one cough) to interrupt the flow of this landmark work of American modernism. Such was Hamelin’s thrall. The piece goes through a wide dynamic range and the soft pianissimo resonances could be heard as clearly as the Beethoven-esque heroic fortes. Hamelin took two curtain calls to a standing ovation of a very appreciative audience. Gann quipped at one point that he uses Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Sonata in his classes. It was easy to see why.
I recall reading a comment from Aaron Copland to the effect that he believed that there was undiscovered gems written in those years between the world wars 1 and 2 (roughly 1918 to 1939). And this release certainly confirms that assertion. The 7 pieces here (of which three are receiving their world premiere recordings) represent the years 1926 to 1939, the end of the period following the “War to End All Wars”. The French term “Avant L’Orage” is generally translated as “The Calm Before the Storm”. It is an apt metaphor for the time.
The string trio form, though common, does not seem to have produced the grand stature of some of the music for the more commonly heard ensemble, the string quartet. The trio of Violin, Viola, Cello can arguably be said to not have truly com of age until the twentieth century which would see major works by Schoenberg (1946), Krenek (1949), Wourinen (1968), and Schnittke (1985) to name a few highlights. But these charming little works on this 2 CD set can be thought of as stepping stones in the evolution of the form.
Now I know a lot of pretty obscure repertoire so I was a tad surprised to find that I had only heard of four of the composers represented here: Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), Jean Francaix (1912-1997), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), and Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937). The other three: Jean Cras (1879-1932), Émile Goué (1904-1946), and Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) were new to me.
Tomasi’s “Trio en forme de divertissement” (1938) is a four movement work with a lighthearted feel. It is structured in classical form. Largely neoclassical in sound. It opens with a Prelude followed by a gentle Nocturne, a pithy Scherzo, and a playful Final. This, surprisingly, is one of the world premieres on this collection. It reveals a composer who deserves a new reckoning and hopefully this recording will help launch it. It is the first of the three world premiere recordings in this set.
The Jean Cras trio of 1926 also follows the four movement format. Cras is one of the names heretofore unknown to this writer.
This work, also in four movements as the previous piece, reveals a more deeply contemplative work Its harmonies are certainly post classical era but essentially familiar. The first movement strikes a serious tone and is followed by a beautiful and contemplative slow movement. The third movement is a playful scherzo like movement followed by a riotously playful and virtuosic finale. It is virtually a symphony for three instruments.
Émile Goué is represented by a three movement work. This is also an unfamiliar name to this reviewer. Again we hear familiar romantic harmonies in a relatively brief (about 15 minutes) piece.
The classical forms of the first tow movements are followed by a scherzo like playful finale. Surprisingly this work as been recorded before.
Jean René Désiré Françaix will be a familiar name to many. His four movement string trio which concludes the first disc is pretty characteristic of his style. He is the youngest of the composers featured here but he crossed paths with most of the prominent French composers of the twentieth century. Harmonically and melodically his work embodies much of the same sound as his older contemporaries. With the exception of the beautiful slow movement these rather hyperactive episodes hold much in common with his previous and subsequent work. Coming in at about 13 minutes this satisfying work whose complexities are subsumed into a friendly, appealing work.
Robert Casadesus was the patriarch of one of the great piano dynasties of the twentieth century. along with his wife Gaby (1901–1999) and son Jean (1927–1972). Robert was also a prolific composer whose output includes seven symphonies and multiple works for piano and orchestra. His trio is a three movement work which opens the second disc on this epic anthology.
This work is among the world premiere recordings on this set. Its brevity relative to the composer’s larger works suggest that this might be a minor occasional piece but this is in fact a compact and deeply serious work. From the opening Allegro con brio we hear a substantive composition. The slow movement contains a playful scherzo like section in the middle before it returns to the more somber tone of its opening. The finale marked “allegro aperto” is, at first a playful finale as one would expect from a classical era symphony but it goes through various moods before it returns to reassert that playful opening. This one makes a case for the further exploration of this composer’s work.
The “Suite en Trio” (1937) is the outlier here, cast in no fewer than 6 movements. The composer, better known as a music critic, was admittedly heavily influenced by one of his mentors, Claude Debussy.
“Trois pieces en trio” (1937 ) concludes this fascinating survey of the string trio format as composed during the interwar period. This three movement work certainly reflects that influence but this is not mere imitation. This is a truly substantive work, the third of the three world premiere recordings here. Each of the relatively brief movements demonstrate a truly gifted composer. Once again the listener will be curious to hear more from this man’s work. We can only hope.
Last and certainly not least is the trio by Gabriel Pierne. He studied with Jules Massenet and was a contemporary of Claude Debussy. As both composer and conductor his profile loomed large on the French music scene. He is the oldest composer represented here and this is among the last of his works.
This trio is in three movements and, like the Casadeseus trio which opens the second disc of this fine collection, it is a weighty, slow moving, serious work. Once again the listener is given to wonder what other treasures ay undiscovered from this curious era of history when the world was awaiting the growing conflicts that resulted in the second world war.
The truly excellent liner notes are contributed by Dr. Elinor Olin, professor of music at Northern Illinois University. The recording by Bill Maylone is up to the usual high standards we have come to expect from producer James Ginsburg’s wonderful Cedille label. And the graphic design by Madeleine Richter echoes the era that gave birth to this great music. This is an epic anthology which fills a great gap in the history of recorded sound. I suppose one must acknowledge the irony of our present moment in history, hoping against hope that history will not repeat itself. Meanwhile much solace can be taken from this lovely collection. This one is a must have.
William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.
This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.
The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.
Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.
Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.
While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.
