The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

Quince Ensemble: Motherland


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I looked at the rather drab cover.  I had never heard of the Quince Ensemble nor any of the composers featured on this disc.  I looked again at the cover.  Clearly it was labeled with one of those parental advisory warnings which one rarely sees on a classical recording.

My usual practice is to do some research before spinning a given disc but I decided to just put this one in the CD player cold.  I had about an hour’s drive ahead and I decided to just let the disc speak for itself.  But my spidey sense suggested I might be in for a rather dull listen.

So much for my superhero powers.  From the moment the first track played I felt drawn in.  What I heard seemed to be a mixture of Peter Kotik (of Many, Many Women in particular), Meredith Monk, a touch of La Mystere de Voix Bulgare, the west coast group Kitka, and a few others).  That is to say that this disc grabbed my attention and had echoes of a few other contemporary vocal music styles.  What I heard was very compelling, creative, practiced, passionate.

This is mostly an a capella group though they made very effective use of harmonicas as drone material at one point.  Even after reaching my destination (achieved before the disc ended) I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off so I stayed parked and listening til I had heard the entire disc.  Yes, it was THAT compelling.

Complicating the reviewer’s task further is that the disc contains four compositions by four composers whose first appearance on this writer’s radar was from this very disc.  All four are world premiere recordings and all are by women composers.

The Quince Ensemble consists of Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano).  And this is the fourth album dedicated entirely to this ensemble’s work.  Two previous albums were appearances and collaborations.

The featured composers are (in order of their appearance on this release): Gilda Lyons (1975- ); Laura Steenberge; Cara Haxo (1991- ); and Jennifer Jolley (1981- ).  All appear to be Calfornia based and at the beginnings of what will doubtless be some interesting careers.  I will leave it to the interested reader to look into the details available at these various web sites but, after listening to the music, most listeners will want to know more.

The pieces range from Lyon’s Bone “Needles” coming in at just over 4 minutes to the next two multiple movement pieces and finally Jolley’s “Prisoner of Conscience” which is an homage to the politically active musical group, “Pussy Riot”.  This is the longest and most political piece on the album.

From the initial (and incorrect) assumption that this would be a dull disc to the end of this listening journey I came to see this disc in quite a different light.  The cover now seems friendly and appropriately representative of the album.

Rather than go into a bland or potentially inaccurate analysis of these pieces suffice it to say that this is effective and affecting music by a delightfully talented and energetic ensemble.  If you like vocal music, political music, music by women, or are just looking for something to lift you from your daily malaise give this one a try.  You will be both challenged and entertained.  No doubt this group would be fantastic in a live performance but for now we shall have to make do with this wonderful recording.

 

 

 

Kenji Bunch’s Snow Queen


 

Kenji Bunch (1973- ) is a musician whose name has made it to my personal orbit many times but this is my first encounter with his music and what an encounter it is!  This two disc set comprises a full length ballet commissioned and performed by the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet.

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Kenj Bunch

Bunch is an American composer who hails from Portland, Oregon the child of a Japanese mother and a Scottish father.  He studied at Julliard and this is approximately the 18th CD release to contain his music (if I counted correctly).  A prolific composer, one can find a decent listing of his compositions on his website.  And he was a violist performing with the esteemed Portland Youth Philharmonic from 1986-1991/

There are at least two symphonies, numerous soloists and orchestra pieces as well as solo instrumental music.  Though I’ve heard just snippets of his music aside from the disc under review here I think I can safely say that his style can be described as essentially tonal, even perhaps somewhat conservative, but the accessible qualities of his music do not translate into mediocrity. Quite the contrary, he is a very exciting composer and his style seems very well suited to an undertaking such as this ballet.  Bunch appears to be a master of orchestral color and he uses it to great effect here.

The two discs comprise 23 tracks much like one would expect of most classical ballets. The individual movements are 3-10 minutes approximately and they correspond to specific scenes that tell the classic story of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story.  No doubt cost is the barrier which precluded a DVD release which looks like it was a gorgeous production.

It is at least this writer’s impression that much of classical ballet music does not do well without the visuals of the dance.  I am referring to 19th century models such as Coppelia whose music might be best performed in excerpted suites if dancers are not a part of the performance.  Bunch’s ballet is more in the spirit of perhaps Prokofiev or Stravinsky wherein the music stands quite well on its own and even does a great job of evoking the images of the given scenes.  Basically the music stands on its own as a narrative.

Orchestra NEXT  is a training orchestra and resident ensemble with the Eugene Ballet Company.  They handle this complex and musically challenging score with seeming ease under music director Brian McWhorter.

There is little doubt that those who were fortunate enough to see this fully staged production will appreciate the opportunity to relive their memories by hearing again the recorded score.  But this will likely appeal to most fans of new music as well.  It is a major work by a composer who deserves serious attention.  This writer will certainly be listening.

American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


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Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Other Minds 21, the Dawn of a New Chapter and the Raising of the Dead


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Charles Amirkhanian with the composers of OM 21

Much needed rain pummeled the city by the bay on all three days of OM 21 dampening, perhaps, some attendance but not the enthusiasm of the audience or the performers.  In most ways this concert was a continuation of the celebration begun last year commemorating 20 years of this festival.  Returning this year were Gavin Bryars (OM7) and Meredith Monk (OM1).

Until last year no composer had appeared more than once at this series.  For those unfamiliar with OM it is worth noting that the process has been for the 8-10 selected composers spend a week at the Djerassi Arts Center in Woodside, California sharing and discussing their work before coming to San Francisco for performances of their work.

As it turns out this year’s concert series will be the last to follow that format.  Apparently OM has become the victim of gentrification and has had to move out of its Valencia Street offices and will now opt for various concerts throughout the year as they have done but without the big three-day annual festival and the residency at Djerassi.

The archives of OM are now going to be housed at the University of California Santa Cruz where they will reside along with the Grateful Dead archives.  I do believe that Mr. Amirkhanian lived near Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead when he lived in San Francisco some years ago so it seems fitting that these two archives will peacefully coexist in that space (also coming to UCSC will be OM 21 composer Larry Polansky though not in an archive).

