This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.
Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.
The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.
The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.
The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.
“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.
The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.
This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.
Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.
The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.
The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.
They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.
The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.
These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.
Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.
With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.
The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.
Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.
The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.
Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.
William Susman (1960- ) may not be a household name but, since my first encounter (purely by chance) with this man’s work I have heard, enjoyed, and reviewed several fascinating CDs of chamber music and film music which demonstrate a significant musical voice with some mighty substantial compositions. I don’t know how Mr. Susman feels about being called a “minimalist” but that is the most useful way I can convey with words his musical style. That much used word is a sort of catch all for what is in fact a plethora of compositional styles based in some basic, though hardly rigid, set of practices like static harmonies and repetition.
There are, as of this writing, four books of Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2010, 2012, 2013), each book contains 22 pieces further divided into 11 “Prologues” followed by 11 “Actions”. While I have only the vaguest idea of what processes the composer uses in these works (Book I at least) sounds to these ears like music which should share company with the likes of Terry Riley’s “Two Keyboard Studies” (1965), William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes” (1977-78), Jeroen van Veen’s “Minimal Preludes” (four books1999-2013), Philip Glass’ “Etudes” (two volumes1994-2012). Spiritually they share a kinship with antecedents such as Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” (six volumes1926-1939), and, ultimately I suppose, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (1722-1742). Yes, these are a diverse set of works for comparison, but to my ears they seem to share attempts to codify and/or experiment with their respective materials. They are the composers’ working out of their ideas.
And, in a delightful coincidence the pianist chosen to interpret these works is none other than Nicolas Horvath, a name that has graced these pages numerous times since our first online meeting in about 2014. Horvath has become a sort of pied piper for minimalist composers. He has performed solo recitals lasting up to 35 hours including Philip Glass’ complete piano music, a solo rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893-94), whose 840 repetitions were first performed by a tag team of pianists helmed by John Cage (of course) in 1963. He has also recently recorded all the piano music of little known French minimalist composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005) and numerous other projects including his own original compositions and sound/art installations.
Horvath was born to play this music and Mr. Susman kindly informed me that he will indeed record the remaining three books. This musician’s curatorial radar is as unique as it is accurate. That is, he knows good music when he sees/hears it and he searches far and wide. He delivers loving and authoritative performances here. It is, after all, his métier.
Susman’s etudes are experimental only in the sense of a composer exploring his inspiration, transcribing the dictation of his muses. The title “Quiet Rhythms” is quite apt as these are really kind of soothing in their harmony and meandering developments. And, more importantly, they have the weight of substance.
Three of these have been recorded before and I’m pleased to say that the remaining 8 compositions are equal in quality to the ones I’d already heard. Each numbered piece is actually two pieces, a prologue of 90-120 seconds followed by a more complex sounding work using similar methods. At first I had wanted to write about each of the pieces but I found myself enraptured by the music and insufficiently skilled in musicology to do a respectable analysis of these works.
So I’ve chosen to simply say that these are fascinating and engaging pieces whose structure is very much secondary to the quality of the musical content. These are truly post minimal works with a much wider harmonic palette than its minimalist predecessors. The sound is quite rich and the pieces engage the listener transporting them to a powerful emotional experience. The music echoes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley but they also are destined to share a place in the repertoire alongside similar works by William Duckworth, Jeroen van Veen, and Simeon ten Holt.
Horvath is truly in his element here and his performances are hypnotically engaging. I can’t imagine these works being done better but, that said, they are attractive concert pieces for adventuresome pianists to program. Above all these are listener friendly despite the feel that they are almost a sort of textbook or manifesto by the composer which describes in music his vision of minimalism/post-minimalism.
If you’re a fan of minimal/post-minimal music this is a must have. but beware and remember to budget for the forthcoming 3 discs. You will want them all.
Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.
Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).
The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.
Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.
Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.
The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.
The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.
We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.
Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.
The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.
This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.
Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.
The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.
This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.
The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.
Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black
At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.
When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.
At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.
It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.
Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.
When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.
Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.
I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.
The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.
Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.
In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).
After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.
To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).
This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.
While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.
Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.
Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.
The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.
The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.
The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.
It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.
Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.
Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.
This Lou Harrison (1917-2003) concerto is one of his lesser known works largely due to the unusual instrumentation and the labors needed to tune the piano to the gamelan orchestra. A quick search revealed previous recordings, one by its dedicatee, Belle Bulwinkle with the Bay Area New Gamelan (BANG) recorded at Mills College (and overseen by Jody Diamond) from 1992 (now out of print) and one by pianist Adrienne Varner with Gamelan Pacifica (artists who participated with Harrison during his residency at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) on New World records from 2012.