This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
William Susman (1960- ) may not be a household name but, since my first encounter (purely by chance) with this man’s work I have heard, enjoyed, and reviewed several fascinating CDs of chamber music and film music which demonstrate a significant musical voice with some mighty substantial compositions. I don’t know how Mr. Susman feels about being called a “minimalist” but that is the most useful way I can convey with words his musical style. That much used word is a sort of catch all for what is in fact a plethora of compositional styles based in some basic, though hardly rigid, set of practices like static harmonies and repetition.
There are, as of this writing, four books of Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2010, 2012, 2013), each book contains 22 pieces further divided into 11 “Prologues” followed by 11 “Actions”. While I have only the vaguest idea of what processes the composer uses in these works (Book I at least) sounds to these ears like music which should share company with the likes of Terry Riley’s “Two Keyboard Studies” (1965), William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes” (1977-78), Jeroen van Veen’s “Minimal Preludes” (four books1999-2013), Philip Glass’ “Etudes” (two volumes1994-2012). Spiritually they share a kinship with antecedents such as Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” (six volumes1926-1939), and, ultimately I suppose, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (1722-1742). Yes, these are a diverse set of works for comparison, but to my ears they seem to share attempts to codify and/or experiment with their respective materials. They are the composers’ working out of their ideas.
And, in a delightful coincidence the pianist chosen to interpret these works is none other than Nicolas Horvath, a name that has graced these pages numerous times since our first online meeting in about 2014. Horvath has become a sort of pied piper for minimalist composers. He has performed solo recitals lasting up to 35 hours including Philip Glass’ complete piano music, a solo rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893-94), whose 840 repetitions were first performed by a tag team of pianists helmed by John Cage (of course) in 1963. He has also recently recorded all the piano music of little known French minimalist composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005) and numerous other projects including his own original compositions and sound/art installations.
Horvath was born to play this music and Mr. Susman kindly informed me that he will indeed record the remaining three books. This musician’s curatorial radar is as unique as it is accurate. That is, he knows good music when he sees/hears it and he searches far and wide. He delivers loving and authoritative performances here. It is, after all, his métier.
Susman’s etudes are experimental only in the sense of a composer exploring his inspiration, transcribing the dictation of his muses. The title “Quiet Rhythms” is quite apt as these are really kind of soothing in their harmony and meandering developments. And, more importantly, they have the weight of substance.
Three of these have been recorded before and I’m pleased to say that the remaining 8 compositions are equal in quality to the ones I’d already heard. Each numbered piece is actually two pieces, a prologue of 90-120 seconds followed by a more complex sounding work using similar methods. At first I had wanted to write about each of the pieces but I found myself enraptured by the music and insufficiently skilled in musicology to do a respectable analysis of these works.
So I’ve chosen to simply say that these are fascinating and engaging pieces whose structure is very much secondary to the quality of the musical content. These are truly post minimal works with a much wider harmonic palette than its minimalist predecessors. The sound is quite rich and the pieces engage the listener transporting them to a powerful emotional experience. The music echoes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley but they also are destined to share a place in the repertoire alongside similar works by William Duckworth, Jeroen van Veen, and Simeon ten Holt.
Horvath is truly in his element here and his performances are hypnotically engaging. I can’t imagine these works being done better but, that said, they are attractive concert pieces for adventuresome pianists to program. Above all these are listener friendly despite the feel that they are almost a sort of textbook or manifesto by the composer which describes in music his vision of minimalism/post-minimalism.
If you’re a fan of minimal/post-minimal music this is a must have. but beware and remember to budget for the forthcoming 3 discs. You will want them all.
This is a timely release but it doubtless reflects years of preparation by organist Gail Archer. Archer is a highly accomplished musician who holds a faculty appointment at the Harriman Institute of Columbia College where she is the director of the music program at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is also an organist at Vassar College. She founded Musforum which is a web site for women organists to promote their work.
Archer has a particular interest in organ music of eastern Europe and has done regular concert tours since 2011. And this, her ninth album, is focused on rarely played Ukrainian organ music of the early through the late twentieth century. This album (recorded in the Cherivtsi Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi, Ukraine) contains works by six composers who are represented by 7 works.
To caveats here: one is that organ music, due in part to most organs being located in churches, tends to be liturgical and conservative in nature. Two is that your humble reviewer must confess to a limited knowledge of organ music. Aside from knowledge of a few Bach pieces and an awareness of works by Sweelinck, Franck, Widor, Vierne, Langlais, and Messiaen my knowledge of this genre is somewhat limited.
I have not heard of any of these composers: Bohdan Kotyuk (1951- ), Tadeusz Machl (1922-2006), Victor Goncharenko (1959- ), Mykola Kolessa (1903-2006), Svitlana Ostrova (1961- ), Iwan Kryschanowskij (1867-1924). Composers whose primary output is for the organ also seem to get far less notice than those who work with more instrumental diversity, so there’s that. And the music of contemporary Ukraine is generally not well known or distributed. So this album does its part to fill that gap and get this music heard outside of that country.
Yes, these are somewhat conservative compositions, but that only means that they fall to the less experimental side of the musical continuum. That is to say that these are closer to Franck and Widor than to Messiaen. As such they are a largely post-romantic set of works, some apparently intended for church services (da chiesa), some for non-liturgical use (da camera).
But for listening purposes I found it useful to just approach them as concert works. These are well crafted works, come with a significant degree of complexity and virtuosity. Archer’s choices are thoughtful and interesting. It leaves this listener wondering about the other works of these composers as well as the other fine music being written in this embattled region of the world. Would that the creation and sharing of art could resolve genocidal conflicts but be assured that familiarity with this music will be a revelation to many and that is the point of a release such as this.