This is certainly a change but this is a festival which has endured various changes in time and venue led throughout by the steady hand of the Bill Graham of contemporary music concerts, Charles Amirkhanian (both men have had a huge impact on music in the bay area as well as elsewhere and it is worth noting that the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have a tribute to Graham this year).

Actually Other Minds traces its provenance to the Telluride, Colorado Composer to Composer festival (also led by Amirkhanian) and later morphed into OM with the leadership of president (now emeritus) Jim Newman back in the early 1990s.  There is a short excellent film describing OM’s history on Vimeo here.

It is the end of a chapter but, as Amirkhanian explained, there are many exciting concerts coming up which will keep Other Minds in the earshot of the astute contemporary music aficionados on the west coast.  Next year, for example, will include several very exciting concerts celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of beloved bay area composer Lou Harrison.

My apologies for the delay in posting which was due to both the richness of the experience and the exigencies of my day job and other responsibilities.  I hope that readers will find this post to have been worth the wait.

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Nordic Voices

Starting our rainy day were the extremely talented singers known as Nordic Voices.  Lasse Thoresen‘s Solbøn ( Sun Prayer) (2012) and Himmelske Fader (Heavenly Father) (2012) both required keen listening and required the use of extended vocal techniques such as multiphonics.  The singing appeared effortless and even fun for the ensemble but that speaks more to their expertise and preparedness than any ease in terms of the score.

It is always difficult to judge a composer’s work by only a small selection from their output  but Thoresen’s virtuosity and subtle use of vocal effects suggests a highly developed artist and it would seem worth one’s time to explore more of this gentleman’s oeuvre.

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Lasse Thoresen takes the stage to acknowledge the applause.

Next was an unusual, humorous/dramatic work by Cecile Ore called Dead Pope on Trial (2015/16) with a libretto by Bibbi Moslet.   This Other Minds commission was given its world premiere at this concert.  The work is based on the story of a medieval pope who was taken from his grave no fewer than six times for various perceived offenses.  It is a mix of irony and humor in a sort of madrigal context.  The work was in English and had the nature of a conversation between the singers.  No doubt a challenging piece, it was sung very well and the composer seemed as pleased with the performance as much as the audience.

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Cecile Ore smiling as she acknowledges the applause for the wonderful premiere performance of her new work, Dead Pope on Trial.

As if in a demonstration of sheer stamina in addition to virtuosity Nordic Voices took the stage again, this time for some Madrigals (2002/2016) by returning artist Gavin Bryars.  Bryars is no stranger to Other Minds or to madrigals and such older musical forms from the renaissance and before.  He has extensively explored vocal writing and medieval harmonies in many previous works.  Though categorized as being a “minimalist”, Bryars actually has produced a huge range of music in all forms including opera, chamber and orchestral music.

His madrigals have been written for the Hilliard Ensemble and each book is distinguished by the madrigals having been written on a specific day of the week.  The first book on Mondays, etc.  They are settings of Petrach’s sonnets and are sung in the original Italian of his day.  On this night we were treated to four madrigals from Book Two and the premiere of a madrigal from Book Four.  That madrigal was dedicated to Benjamin Amirkhanian, the father of Charles Amirkhanian who celebrates his 101st birthday this summer.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with the affable Mr. Bryars.  His generous spirit pervaded our conversation and he spoke very highly of both his visits to Other Minds.  If you don’t know this man’s music you are doing yourself a great disservice.

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A very pleased Gavin Bryars deflects the applause and adulation to the amazing Nordic Voices for their astounding performance of five of his madrigals.

The singers of Nordic Voices sustained a high level of virtuosity as well as sheer stamina as they sang for nearly two hours in the opening pieces of this concert series.  No time was lost setting the stage for the performance of the next piece, another premiere, Algebra of Need (2016) for electronic sampling and string quartet by Bang on a Can member Phil Kline.

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FLUX Quartet playing at SF Jazz, 2016

The Flux Quartet was featured in the next two (and last) works on this long program.  Algebra of Need is Kline’s meditation on the words and the cadences of the iconic writing and voice of the late William S. Burroughs (gone 19 years as of this writing).  The familiar voice seemed to go in and out of clearly audible, at times mixed more closely with the string writing in this intense homage.

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A satisfied looking Phil Kline leans in to embrace the first violin of the Flux Quartet after their premiere of his Algebra of Need.

The Bang on a Can collective was also represented tonight by Michael Gordon.  The Sad Park (2008) for string quartet and electronics put a most decidedly disturbing conclusion on the evening.  This piece, which samples the voices of children (one of them Gordon’s) as they spoke of their experience of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

The effect was, as no doubt intended, harrowing leaving a pretty strange and unsettling feeling as we walked away from the concert into the still rainy night.

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Michael Gordon embraces the FLUX Quartet’s first violin after a stunning performance of The Sad Park.

The rain continued on Saturday but the crowd was noticeably larger for the second night which opened with the usual panel discussion.

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left to right: Meredith Monk, John Oswald, Nicole Lizee, Eliot Simpson, Larry Polansky, Oliver Lake and Charles Amirkhanian in a panel discussion prior to the concert

This evening began with a performance by the wonderful bay area violinist Kate Stenberg of a piece which was a sort of antidote to the somber, The Sad Park from the previous night.  Again the composer was Michael Gordon and the piece was Light is Calling (2004), a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Though hardly a happy piece Light is Calling is perhaps elegiac and the composer seems to achieve some of his stated intent to find some healing in the wake of a disaster to which he was all too close.

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Kate Stenberg plays violin beneath the projection of a Bill Morrison film in Michael Gordon’s, Light is Calling

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Michael Gordon and Kate Stenberg accepting the applause of an appreciative audience.

Next up was John Oswald, a Canadian composer whose career took off in infamy when his Plunderphonic CD, released to radio stations in the early 1980s, became the subject of legal battles over the meaning of copyright law in light of digital sampling.  Fortunately Oswald won the right to publish his work and his Plundrphonics concepts now underlie much of his compositional process.  Until this night I had not heard any but his Plunderphonic CDs so the introduction to his live music was a revelation.