Archer’s playing is both informed and assured. Listeners will want to explore more of her work.
It is thanks to the ever industrious Guitarist/composer/producer (et al) John Schneider for doing the research and navigating legal quagmires to obtain permission to release this marvelous private recording of a lecture/demonstration of Harry Partch’s musical theories in a sort of lecture/recital given on November 3, 1942 in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. This (apparently stereo) direct to disc recording languished in an archive and has now been liberated and released to Partch historians, fans and friends of new music..
First let me say that the physical product here is both a valuable historic artifact and a “fetish level” collectible. And by that I mean it is a hardcover book measuring 6 x 8 inches with boards and spine covered tastefully with images and text. Save for the heavy stock end papers the pages are glossy satin coated pages. They contain the liner notes, relevant texts as well as historical photographs and some fascinating historical material that helps put this sonic document in its proper context. It is a beautifully conceived and executed release on the ever adventurous MicroFest Records. (Of course you can get the excellent recording and the texts, learned liner notes, and historical photos on a pdf file, the recording on a digital file, but collectors will long cherish this museum quality document. Suffice it to say that some of my Christmas shopping is done now.)
This is in effect a sort of appendix to the Bridge Records Volume I, (“Bitter Music” released in 2011) of their visionary complete Partch recording project. Both “Bitter music” and “Harry Partch, 1942” are basically variations on Partch’s work with “speech music”.
Partch’s work here seems to be anchored not only to ancient Greek antecedents for the tunings and the performance practices of poetry but also in the genre of “sound poetry” as practiced in the early twentieth century and even perhaps forward to later incarnations of this genre like Charles Dodge’s pioneering 1980s “Speech Songs” using computerized vocal synthesis algorithms. All are plays on the intertwining of speech and music, the artistic territory that exists between music, poetry, and spoken word.
Partch is connected to sound poetry via his explorations of early Greek culture which had a tradition of performing poetry with music. He is a contemporary of Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (maybe even Bob Dylan), and can be said to be in the lineage of beatniks, folk singers, street theater, sound poets, and an exponent of music theater. And Partch’s work on tunings precedes and informs the later work of Ben Johnston (who played in Partch’s own ensemble) as well as La Monte Young. This hour with the master sheds light on his theories, his art, and his genius which will thrill fans of his work. This is one exciting release.
That “Bitter Music” of the Bridge release (Bridge 9349A) is a contemporary performance version, a faithful realization of a written diary but the present document is a chance to hear the mid-career Partch (the Bitter Music journal dates from 1935-7) showing and telling his audience how its done. Partch did some speaking in a lot of the CRI discs which contained digitally remastered transcriptions of the 78 rpm discs released on the composer’s Gate 5 label but these were largely brief, scripted, and informational comments preceding the recorded performances. By contrast Partch, 1942 is a lucidly informative lecture demonstration with an (mostly) unscripted Partch speaking in his own voice, a professor presenting his research. Partch’s exposition of his theories is well constructed and his musical performances are heartfelt and, well, definitive.
The disc (which sits neatly in a pocket on the inside of the back cover) clocks in at about an hour and, for reasons likely lost to history, the recording begins with the introduction “already in progress”. This single CD contains the material on the four original direct to disc live recordings. The sound is surprisingly good.
So whether you just want to hear the performance or want to own this objet d’art in all its glory this is a fine way to introduce yourself or a friend to this unique American genius.
Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.
And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.
So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.
Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.
The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.
Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.
While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.
I thought I knew this music. After falling in love with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) work having heard it so aptly used in Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey” I eagerly purchased both of the complete works surveys on Sony and Telefunken but these fresh, insightful performances by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under conductor Marcus Creed have made me fall in love again. And, while I have some familiarity with Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) music (he is underappreciated) I did not know his unaccompanied choral works. So this encounter was an absolute revelation.
This release succeeds on several levels. First, it is one of the always reliably fine productions from Lars Hannibal’s OUR Recordings. So, from the physical design to and the the choices of repertoire and performers as well as the sound of the recording, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the listener.
But what brings this release from competent to outstanding is the interpretive skillset of conductor Marcus Creed and the disciplined Danish National Vocal Ensemble. These are fresh, insightful readings that shed new light on these masterful composers and their work. Looking at Creed’s extensive discography it is clear that he commands a wide range of repertoire with a penchant for the twentieth century and beyond. His reading of Ernst Krenek’s massive 12 tone contrapuntal a capella masterpiece from 1941-2, “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” Op. 93 remains perhaps this challenging work’s finest interpretation in the 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and a personal favorite of this reviewer. So it should come as no surprise that he is able to breathe new life into these works.
The opening work is probably the most familiar here. Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966) was first thrust into the spotlight via its (unpermitted at the time) inclusion is the Kubrick film. This is mid-career Ligeti and one of the most effective uses of his “micropolyphony” and cluster chord harmonies. It is first heard in the Clavius Moonbase scene fairly early in the film. It accompanies the otherwise silent animation of a sort of space shuttle bus as it glides along the lunar surface. Along with the Kyrie of Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem and his orchestral “Atmospheres” (1961) work beautifully in telling the story in this film with its well known paucity of dialogue.
This opening track grabbed my attention immediately. The text, which appears in the traditional Catholic Mass and Requiem Mass is a communion hymn with the following words:
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy Saints for evermore: for Thou art gracious. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them: With Thy Saints for evermore, for Thou art gracious.
But the experience of this music is positively otherworldly. Its wall of sound ambiance belies a rather complex construction which has become a landmark in the development of compositional practice. And it is vitally that this music, now nearly synonymous with the film, be heard as originally intended. It exists in both worlds now and this reading helps reaffirm it as the masterpiece it is.
The next six tracks are by Ligeti but this is the Ligeti still composing under the powerful spell of Bela Bartok. All date from 1955 but are a quantum leap back from the sound world of the first track. The two brief a capella choruses (the second includes solos for bass and soprano voices) are settings of words by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). These settings are ostensibly influenced by the composer’s early encounter with modern music in Vienna (Ligeti ultimately relocated from the artistically and socially oppressive Hungary to Austria). The second of these choruses had to wait until 1968 for a performance which provides some notion of how oppressive the Hungarian regime had been.
Those brief choruses are followed by four folksong settings which take the listener back into the sound world of Bartok and Kodaly with their respective folksong transcriptions. These are very enjoyable travels into Ligeti’s excellent but markedly more conservative beginnings.
Next is another Ligeti work but one from his later years demonstrating that he never stopped evolving as a composer. The “Three Fantasies after Friederich Holderlin” (1982) are themselves a quantum leap stylistically from the 1966 Lux Aeterna. These are also more complex settings and, suffice it to say, they are a powerful experience. What was micropolyphony in the earlier work is replaced by a more traditional style of polyphonic writing but one that could not exist were it not for those earlier efforts.
And then we come further back again to early and mid-career Kodaly in three a capella works, “Evening Song” (1938), “Evening” (1904), and “Matra Pictures” (1931). I say at the beginning of this review that I believe Kodaly’s music to be underappreciated. Indeed but I find myself with no excuse given the easy availability of so much music on You Tube and other online sources. And this is why the inclusion of this fascinating selection of the composer’s significant cache of a capella choral music is so very welcome.
Like, I suppose, many listeners I mostly know Kodaly’s work via his Peacock Variations and excerpts from his opera, “Hary Janos”. Of course I had also been aware of Kodaly’s pedagogy and his methods for learning music (and I was aware even before I saw it in “Close Encounters).
But my encounter with these fine choral works revealed to me the depth of the composer’s skills. This is marvelously written music by a composer intimately familiar with this medium and it has already sent me to exploring more of this composer’s work in all genres. It is not difficult to see Kodaly’s work as a logical predecessor to that of Ligeti. he same skill and invention the same ability to convincingly set text to music. This is a terrific release, highly recommended to lovers of choral music in general and, of course, of these two composers.
Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.
Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).
The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.
Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.
Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.
The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.
The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.
We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.
Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.
The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.
This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.
Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.
The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.
This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.
The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.
Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black
At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.
A wonderful trend was begun by London/Decca in the early 1990s with the release of their “Entartete Musik” series. It featured music by composers whose work had been suppressed by the dictates of the Nazi regime. It brought to light a great deal of wonderful music by mostly but not entirely Jewish composers many of whom died in concentration camps or were forced to live in exile. These recordings sparked a trend which continues today and this time the Chandos label hosts the efforts of the Toronto based ARC Ensemble whose scholarship and performance skills bring this, the fifth album in this important series. It is saddening to see the sheer volume of these oppressed works evidenced by the seemingly endless flow of new releases in this genre but there is some joy to be had in the fact that this music is slowly getting performances and recognition.
Previous releases featured premiere recordings by Jerzy Fitelberg, Szymon Laks, Walter Kaufmann, and Paul Ben-Haim. Haven’t heard these names? Well, maybe you’ve heard of Paul Ben-Haim, the Jewish/German composer who changed his name (Paul Frankenberger) when he emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The importance of projects like this one is to bring to light the art of composers lost to history and unknown in concert halls due to political oppression and/or outright murder.
This release features music by Jewish/Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987), a composer whose work displeased the Stalinist regime. He wasn’t put in a concentration camp, he wasn’t killed, he wasn’t even sent into exile in the Gulag. Rather he was forced into a sort of intellectual exile in which he produced music which pleased the regime. But he had been cast as a sort of “whipping boy” by the regime and used as an example in the hopes of preventing others from straying to more liberal and outspoken paths such as those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Fortunately he outlived Stalin and was able to return to his own personal style of composition. It is this music which is presented here.
The three works from 1946, 1958, and 1965 respectively seem to have been chosen to reflect three fairly distinct eras in Klebanov’s artistic development. Whether these are ultimately representative of those chosen eras seems beside the point which is, I believe, to present a representative sampling of his work to give listeners a taste of his work and to help guide interesting performers and record companies to decide what to record next.
These works will serve to represent this neglected composer for now. There do exist some recordings of this music but these are mostly on small labels and very difficult to find. The hope for this recording and for a project like this is to provide good recordings with authoritative performances which may inspire musicians to explore the remainder of the composer’s work and, hopefully, bring these gems to audiences.
The disc begins with the nearly classical sounding fourth quartet from 1946. Cast in the classical four movements it’s difficult, in 2021, to imagine how this very accessible music could offend Soviet leaders but that is another issue entirely. All music ultimately exists within a variety of contexts but it is only possible to hear this music as it is today, listening with ears that did not exist at the time the music was written. Suffice it to say that this is eminently listenable music played with insight and dedication by the wonderful ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum, violin; Marie Berard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Thomas Wiebe, cello; and Kevin Ahfat, piano).
The second selection is the Second Piano Trio of 1958. It is cast in three movements, some of which will remind listeners of Shostakovich whose fame and mastery loomed brightly at this time. But neither the rather conservative classical form of a piano trio nor the basically tonal idiom is likely to have charmed Kremlin leaders of the time. This is intelligent music that show the composer at the height of his powers and this, generally speaking, was not appreciated by the powers that be at the time of the work’s genesis.