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Pianist and (at least here) multi-instrumentalist Eve Egoyan performing with a Yamaha Disklavier and other instruments.

The first piece she did was called Homonymy (1998/2015) was originally written for chamber orchestra and was then transcribed for Egoyan and her prepared disklavier et al.  It is a piece based on linguistic elements and with a visual component as well.

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Eve Egoyan performing Homonymy with overhead projections.

Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes (2015) was the next piece  and also made use of the projection screen.  The subtitle of the piece indicates it is for “disklavier and glitch”.  Well life imitated art as some sort of glitch prevented the projection from functioning at first but this was rather quickly resolved and we were treated to excerpts of scenes from several David Lynch films with the piano playing some of the rhythms of the dialog in an exchange that puts this writer in the mind of music like Scott Johnson’s “John Somebody” and Steve Reich’s incorporation of speech rhythms in works like, “The Cave”.

Nicole Lizee is a Canadian composer and was the youngest composer on this year’s program.

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Eve Egoyan playing Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes with projected scenes/glitches from Lynch’s films.

The work is one of a series of pieces inspired by films and was executed with apparent ease by pianist Eve Egoyan who played the disklavier (both the keyboard and directly on the strings), a guitar and perhaps other gadgets .  The piece kept her quite busy and the associations I described above sound nothing like this work actually.  These etudes were a unique, typically Other Minds sort of experience, one that expands the definition of musical composition.

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Nicole Lizee (l) with Eve Egoyan absorbing the audience’s appreciation of the David Lynch Etudes.

Two more John Oswald compositions graced the program next.  Palimpia (2016) is a six movement piece for disklavier with pianist playing as well.  Oswald says it is actually his first composition for piano.

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John Oswald embracing pianist Egoyan and enjoying the audience applause for his work.

Well I did say there were two more Oswald pieces but this last one was a masterful plunder by this truly unusual composer.  Here Oswald conjured the playing as well as the image of the late great Glenn Gould who was seen actually playing Invaria (1999) with the disklavier performing along with the film of Gould performing this music.  It was, for this writer, a spellbinding experience.  He has raised the dead in the name of music.  Wow!  It was an amazing and heartfelt homage to a fellow great Canadian musician.

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Glenn Gould playing John Oswald

Larry Polansky (1954- ) is well known as a teacher and as a composer but one is hard pressed to find much in the conventional discography of his work.  The few discs out of his amazing electronic music (and one disc of piano variations) represent only a small fraction of his output and represent only one genre of music which he has mastered.  However the astute listener needs to be advised to look online to look, listen and hear some of the bounty of his creative output.  Check out the following sites: Frog Peak Music (Polansky’s publishing site which includes music and scores by a great many interesting composer in addition to himself and Dartmouth Page (which contains link to various recordings, writings, computer software, etc.

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Giacomo Fiore (left) and Larry Polansky playing Polansky’s ii-v-i (1997)

As an amateur musician who has enough trouble simply tuning a guitar it made my knees weak to watch these musicians effortlessly retune as they played.   Polansky’s experimentation with alternate tunings is an essential part of many of his compositions.

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Fiore and Polansky changing their tunings mid-phrase in a stunning demonstration of virtuosity with pitch changes.

The program then moved from the electric to the acoustic realm with Polansky’s folk song arrangements.  Eliot Simpson, the pedagogical progeny of the great David Tanenbaum (who played these concerts last year at OM 20), played the just intonation National Steel Guitar and sang.

Let me say just two things here.  First, these are not arrangements like Copland’s Old American Songs and second, I will never hear these folk songs quite the same way again.  Polansky’s interest in folk music and Hebrew cantillation along with alternate tunings produces what the ears hear as perhaps a different focus.  In these pieces he did not stray too far from the original (as he does in his Cantillation Studies) but one is left with distinctly different ways of hearing and thinking about this music and the listener is left richer for that.  It is a journey worth taking and Simpson played with both passion and command.

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky's Songs and Toods

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky’s Songs and Toods

Polansky returned to the stage for a performance of his 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) (1995). Again we were treated to the virtuosic use of alternate tunings performed live (and again with live re-tunings) by the composer.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Continuing with the solo performer theme we were privileged to hear the virtuosic jams of Oliver Lake (1942- ) whose long career is legendary in the jazz world.  The “mostly improvised” (according to the composer) Stick was played on two different saxophones in what appeared to be as intense an experience for the performer as it was for the audience.

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

The emotional workout was received warmly by the audience.

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

There was no panel discussion on the third day of OM 21.  This matinée was dedicated entirely to the work of Meredith Monk (1942) who, fittingly was one of the featured artists in the first Other Minds gathering in 1993.  Now a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts this beloved artist returns to OM 21.  Though the rain continued the house appeared to be full.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp in one of her early solo songs.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp and singing in one of her early solo songs.

Monk played a selection of material from various periods in her career in a mostly chronological survey which she called The Soul’s Messenger.  She began with selections from her solo songs and proceeded to her voice and piano music, then to her work with multiple voices and instruments.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Most of the audience seemed to have a comfortable familiarity with the individual works she offered on this night which effectively gave a picture of her career.  Monk was in good voice and appeared to enjoy her performance.

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

The stage was set to allow for the dance/movement that is an essential part of Monk’s works.  She originally trained as a dancer.

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

In addition to the grand piano the stage was set with two electronic keyboards, an essential sound in many of Monk’s works.

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Woodwind player Bodhan Hilash joined the ensemble for the last set of pieces.

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end resulting in 3 curtain calls.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

And the properly prepared artist came back for an encore of her song Details.

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

 

It was a fitting finale to a great OM 21, fitting to have this artist who appeared on the first iteration of Other Minds returning now crowned with a National Medal of the Arts and clearly beloved by the audience.  Her music like her lovely smile fade to the edge of memory like that of the Cheshire Cat on a truly triumphant finale.

And, despite some format changes, who knows what treasures continue to lie in store?  I will be watching/listening and so, apparently will many others.  Keep an eye on www.otherminds.org .  I know I will.