The last work on the disc is the composer’s fifth string quartet from 1965. Like the two works that precede it in this recording this is music of both substance and charm. It is as listenable as the other two works and would doubtless entertain the average concert goer. It bears comparisons to Shostakovich, yes, but also to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Completists, such as your reviewer here, will wonder at the music not included on this disc: the first three string quartets, the first piano trio, the other chamber music, nine symphonies, and various concerti along with five operas and two ballets. It is both fitting and sad that this overdue review be published at at this moment in history when, as I write, the Russian army advances into the Ukraine leaving death and destruction in their wake. There is doubtless much more music yet to be uncovered/discovered, rescued from oblivion but the sad fact is that the forces which suppressed this Ukrainian composer’s works continue to oppress artists today.
Having chosen a debut album featuring solo cello without electronics or accompaniment the Sono Luminus label virtually guarantees that every one of the subtleties of the performer’s skills will be heard in all their glory. And so we have an auspicious solo debut album by a skilled and talented artist with a unique and intelligent vision in her choice of repertoire for her instrument. Hannah Collins has a beautifully designed web page describing her background so I will focus only on the music on this release.
Even a brief glance makes it obvious that Collins’ radar captures a wide range of music which encompasses five centuries of compositional efforts by both a consciously curated selection of composers that reflect both racial and gender diversity and who themselves represent a substantive variety of styles and visions. She begins with a rather obscure baroque composer (I had never heard of him), Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). His Chiacona (1670) is apparently the first identified composition for solo cello (the famous solo cello suites by J.S. Bach wouldn’t come along until 1717-1723).
This arguably foundational work of the solo cello genre is then followed by the very fine Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) whose Dreaming Chaconne (2010) is in fact a variation on the Colombi piece.
The third track, “In manus tuas” (Into your hands) by the equally fine American composer, Carolyn Shaw (1982- ) was written for Ms. Collins, and is an aural peek inside the mind of the composer as she recalls a performance of a motet by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Shaw evokes a sonic memory moment of hearing a performance of “In manus tuas Domine” in Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut which made a strong impression on her. It is a work that appears to be destined to become a modern classic. It creates spectral harmonics that engulf the listener inside Shaw’s memory of the event. The composition’s title also function metaphorically as she offers her music into the hands of the artist and the minds of the listeners. It is a challenge both technically and interpretively and Collins rises to those challenges with seeming ease.
The next seven tracks are given to another Saariaho composition, “Sept Papillons” (2000). This earlier work from her extensive catalog is also given to extended instrumental techniques as she evokes the seven butterflies of the title. This set of pieces was written for the fine Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen. It was at the 2008 Creative Dialogue Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (run by Karttunen) that Collins encountered this music and the extended techniques required for its performance. Saariaho’s sound world is like that of an incarnation of Debussy and his impressionist aesthetic. There is apparently no visual program here but the music recalls, in this listener’s mind, Saariaho’s earlier “Nymphea” (1987) for string quartet and electronics which was inspired by Monet’s famed “Water Lilies” of 1906.
This fine disc includes the first (of three) suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten. All three of these (1964, 1967, 1971) had all been composed for the Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the the Saariaho and Shaw pieces these suites are inspired by earlier works, in this case the Bach suites of the early 18th century. Collins plays the first (Opus 72) of these and her performance makes this listener hope that she will later record the other two.
While modeled on earlier music, the Britten work utilizes techniques that would likely be unfamiliar to cellists before the 20th century. It is homage both to Bach and to Maestro Rostropovich. And Collins’ playing furthers this homage to both of these past masters.
The final track is a work by one Thomas Kotcheff (1988- ). Like the first track, this young composer is unfamiliar to this writer. His work, “Cadenza (with or without Haydn)” of 2020” carries on the theme of homage. In a nod to the late great Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) whose “Cadenza with or without Beethoven” (2003) is an extended cadenza which can be played on its own or as part of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.
Kotcheff’s work is a cadenza for Haydn’s C major cello concerto. Like the Rzewski, it can be performed with the concerto or as a solo work on its own. Also like the Rzewski, the more modern aspects of this “cadenza” might confuse audiences anticipating more conventional music that fits with the context of the concerto for which it was written and the music stands very strongly on its own.
Like a lot of solo artists are doing these days, Collins’ debut solo album is like her personal manifesto of music for her chosen instrument. It is a fine foundation anticipating what will likely be an enlightening as well as entertaining career.
My review of Carpenter’s Sony Classical release Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc, in which he played his transcription for Organ and Orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Paganini Rhapsody paired with his exciting rendition of the always welcome Poulenc Organ Concerto. It’s kind of a gutsy move to perform the Rachmaninoff with an organ instead of a piano, bordering on sacrilege for some. Given that programming though, the choices for this recording are a little less surprising as both further stretch the notion of what an organist is actually able to play and demonstrate the sheer breadth of this composer/performer’s musical vision.