 

Manhattan in Charcoal, a chamber opera by Gene Pritsker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

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

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

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

The next course, a peach tomato gazpacho.

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

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

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

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

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

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Berne – alto saxophone (Brooklyn)

Shay Black – voice, guitar (Berkeley via Ireland)

Cornelius Boots shakuhachi/bass clarinet

Monique Buzzarte – trombone, electronics (NYC)

Chris Caswell (2) – harp (Berkeley)

Stuart Dempster – trombone (Seattle)

Robert Dick (flute) NYC

Mark Dresser (2) – bass (Los Angeles)

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

Sinan Erdemsel – oud (Istanbul)

Sinan Erdemsel/ Sami Shumay duet – oud, violin

Gianni Gebbia – saxophones (Palermo, Italy)

Vinny Golia- winds (Los Angeles)

Lori Goldston – cello (Seattle)

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

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

Shoko Hikage – koto (Japan-San Francisco)

Yang Jing – pipa (Beijing)

Kaoru Kakizakai (4) – shakuhachi (Tokyo)

Marco Lienhard shakuhachi (Zurich-NYC)

Mari Kimura – violin, electronics (Tokyo-NYC)

Yoshio Kurahashi (5) – shakuhachi (Kyoto)

Joelle Leandre – contrabass (Paris)

Oliver Lake – alto sax (NYC)

Riley Lee (2) shakuhachi (Australia)

Jie Ma – pipa (China, LA)

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

Roscoe Mitchell – alto, soprano saxophones (Oakland)

David Murray – tenor sax (Paris)

Michael Manring (5) – electric bass (Oakland)

Hafez Modirzadeh – winds (San Jose)

John Kaizan Neptune – shakuhachi (Japan)

Rich O’Donnell – percussion (St. Louis)

Pauline Oliveros (2) – accordion (NY)

Tim Perkis/John Bischoff duet computers (Berkeley)

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

Alcvin Ramos shakuhachi (Vancouver)

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

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

Jane Rigler – flute (Colorado)

Gyan Riley (5) – guitar (NYC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theresa Wong/ Ellen Fullman duet

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

Pamela Z – voice, electronics (San Francisco)

Blackness, Race and Music, What I Have Learned So Far


Two years ago, when I was just at the start of my blogging adventures, I decided it would be a good idea to do a few articles in honor of Black History Month. I am not black and I have no expertise in the area of black music but, in keeping with the personal perspective of this blog, I decided that my interest in these subjects is sufficient reason to express some opinions and ideas.  I chose Carl van Vechten’s portrait of William Grant Still, considered by many to the first major black composer to receive recognition in the 20th Century as my symbol for this article.  Much of his music remains unknown and little performed though there have been some significant recordings released in the last few years.

I called that first set of articles “Black Classical”. Curiously my brief article on black conductors has been one of my most read pieces (947  views as of the time I write these words).   So I continued to write on this subject in the following year. For my second set of articles I took the opportunity to look at the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by all measures a landmark piece of legislation. I asked a question, in part rhetorical because I had a basic idea of the answers I expected, but also to elicit opinions and to discuss issues of race and music.

I sent queries to a random set of composers and conductors and received a few very gracious replies. Comments ranged from carefully worded egalitarian musings on how black music and music by other racial minorities should be integrated and heard throughout the concert seasons to seemingly careful statements suggesting that this might not even be the right question or that it shouldn’t be asked. Not all comments were published but I am grateful to all who replied. And I have been able to continue this discussion in the various groups on Facebook.

I learned in a (yet to be published) interview with Anthony Davis some fascinating perspectives. Professor Davis did not address my question as I originally asked but he provided some valuable food for thought. It is worth noting that Davis is a composer whose politics are frequently very much in evidence in his music. In a discussion of the current state of music he commented regarding John Cage‘s apolitical stance by saying that, “John Cage’s silence is the silence of white privilege.” One could argue that taking an apolitical stance may have contributed to Cage’s ability to get grants and commissions.  Politically charged music generally does not fare as well.

In general I found more or less what I expected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had little, if any, benefit for black musicians and composers. And given the ongoing killing of unarmed black men by police one must wonder if we have been going backwards as a society. But I don’t want to do a grand social critique here. That is a subject for another blog and is a bit outside of my scope at least for now.

I found some musicians who did not want to address racial and discriminatory issues. It seems the issue is too “hot” and that one could face consequences for even asking the question. And some did not feel sufficiently well-versed in Civil Rights history to make a truly informed assessment of this issues.  Perhaps it is a form of white privilege that allows me to ask such a question. We shall see if any reactions result in verbal attacks or (not likely I think) in a reduction in my readership.

What I have learned is that black classical musicians (who are not in short supply) occupy very few prominent positions in academia, in the public sphere of conductors and performers and in the representation in recorded performances of what is a rich but virtually untapped repertoire.  The inequality remains with perhaps some progress but not enough to pronounce the issues here as resolved to a truly significant degree.  But there is a vibrant community of black musicians who are working as did their predecessors to contribute to our collective culture and the discussions are both lively and stimulating.

In 2014 there was a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony of an Oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” (1937) by R. Nathaniel Dett. The premiere performance of the piece (a beautiful and listener friendly piece of music) was broadcast live. But that broadcast was truncated, leaving out the finale when white listeners complained about music by a black composer getting so much airtime. Happily the entire piece was broadcast uninterrupted and made available in streaming format. However there is no commercial recording of this grand biblical choral work.

I was pleased to be able to review the fully staged performance in May, 2014 of Zenobia Powell Perry‘s opera Tawawa House (1984) in the unlikely venue of Modesto, California by Townsend Opera.  It was a heartfelt and beautiful production and was reviewed here.

Another interesting event in 2014 was the first appearance of three black counter tenors in a performance of a Purcell Opera in Los Angeles.  My blog on this subject can be found here.  I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who has been very helpful in keeping me up on the latest developments with black musicians and composers and was the person who alerted me to this historic event.

Coming up in March at the Other Minds festival there will be performances by Errollyn Wallen and Don Byron.

I have been able to dialog with various black musicians on Facebook most notably through the groups Black Composers, The National Association of Negro Composers and Opera Noir.  Composer, performer and conductor Anthony R. Green is posting the name of a black composer every day for the month of February with examples of their work.

Some recent films have done much to tell the very unpretty history of black people in the United States including: 12 Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northrup‘s harrowing memoir,  Fruitvale Station (2013), a retelling of the execution style shooting of Oscar Grant at the hands of police in Oakland, California, Selma (2014), a dramatization of the 1965 march in support of voting rights (musical direction by Jason Moran).  And this trend, happily, seems to be on the rise providing artistic historical narratives to aid in the processing of the complex, shameful and painful histories depicted.  The lack of recognition by the motion picture industry supports my arguments for the poor representation and acknowledgement of black artists in general.

I have to mention that the wonderful set of recordings by Paul Freeman originally released on Columbia records remains available as a boxed set of 9 vinyl records with notes from the College Music Society now being offered at only $17.50 (that is not a typo either) via mail order.  I’m going to buy a couple of extra copies to give away as gifts.  It’s a really nice set.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned is the egalitarian approach by conductor Michael Morgan who stated his desire that music by ethnic groups be integrated into programming on a regular basis rather than being highlighted in a given month.  (I am pleased to report that maestro Morgan will be receiving an award for his service to new music from the American Composers Forum.)  I am now using that approach with this blog in which I will continue to highlight the work of musicians and other artists whose work I find interesting and worth promoting.  So please stay tuned.

 

 

Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman, a Labor of Love


Labor Records LAB 7094

Labor Records LAB 7094

New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne.  In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.

Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl).  I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist.  He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta.  A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.

He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966.  His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded.  He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s.  In short he is a living treasure of American music.

 

His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more.  He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear.  This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.

Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists.  This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.

Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009.  The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage.  The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes.  We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind.  And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.

 

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques.  She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom.  She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk.  The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds.  Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song.  Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.

The piece is cast in eight movements  suggesting the “rondo” I suppose.  And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors.  But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.

The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today.  This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world.  Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers.  I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers.  Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose).  That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.

 

 

 

 

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


 

Cover of Game of the Antichrist

Game of the Antichrist (Innova 251)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2014, a Summation and (sort of) “Best of…” List


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

As New Music Buff heads on into its fourth year in the online realm I find that I have a steadily increasing readership averaging 18 hits per day with an international reach of about 88 countries. I say readers, not followers because the stats provided have no way to track returning visitors but you know who you are.  And I thank WordPress for their entertaining summary published earlier here.

 

Last year I provided a list of my greatest hits (i.e. my most read articles in 2013) so here is a list of 2014’s top ten:

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)
This is a 2013 article which continues to be popular. I did an addendum called: Black Conductors, A Belated Addendum  and received a note from Tania Leon who remarked quite correctly that she is indeed a black American conductor.  Clearly I will need to expand this survey once again.

Maybe Music Remains Forever
This review of the excellent newly released Martin Bresnick CD went the equivalent of viral for my blog and I was pleased to have discovered the work of this wonderful American composer.

Primous Fountain World Tour Begins in Moldova
This relatively little known living black American composer was a child prodigy whose second symphony was commissioned by Quincy Jones had his sixth symphony premiered in Moldova in 2014.

Tawawa House in Modesto?
I was granted a comp ticket to see this really great performance of a little known 20th century opera by a black female American composer, Zenobia Powell Perry.  It was a great experience, a passionate, entertaining performance and put Modesto on the musical map for me.

Other Minds 18, Three Nights on the Leading Edge
Curiously this review was read more than the one about the 2014 Other Minds 19. More to come about the upcoming Other Minds 20.  For anyone who doesn’t know this is my favorite new music festival.

Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings
This article about a 2013 performance by this very talented multi-instrumentalist, singer and scholar/historian continues to be popular. I’m hoping to catch another of his performances in 2015.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Primous Fountain
I started in 2013 writing an occasional series of articles for Black History Month. I had no idea how popular this would become. The theme for the 2014 series is given in the title and you can rest assured that I will continue the series in 2015.

Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen, Great New Recording
A review of a crowd sourced recording project and one of my favorites of 2014.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act
This is the introductory article for the 2014 series. Many thanks for the comments and support on this article and its successors.  I plan to give my summation of the various responses on this received both on and off the books.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde
This is one of an ongoing series of articles on political expression in music. It was after I friended Dorothy Martirano on Facebook and mentioned this piece that the article got a few new readers. Perhaps I should have mentioned the composer in my title.  Kudos to the late great Salvatore Martirano, gone too soon and too little known even now some twenty years after his passing.

 

SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM 2014

Now regarding my personal favorite recordings of 2014 I have to insert a disclaimer to the effect that I make no claim whatsoever to this list being comprehensive or representing anything more than a few of my personal favorite recordings encountered in this past year. My apologies in advance to those I missed. I hope to catch up some day. So, in no particular order:

Mysterienspiel 2012

Game of the Antichrist by Robert Moran (Innova 251)
I promise a more comprehensive review soon but this is a great CD by a too little known American composer.  Mr. Moran recommended the disc to me after I wrote to him praising his wonderful “Trinity Requiem”.  I plan a more comprehensive article soon.  Meanwhile here is a link to a performance on Vimeo.

AZ spread

Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston  (Starkland S-2019)

This DVD is essentially the completion of a collaboration of photographer Jim Bengston and composer Ingram Marshall.  As such it is the most complete artistic statement superseding the audio only release (still worth having by the way) from some years ago.

 

Who Has the Biggest Sound? by Paul Dolden. (Starkland ST-220)
A difficult to categorize recording that brings two major works by this (previously unknown to me) Canadian composer to the listening audience. I reviewed this disc here.  I am still working on absorbing its subtleties.

221CoverB

Prayers Remain Forever by Martin Bresnick (Starkland ST-221)
In addition to providing me with quite a few readers the opportunity to review this recording introduced me to the work of this too little known living American composer.  My review garnered quite an amazing amount of readers as well as an appreciative response from Mr. Bresnick himself.  And now I find myself buying his other recordings.  Really great music.