Here’s the track list for his Decca Gold debut. Take a good look and meet me at the end of this list:
J.S. Bach – The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741)
Variatio 1. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 2. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 3. Canone all’Unisono. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 4. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 5. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
Variatio 6. Canone alla Seconda. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 7. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav. al tempo di Giga
Variatio 8. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 9. Canone alla Terza. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 10. Fughetta. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 11. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 12. a 1 Clav. Canone alla Quarta in moto contrario
Variatio 13. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 14. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 15. Canone alla Quinta. a 1 Clav.: Andante
Variatio 16. Ouverture. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 17. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 18. Canone alla Sesta. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 19. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 20. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 21. Canone alla Settima
Variatio 22. a 1 Clav. alla breve
Variatio 23. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 24. Canone all’Ottava. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 25. a 2 Clav.: Adagio
Variatio 26. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 27. Canone alla Nona. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 28. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 29. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
Variatio 30. a 1 Clav. Quodlibet
Aria da Capo
Howard Hanson (arr. Carpenter) – Symphony No. 2 in D-flat Major, Opus 30 “Romantic” (1930)
Andante con tenerezza
Allegro con brio
Yup, the Bach Goldberg variations played on the organ followed by Carpenter’s transcription of Howard Hanson’s (1896-1981) lovely Second Symphony, subtitled, “Romantic” (Trivia: the finale of this work is played over the end credits on the Ridley Scott film, Alien). But I’m willing to wager that neither Hanson aficionados (always among my faves) nor fans of Alien ever imagined hearing this piece played on an organ. But it works.
And that is Carpenter’s genius, or a portion of his genius. He is a man with a mission. He is a virtuoso of the highest order, he is a showman such that earns him a membership in my “glam classical” category, and he is a scholar with wide ranging tastes whose choices have challenged and charmed this humble listener and doubtless many others. My God, the man had a digital portable touring organ custom built for him! It is the instrument upon which he recorded this and the previously referenced disc.
He has antecedents such as Virgil Fox and Anthony Newman, musicians who eschew the stoic musician stereotype (nothing wrong with stoic, either) and engage the audience in their more theatrical manners. And it is the delicate balance between the musicianship and the stage presence that is worth the audience’s time. By my count this is his 8th album released. Check out his web page for more.
Watch any of his YouTube videos where his stage presence is as engaging as his virtuosity. Sure, he plays the “standard repertoire” authoritatively. His Bach is as engaging as his genial manner. This is one exciting composer/performer and it is a joy to watch him develop his brand. All sorts of ideas chase themselves in my mind when I ponder what he’ll do next. But I’d rather be surprised.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
I know this review is “late out the gate” but this disc really needs to be heard. When I did finally listen to this disc in its entirety while on a long drive I was positively mesmerized. This odd mixture of 1/4 tone tunings along with post minimalist repeating patterns takes on the character of drone as well as its own take on minimalism and even spectralism to some degree. These three homages are gestures of respect to three composers whose work obviously has great meaning for Georg Friederich Haas (1953- ). The composers selected for these homages are György Ligeti (1923-2006), Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), and Steve Reich (1936- )
It echoes a similar work by Ligeti, Three Pieces for Two Pianos – Monument – Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei) – Bewegung (1976) but with conventional tunings. Haas has had a long interest in microtonal music by composers like Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába, as well as the music of Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono.
It is easy to see why he chose Ligeti for the first homage (written in 1984). Haas’ work owes much to Ligeti’s influence including dissonant harmonies and micropolyphony. This first homage is the longest, clocking in at about 30 minutes. And Steve Reich has met with admiration and homages from many fellow composers but I must admit to having been stumped at the inclusion of Hauer’s work. This one I had to look up. Hauer was a Austrian composer whose substantial oeuvre is not really well known in the United States but deserves at least a second look. Hauer created his own 12 tone system apparently in parallel with Arnold Schoenberg but achieved little recognition despite a large catalog of works. That appears to be the reason why he was chosen. Hauer’s homage is placed second in this performance and Reich’s is last. Both the Hauer and Reich homages were written in 1982. And though this piece requires 2 pianos it also requires only the two hands of a talented pianist.
Mabel Kwan‘s recording is the world premiere of this work which is among Haas’ earliest published works (having heard it a couple of times it is difficult to imagine why it waited so long for a recording). Kwan, a founding member of the Chicago based Dal Niente (whose name literally means, “from nothing” but is used in music to indicate basically a long diminuendo, a fade) is no stranger to new and experimental music.. Her musical credentials are extensive and this world premiere recording is a major feather in her musical cap and a demonstration of her formidable interpretive and performing skills. Brava! Ms. Kwan.
I don’t recall when I first heard Guy Klucevsek but I think it was the early 90s. I grew up hearing a great deal of accordions in polka bands at weddings throughout my childhood. This instrument had, pretty much since its beginnings in the early 19th century, been associated primarily with folk bands and not at all with classical music. I don’t think one can find an accordion used in a classical orchestra before Tchaikovsky’s 1822 Second Orchestral Suite and only sparingly after that. So when I discovered this New York musician via his releases on the Starkland label, Transylvanian Software (1999) and Free Range Accordion (2000) and the CRI disc Manhattan Cascade (1992). I was curious to see what this musician would do with this traditionally “low brow” folk instrument.
I had come to trust the Starkland label (which began in 1991) as one whose releases were usually very much to my taste and I was not disappointed to hear Klucevsek’s playing of pieces written by him and other composers for this instrument. Unlike Pauline Oliveros who did much to expand the very nature of the instrument itself, Klucevsek retained, and sometimes parodied, the humble folk/pop origins and reputation of the instrument while still pursuing its possibilities in the New York downtown experimental music scene where he worked with people like Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Coleman, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn among many others. Klucevsek expanded the role of the accordion in his own way.