 

Album cover

Album cover

Notes from the Underground by Anthony Davis. (BMOP sound 1036)

I have been a fan on Anthony Davis and his music for some years now and I was pleased to be able to review this disc.   I  was later able to obtain an interview with Professor Davis which will be forthcoming later this year.

download

Tom Johnson/Samuel Vriezen Chord Catalog/Within Fourths, Within Fifths. (Edition Vandelweiser)

I eagerly reviewed this crowd sourced CD in which I was proud to be one of the contributors to its production.  It is only the second recording of Johnson’s landmark of minimalism and an opportunity to hear the work of the fine composer/performer Samuel Vriezen.

basketmonk

Basket Rondo/Jukebox in the Tavern of Love by Meredith Monk/Eric Salzman. (Labor LAB 7094)

This Labor Records release would have escaped my attention were it not for my having run across it while researching another new music article.  New music aficionados might remember Eric Salzman for earlier works such as “Civilization and It’s Discontents” and his involvement with Nonesuch records or one of his many other significant involvements in the new music scene over the last 40 years or so.  This disc is the première recording of Meredith Monk’s “Basket Rondo”, one of her best realized new works as well as the première of a great new sound/music drama by Salzman.  A more thorough review is in the works.

howardhersh2

Something by Howard Hersh ( Snow Leopard Music 888295062350)

Mr. Hersh kindly sent me this CD for review which will be forthcoming but it easily makes it to my favorites list for 2014.

webreaknonclass

I also have to mention another crowd sourced project, “We Break Strings” by Thom Andrews and Dimitri Djuric, a book about the “alternative classical scene in London”.  The book which includes a CD sampler languishes in my “to be read” stack but my initial perusal left me with the impression of a beautifully conceived and executed volume which has much to offer the musically curious.  More about this book in a future blog.

 

 

 

The Three Black Counter Tenors, An Historic First


The original incarnation of three classical singers with the same range performing as an act was that of the late Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.  I seem to remember a similar act with three Irish tenors that followed on their model.  Well what we have here is a far more unusual and very historically significant collection of three counter tenors, that voice range of male falsettos roughly corresponding to mezzo-soprano in range.  This is certainly one of the least common type of vocal artist but what makes this a unique historical event is that all three are African-Americans (to use the currently politically correct term).  They’re not performing as an act, though.  They are all starring in a single opera which makes this event even more compelling.

Darryl Taylor

Darryl Taylor

This will happen in the context of performances of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera, “Dido and Aeneas” in Los Angeles.  I include this in this new music blog because it is certainly a new occurrence and it fits well with my ongoing survey which has looked at black composers since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Of course this event puts the focus on black performers, an area which I have not attempted to explore.  But is is nice to see this happening in the 50th anniversary year of that landmark legislation.

I only came upon this information when a highly valued friend based in Oakland, Bill Doggett, who is acting as a consultant to the L.A. Opera alerted me to this historic first.  He recently curated a well received exhibition in the Grand Foyer at the San Francisco Opera at the performances of Porgy and Bess.  Bill is a concert producer, strategic marketer, consultant, arts advocate and lecturer whose work promotes black classical artists.  It was he that suggested that this event would fit with the themes developed in my previous blogs.  I did share with Mr. Doggett my experience seeing Mary Zimmerman’s beautiful production of Philip Glass’ Akhenaten in Chicago which featured a black counter tenor named Geoffrey Scott whose name, sadly, seems to have disappeared from the web except for that production.  What was curious about that is that I vividly recall the audience’s reaction when he first came on stage.  It is perhaps more historically accurate to cast a black man as an Egyptian Pharaoh but the audience seemed shocked by his appearance and I didn’t feel that it was just because of his vocal range.

John Holiday

John Holiday

The three singers in this new production include John Holiday, Darryl Taylor and G. Thomas Allen all of whom are making their début performances with L.A. Opera.  Holiday, who will sing the role of the sorceress was the third place winner in this year’s Operalia, a competition founded by  Placido Domingo for singers aged 18-32.  Taylor and Allen will sing the roles of the witches in a production which, as far as I can tell will be the first time three black counter tenors will be appearing on an opera stage  in  the history of the art form.  Taylor is a voice teacher on faculty at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor  and Allen appears to be a rising star whose art we will see at an early point in his career.

Correction: Darryl Taylor is now Associate Professor of voice at Claire Trevor School of the Arts  University of California,Irvine.

G. Thomas Allen

G. Thomas Allen

This performance will be a double bill with the other half of the program being a production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.  The productions will run from October 25th to November 15th.  Below I am sharing the press release of this historic event.  One hopes that this historic first will shed a more sympathetic light in these embattled times where, in spite of such wonderful historic performances, we endure a correspondingly negative series of news events like those in Ferguson, MO, New York and so many other places where the value of black lives seems to be at a very low ebb.3CountertenormediaNEW.doggett

Tawawa House in Modesto? A New Staging of Zenobia Perry’s Opera.


 

Modesto California is not a common destination for new music productions but I learned of an upcoming performance of Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004).  It was written in 1984 and premiered in 1987 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio (actually the geographic setting of this opera) where she was part of the music faculty from 1955-1982.

I only learned of this performance due to my Facebook contact with Bill Doggett, a bay area business developer and marketing consultant who focuses on music by people of color.  The production is staged by Townsend Opera at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, CA.  It was the world première of a revised libretto and orchestration by Perry scholar Jeannie Gayle Poole.

After a mostly pleasant two-hour drive I arrived for my first visit to the central valley town.  I  located the beautiful arts complex and proceeded from a warm sunny spring day into one of several theaters housed in the same building, an arts multiplex, if you will.  The theater was about 2/3 full, a good sign.  It is a large and well-designed theater with great site lines, comfortable seats and a large fully equipped stage with a nicely nested orchestra pit.

The program book listed other productions that Townsend has done and it is an impressive list.  While they program popular standard repertory like La Boheme and Aida (no small feat) I did note that they have also done less frequently performed works such as Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Offenbach;s Christopher Columbus.  Under the direction of Matthew Buckman since 2008 this is their first world premiere and perhaps their most adventurous production.

The staging (Heike Hambly), costumes (Tara Roe), lighting (Erik Vose), choreography (Erikka Reenstierna) and scenic design (Jean-Francois Revon) were excellent and well suited to what is essentially a chamber opera with spoken dialogue.  The singers were simply amazing both in their vocal artistry and their acting and dancing abilities.  The cast appeared quite comfortable with each other and clearly enjoyed what they were doing.  The orchestra was most ably led by conductor Ryan Murray.  This was a loving, beautiful production with amazing singers who appeared to put their hearts and souls along with their sizable talents to this opera.

The spectacular vocal cast included baritone Lawrence Craig, tenor Anthony P. McGlaun, baritone V. Savoy McIlwain, soprano Leslie Sandefur, baritone Barry Robinson and soprano Shawnette Sulker along with supporting singers and chorus.  These artists alone justified the price of a seat for this performance.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Tawawa House is based on a real place which existed in Ohio and served both as a luxury hotel for white visitors with purported healing waters as well as a major stop on the underground railroad with socially progressive whites assisting in the rescue of slaves from their forced servitude even before the emancipation proclamation.  The story begins before the civil war and ends just after.  It is a story nearly lost to history and one that deserves to be told.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple "jumps the broom" in a traditional practice of the era.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple “jumps the broom” in a traditional practice of the era.

As an opera it is cast in a conservative musical style relying on spirituals and popular songs of the era with some quotation of both genres.  It consists of choral sections, a few arias and some ensemble singing.  Like many operas this one suffers from a weak libretto at times which nonetheless serves to support the overall structure of the musical work.  This is a gentle retelling of a tale from a sordid and shameful time in our collective history.

The orchestration ranged from a theater orchestra style to some Hollywood-like film score that one might hear in motion pictures from the 1940s.  I don’t know how this edition differed from the original 1987 performance or why the decision was made to revise it.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

It is difficult to say where this work will take its place in musical history but it certainly deserves to be revived.  I hope that the success of this production will encourage adventurous opera companies such as Townsend to seek out other neglected works in that deserve revival and, in many cases, first performances.

Despite some minor weaknesses the performance was very professionally executed,  full of joy and clearly pleased the audience.  After all theater goers are accustomed to the sometimes silly plots common to a lot of operas and musicals but they are seeking entertainment by talented performers and that is definitely what they got.  This was a wonderful production which now puts Townsend opera on my radar.  Looking forward  to more from this company.  Congratulations on a great show!

 

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Composers of Northern California, Other Minds 19


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd's Water Music.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd’s Water Music.

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

Animals (1961)

Animals (1961)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

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

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

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

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

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

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

OM190028

Nannick and Donald Buchla receiving warm applause from the audience.

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

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

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

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

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch über Schweine)


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) left Germany in 1953 because of his dissatisfaction with German intolerance of both his leftist politics and his homosexuality. He settled in Italy where he lived with his partner and had a long, prolific career composing music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater, soloists and film. Much of his music was an expression of his politics.

The “Versuch über Schweine”or in English, “Essay on Pigs” of 1968 is scored for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, “beat organ” and electric guitar with vocal soloist. It was created at one of the composers most overtly political periods which included the Sixth Symphony (1969), El Cimarrón (1969-70) and Das Floss Der Medusa (1968). Indeed there was much political conflict in the world at this time.   The musicians have a challenging instrumental score to interpret but this is no ordinary vocal part as it calls for the extended vocal techniques of the singer for whom it was written. Henze was reportedly very impressed with having heard the Rolling Stones and this encounter appears to have influenced his musical sound as well.

As near as I can determine the work was performed only once on February 14, 1969 with Roy Hart and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and subsequently recorded with those forces. The vocalist in the Deutsche Gramophone recording is Roy Hart as well and he appears to be an early practitioner of what we now call ‘extended vocal techniques’. He precedes the likes of Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galas, Julius Eastman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk. Monk’s students like Robert Een, Andrea Goodman and Anthony De Mare (among others) also carry on the tradition but I know of no one who has attempted this piece since Hart.

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gaston Salvatore (1941-  ) who collaborated with Henze on several works. The music reflects the angry and sometimes hysterical tone of the poetry making this anything but easy listening.

I recall a musicologist, Dr. Richard Norton, who had corresponded with Henze, playing this piece in its entirety (some 20+ minutes) during one of his classes (at the University of Illinois Chicago in the mid-seventies). I always felt that was a sort of revolutionary act to do that. From what I recall I think I was probably the only person in the class who was already familiar with the work. The reaction of confusion or stunned silence from my fellow students was what one would expect from anyone who had not heard the piece before.

I have been unable to find any critical reviews or reports of audience reactions to performances but this is a piece that has the potential to clear a room or provoke anger.  It must have been quite a show. The piece certainly deserves a revival and I think it is a very significant piece of political music whose expressionism reflects well the issues of the times.  The problem is finding a vocalist to navigate this highly unique and unusual piece..  Any takers?

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The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann’s Appreciation of the Composer


Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first encountered the work of Robert Ashley in the early 1980s when I purchased the Lovely Music vinyl LP titled ‘Private Parts: (the record)’. It contained two tracks, one on each side, called, respectively, ‘The Park’ and, ‘The Back Yard’ (which happen to be the first and last acts of ‘Perfect Lives’). I took to the music rather quickly listening to its various layers of musical sounds and Mr. Ashley’s unique voice intoning the equally unique and unusual texts.

That record earned a special place in my mental favorites library (iTunes had yet to be invented) and spurred me on to the purchase of more of Ashley’s music. But other than the liner notes (which I read closely and repeatedly) there was surprisingly little information on this mysterious and wonderful composer whose music and words so captured my sensibilities.  The publication of this volume, ‘Robert Ashley’ (one of a great series of books on contemporary composers from the University of Illinois Press) fills this long standing void in the realms of music scholarship and biography.