Klucevsek later put together a commissioning project called, “Polka from the Fringe” (1992), a project which echoes the 1981 “Waltz Project” by Robert Moran and presages another accordionist William Schimmel’s “The Tango Project” of 2006. All of these commissioning projects utilized dance forms common in the 20th century as a “stepping off” place for a new musical piece. And it was Starkland which rescued the fascinating two disc release of Polka from the Fringe (2013) from over two decades languishing in “out of print” status. These projects are significant in that they invite composers to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate their take on the given dance form. Like Klucevsek’s earlier releases this Polka collection is a veritable Who’s Who of working composers of the era much as the Variations (1819) project of Anton Diabelli collected some 51 composers’ works based on Diabelli’s waltz-like theme (Beethoven’s gargantuan set of variations was published as volume 1 and the other 50 variations in volume 2 which included composers like Schubert and Liszt).
So here comes Starkland to the rescue again in this (languished for some 25 years after only having been available for two years) very personal recording which displays Klucevsek’s substantial compositional chops as well as his knowledge and use of extended instrumental techniques for his instrument. It presents pieces written for a dance performances and shows a very different side of Klucevsek, one which shows more of his substance as a composer alongside his virtuosic skills on his instrument. In this digital only release there is an option to include (for a mere $3.00 more on the Bandcamp site) a series of 13 videos featuring Guy Klucevsek talking about the music on this album and his various musical interests. A gorgeous 10 page booklet providing further detail including the original liner notes with updates is included in all purchases. The album will also be available on Spotify, You Tube, and other streaming services but the videos are only available on Bandcamp.
Listeners may find this new release has some in common with Starkland’s previous Klucevsek release from Starkland, “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy” (2016) which features some similar compositional diversity in a disc entirely of Klucevsek’s works. The line from Citrus, My Love to Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy seems to be a logical succession in Klucevsek’s compositional development. In addition to his accordion studies Klucevsek studied composition in Pittsburgh but it was the influence of Morton Subotnick with whom he studied in his independent post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts that exposed this east coast artist to some of the splendors of the west coast encountering artists like Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. Indeed Klucevsek can be said to be “bi-coastal” in his compositional endeavors. And though this is a “tongue in cheek” characterization it does speak to the roots of Klucevsek’s diversity in style.
There are 12 tracks on “Citrus, My Love” representing 3 separate works: the three movement, “Passage North” (1990), the single movement, “Patience and Thyme” (1991), and the eponymous, “Citrus, My Love” (1990) in 8 movements. The production of this album is by none other than Bobby Previte, another valued east coast musician and colleague. The notes have been updated under the guidance of Tom Steenland with input from Klucevsek who, understandably, expresses great joy in having this album available again.
The first three tracks are dedicated to a single work, “Passage North” (1990) written for accordion and string trio consisting of Mary Rowell, violin/viola, Erik Friedlander, cello, and Jonathan Storck, double bass. They are dubbed “The Bantam Orchestra”. This Copland-esque work was commissioned by Angela Caponigro Dance Ensemble. The second movement is for string trio alone and is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland who died in 1990.
Patience and Thyme (1991) according to the composer “is a love note to my wife, Jan.” He composed the work while in residence at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania, which coincided with his 22nd wedding anniversary. It is scored for piano and string trio, no accordion. Compositionally it seems at home between the larger pieces.
Citrus, My Love was commissioned by Stuart Pimsler for the dance of the same name. It is in 8 scenes and is scored for Klucevsek’s accordion accompanied by his personally chosen Bantam Orchestra. Klucevsek describes the music on this album as representing his transition from hard core minimalism to a more melody driven style and this is the missing link, the “hole” to which I referred in the Beatles metaphor in the title of this review.
For those who already appreciate Klucevsek’s work this album is a must have. To those who have not gotten to know this unique talent this is a good place to start.
For those seeking to get more deeply into Klucevsek’s work (a worthwhile endeavor) and to provide a perspective on the range of this artist’s work I’m appending a discography (shamelessly lifted and updated from the Free Reed Journal) :
Scenes from a Mirage (Review) Who Stole the Polka? (out-of-print) Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse (Experimental Intermedia) Polka Dots & Laser Beams (out-of-print) Manhattan Cascade (CRI) Transylvanian Softwear (Starkland) Citrus, My Love (Starkland) Stolen Memories (Tzadik) Altered Landscapes (out-of-print) Accordance with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Free Range Accordion (Starkland) The Heart of the Andes (Winter & Winter) Tales from the Cryptic with Phillip Johnston (Winter & Winter) Notefalls with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Song of Remembrance (Tzadik) Dancing On the Volcano (Tzadik) The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova) Polka From The Fringe (Starkland) Teetering On the Verge of Normalcy (Starkland)
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy’s in Love With You (Tzadik) Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts Legends of Accordion, Awakening (Rhino) The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup (CRI) Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi (Toshiba EMI) Norwegian Wood, Monk’s Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi (Toshiba EMI) Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae (CRI) Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache (Callisto) A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear (Extraplatte) A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps (Einstein) A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land, Samba D Hiccup (No Man’s Land)
WITH JOHN ZORN
The Big Gundown (Nonesuch Icon) Cobra (Hat Art) Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes (A&M)
On Edge (Mode) Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording) Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)
Laurie Anderson: Bright Red (Warner Bros) Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992(Black Saint) Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter (XI) Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night (Avante) Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements) Fast Forward: Same Same (XI) Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith (Elektra Musician) David Garland: Control Songs (Review) Robin Holcomb: Rockabye (Elektra Musician) Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print) Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (Nonesuch) Bobby Previte: Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)
I feel as though this artist is a personal discovery for me. Whilst surfing You Tube I found a series of his videos which greatly appealed to me and I contacted him via email. I learned that he was about to release his debut as a solo artist. The logistics of sending CDs by mail “across the pond” as the saying goes are fraught with financial and logistical hurdles so I was glad to find that he was releasing via Bandcamp, a music vendor and streaming service whose business model appeals more to me every day. This album is also available on Amazon music and probably other streaming sites as well.
Let me first issue a disclaimer, to wit: that I am an unreformed and unashamed Glass groupie whose live performances with his ensemble will doubtless comfort me well into my waning years. Those memories echo in my head even now.
“Dennis Weijers is a Dutch musician and composer. He followed a traditional education at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Enschede, and got in touch with experimental electroacoustic music after moving to Berlin. Dennis started to merge his accordion with electronics. Dennis works with a variety of instruments and gear (from accordions and modular synths up to a 1948 wire recorder, tape machines and more curiosities). In 2018 he did a concert series in which he performed the complete version of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. In 2021, his debut album Accordion + Modular Synthesizer was released.”
The present disc is apparently one of those “crowd sourced” deals which allows public funding for a given project not easily funded otherwise. I missed this project but I will be on board for his next release. So I delved into his online presence and found a young highly skilled man whose primary instrument is the accordion and whose interests take his composing and transcribing skills into the electroacoustic and sound installation realms. His choice of accordion as primary instrument puts him in the company of other innovators such as Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, William Schimmel, Miloš Katanić, and others to whom I apologize for not naming here. Do click on his You Tube link (provided above) to get an idea of his creative foci. They include a excerpts from a couple of sound installation works as well as a bit of Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air”.
But let’s get to the album at hand. This recently release contains a complete performance of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” arranged for accordion and electronics. This could have been done purely as a recording but it seems clear that Weijers is enamored of live performance so these arrangements can be done live (which is apparently how he developed them).
The “Opening” begins with apparently with a brief section with (apparently to these ears) a lo fi/hi pass filter which sounds like a glitch and shortly morphs into a full spectrum sound for the rest of the performance. In fact compositional notions like glitch, sampling, looping, etc. appear strategically in other movements but I will leave that to the listener to discover. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a recomposition but rather a recasting in which the artist provides a context and uses a few effects judiciously providing a personal touch much as a painter signs a painting.
This faithful, loving rendition segues into the second movement, called “Floe”. For those who have heard Glass’ ensemble do this live (as I did in 1980) you will likely feel nostalgia. The experience is one of a good transcription of a familiar piece and the nostalgia likely comes from the life memories attached to that first hearing.
The third movement, “Islands” is a glorious minimalist slow movement which serves as much to relax the listener as it does to provide a significant contrast in anticipation of the next movement.
Movement 4, “Rubric” is a manic masterpiece which I recall playing so much that I wore out those grooves on my vinyl copy. Weijers really shows his interpretive musical chops here. He makes the piece rock and his rhythmic sensibility suggest a fondness and familiarity with jazz.
Movement 5, “Facades” is one of Glass’ early hits and, as I recall, was liked even by folks who didn’t like his other music. My recollection is that this piece had originally been written for the Godfrey Reggio film, “Koyaanisqatsi” but not used. Like any good composer does it was repurposed into the present multi-movement work. This movement triggers sadness with my nostalgia as I recall reveling in the beautiful playing of the now late Jon Gibson.
“Closing” is basically a reworking, an orchestration of the “Opening” section which kind of opens the door to inviting transcriptions. It is a full orchestration of what had been a solo piano piece at the beginning. Weijers seals the deal on nostalgia when he ends this movement by reintroducing that high pass filter and adding a little vinyl groove scratches at the fade out. That brought a bit of a tear to my eye.
I don’t know Weijers age but I doubt that he was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes at the time I saw those performances but he has clearly absorbed this music this music completely and shows a deep love and affinity for it. It is a mark, perhaps of genius, that he frames his performance of the complete work with the lo fi/glitch at the opening and vinyl crackles at the end. It was a reminder to this age denying listener that this was indeed long ago. (Over 40 years).
The major work on this album is the following track. It is the performance (excerpted on You Tube) which first gave me that delightful twinge I feel when I believe I have discovered something new and meaningful. It was a performance of a too little known work by Steve Reich (Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, 1979), another minimalist composer who was a frequent visitor to my turntable. The work, roughly contemporary with Glassworks, was only recorded once by the San Francisco Symphony under Edo De Waart, is an overlooked masterpiece.
It’s impossible to miss the Dutch connections with Glass (whose 1979 opera “Satyagraha” was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam) and the only recorded performance of Reich’s Variations performed by the prominent Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Well now comes Mr. Weijers delivers a beautiful transcription and spectacular performance which very well might raise this work out of its languished state. At the very least this is a tribute to Reich.
It is wonderful to hear this Reich piece again. I have never heard it live and, as far as I know, Reich never attempted to recast it in a new orchestration (as he did with the “Octet” orchestrated and played more commonly now as “Eight Lines”). The point is that we have a younger generation encountering, appreciating, and celebrating what is now “old school” minimalism. Whether you are encountering these pieces for the first time or basking in the nostalgia of rediscovery through creative and dedicated new performances this is a truly auspicious debut of a musician who has given new life to music which clearly has endured and will likely continue to endure into further generations. Bravo, Mr. Weijers.
As if this weren’t enough the curious collector gets two extra bonus tracks if you download via Bandcamp. They are two brief pieces that provide a peek at Weijers’ other musical efforts. The first is a beautiful meditative tribute to minimalism, a gentle elegiac piece for accordion and electronics. The second, a collaboration with Koen Dijkman, a musician who appears on other releases along with Weijers. This piece has a more prog rock/improv feel.
If old school minimalism appeals to you or contemporary accordion, you will want to hear this album. But regardless I’m willing to bet that you will be hearing more from this wonderful artist. And I bristle with anticipation.