I encountered the author’s work at about the same time as I did Ashley’s.  He was writing fascinating and accessible reviews in the local (Chicago) free newspaper, ‘The Reader’. He would later be selected as classical music reporter for New York’s ‘Village Voice’. Kyle Gann, composer, critic, musicologist and new music raconteur contributes a most essential work to help fill that void. His biographical sketch, analysis, bibliographic and discographic references serve also as a much needed exegesis of Robert Ashley’s work.

As it happens, the author was involved in the premiere of ‘Perfect Lives’ when he was a student at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1979. He developed and maintained a close connection with the composer and his music.

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Robert Ashley (1930- ) is an American composer born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His experience growing up in the American Midwest informed his vision, speech and temperament affecting his compositional style. He spent the formative years of his youth in Ann Arbor.  He studied at the University of Michigan with Ross Lee Finney and at the Manhattan School of Music earning, respectively, undergraduate and graduate degrees in music.  Ashley declined an offer to pursue a doctorate in speech pathology (one of his many interests) to pursue music.  He organized and participated in the ONCE Festival of contemporary music in Ann Arbor from 1961 to 1969.  In 1972, he accepted an appointment at Mills College as director of the Center for Contemporary Music succeeding Pauline Oliveros, Lowell Cross and Anthony Gnazzo. In 1978 he left for New York which would become his new creative home base.

Ashley and his collaborators have performed internationally and a great deal of his music has been recorded.  His collaborators include Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman (who along with Ashley formed the performing group Sonic Arts Union), Roger Reynolds, “Blue Gene Tyrrany”(aka Robert Sheff), Pauline Oliveros, filmmaker George Manupelli and many more.  There were recent performances in New York and Miami of his early operas and a big new opera ‘Quicksand’is reportedly in progress and due to be premiered some time after this book was issued.

Gann acknowledges the limitations of his analyses saying quite correctly that Ashley’s work will require more time as well as access to the composer’s sound archive and consideration of his unrecorded works. He never pretends that this is more than a relatively brief treatment of a very large subject. Many works are not analyzed and little attention is given to either the ONCE Festival or the Sonic Arts Union.  His collaborations and influences get little space.  And George Manupelli’s films for which Ashley composed soundtracks deserve a book to themselves.  Nevertheless there is an awful lot accomplished in under 200 pages.

Gann discusses some of Ashley’s early works, his involvement in the too little known ‘ONCE festival‘ and his very important time teaching at Mills College where he became director of their Contemporary Music Center. But the real substance of this book comes in Gann’s analysis of Ashley’s operas which most certainly form the core of his creative output. It is the music that gets the closest attention here.   The author’s detailed analyses of the rhythmic schemes and harmonic structures that underlie the (mostly spoken or chanted) texts reveal the complexities of these deceptively simple sounding and seemingly impenetrable works and provide a means of appreciating and even understanding these unusual pieces that hardly fit any conventional definition of opera.

Gann also discusses some of the literary and intellectual ideas that permeate Ashley’s work.  The ideas come from a variety of sources including speech, speech pathology, geography, television, film, history, culture, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, writings of the Italian mystic and martyr Giordano Bruno and the writings of scholar Frances Yates in ‘The Art of Memory’ and ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition‘ among many others.

Beginning with the earliest ‘Music With Roots in the Aether’ and then continuing with the most familiar ‘Perfect Lives’ the reader is treated to loving and insightful descriptions of the series of works which comprise his trilogy: ‘Atalanta’, ‘Perfect Lives’ and ‘Now Eleanor’s Idea’.  He proceeds to subsequent opera projects and “spin off” works.  At one point Ashley told Gann that he had figured out the structure for his “next 72 operas”.  This writer is eager for more on the man, his works and his wide artistic circle.

The electronic version of this book (unlike that of Gann’s ‘No Such Thing as Silence’) contains all the images in the hard copies and is formatted, for the most part, very skillfully.

If you already know and love the work of Robert Ashley this volume will deepen your appreciation and if you don’t know this man’s work this is the book which will tell you why you should.

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


20130604-083336.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Hans Werner Henze


I just learned last night that the great German composer Hans Werner Henze died on Saturday October 27th at the age of 86.  I have been fascinated by this man and his music since the mid 1970s.  While generally classified as a sort of neo-romantic these days I recall the man and the music of controversy.

Henze was, for me, one of the great political composers and stands with the likes of Luigi Nono, Hans Eisler.  His compositions like ‘Essay on Pigs’, ‘The Raft of the Frigate Medusa’, ‘El Cimmaron’, and the 6th Symphony stand out as some of the finest political commentary achieved in classical music.  The premiere of The Raft of the Frigate Medusa had to be cancelled due to political protests which broke out in the concert hall and among the musicians themselves.

Though he may be better known for his wonderful operas and film scores (which I like as well) I will always remember when DGG suddenly dropped Henze from their catalog in the 1970s due to how politically hot he was.  I recall his interview in Stereo Review, I believe, where he discussed his homosexuality and denigrated his German homeland for their discriminatory practices.  Henze had moved to Italy where he spent many productive years.

Much of his music has, for me, a sort of “in your face” quality that reminds me of the expressionism of Schoenberg and the sound world of Varese.  Pieces like the Essay on Pigs will still not fail to offend, repel and fascinate listeners because of it’s dissonant style and unusual extended vocal techniques as well as the political content of the text.  One of my favorite Henze pieces will always be the noisy and very dissonant 6th Symphony which he composed during a stay in Cuba.  And while his style mellowed somewhat after that his compositional approaches were frequently pushing the envelope using tape, spoken voices and dissonances that worked well in the context of his work.

The sweeping grandiose orchestral works include ballets, 10 symphonies, various concerti.  His operas are rather frequently performed.  And his chamber music, including 5 string quartets, deserve more attention.  It is clear as to why he is considered a sort of neo-romantic and I don’t think that that is at odds with his political convictions.  Henze seems to me to have been an idealist, supporting progressive and radical political ideas as a part of his grand and all embracing  style.  Harsh sounds did not need to be excluded from his sonic pallete.  He seems to have embraced a wide variety of techniques and sustained a long and productive career.  Perhaps he was the ideal post-modern romantic.

RIP, Hans.  We go on listening.  Thank you for the sounds.

henze