As a dedicated Harrison fan, I can’t imagine why this work is not better known. It is, in fact, Harrison’s second piano concerto, the first being his 1985 concerto for piano and orchestra. This first concerto has received two recordings by Keith Jarrett (the concerto’s dedicatee) and, more recently by Joanna MacGregor. This concerto also requires tuning the piano but to a just intonation scale, not to the orchestra as in the second concerto. All these recordings were made with significant collaboration with the composer. And here now is a chance to hear this second concerto in a new and defining recording by the next generation of musicians, all of whom have had significant and long term relationships with Mr. Harrison.
The details and complexities of tuning and notation are beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, beyond the expertise of this writer. But suffice it to say that though the performers must run quite a gauntlet of complexity, the listener will likely find this music very accessible. I have included a link here to a PDF of the original score for those who want that sort of detail but this is simply beautiful music when well executed as it is here in this performance.
This new recording of the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan was performed and recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2017, part of the celebration of Harrison’s centennial. It was one of many such celebrations worldwide of a true American master.
This 1986-7 work is from a very productive period in Harrison’s life and demonstrates his deep understanding of writing music for Javanese Gamelan which he studied for many years in Indonesia and later with Jody Diamond. His mixing of western classical music with that of other cultures is one of his claims to fame as is his interest and application of non-traditional tunings and scales. This concerto is one of many pieces he wrote for gamelan and western instruments during the aforementioned residency at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.
One of the most striking things about Lou Harrison for this writer has been his connectedness. He was collaborative and very inclusive. He touched many lives via his composition, his teaching, and his general openness to others. Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon and this recording is a document of one of the many centennial celebrations of his music which occurred world wide. At one of those events, Other Minds 22, held at the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco (a church where Harrison went to learn to sing Gregorian Chants as a young man) the master of ceremonies, Charles Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the large audience. He simply asked how many people there had met Lou Harrison. Indeed about 2/3 of the audience raised their hands (this writer included).
Harrison was very connected and his influence continues, a fact very much in evidence in this release. This is one of those discs I would buy just for the performers. Sarah Cahill, Jody Diamond, and Evan Ziporyn are all highly accomplished performers, all with deep connections to Mr. Harrison. Cahill, a very fine pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge and real feeling for modern repertoire, can always be counted upon to provide definitive, exciting interpretations of music which deserves to be heard. Her facility with west coast composers as well as her collaborative relationship with many of them makes her an ideal choice to play scores by the likes of Terry Riley, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, John Adams, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Ingram Marshall, and Lou Harrison to name just a few.
Cahill writes in the wonderful liner notes:
“One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.”
The Pasadena, CA born Jody Diamond is a composer/performer and scholar who has worked with Gamelan for many years. She was one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, an American Gamelan ensemble which continues to play traditional music and collaborations with western contemporary composers. She studied gamelan in Indonesia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Diamond writes in the liner notes regarding her relationship with Harrison:
“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.
Evan Ziporyn, born in Chicago, Illinois, is the only Midwesterner in the group but his connections and musical proclivities make him a very comfortable fit with Diamond and Cahill. He is a composer, clarinet and saxophone player and, wait for it, a gamelan player. He studied gamelan in Indonesia with the same person who introduced Colin McPhee (1900-1964) to gamelan. McPhee is known for having been the first westerner to do an ethnomusicological study of gamelan. Ziporyn is the founder and director of MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika which counts Jody Diamond as a former member.
The concerto is cast in three movements much as in the classical style. The first movement is entitled “Bull’s Belle” and is the longest of the three movements. The piano takes the lead and the gamelan enters at first almost unnoticed as its gentle tinkling notes seem as if they come from the piano. This is not the classical call and response between soloist and orchestra best displayed in the classical era (think Mozart) but rather an integration much closer in ways to a baroque concerto grosso where the solo instrument is not as clearly differentiated from the other instruments (think Bach). The piano writing is generally rather muscular and Brahmsian but the sound will remind listeners of the music of Alan Hovhaness and even echoes of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisatory efforts.
The second movement is without a title. The gamelan opens with its gentle chime like percussions and the piano enters almost surreptitiously mirroring the entrances which occurred in the first movement. Like a classical concerto this is a slower movement with a more lyrical and overall less virtuosic feel.
The third and final movement is entitled, “Belle’s Bull”, begins with the gamelan entering first and then the piano. This movement has a lighter feel overall than the grand first movement and even introduces some minimalist repetition passages.
All told this is a performance against which all subsequent performances should be measured. It is a fitting tribute to Lou Harrison, his instrument builder and life partner Bill Colvig as well as a landmark in the performing careers of Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn.
I know this review is “late out the gate” but this disc really needs to be heard. When I did finally listen to this disc in its entirety while on a long drive I was positively mesmerized. This odd mixture of 1/4 tone tunings along with post minimalist repeating patterns takes on the character of drone as well as its own take on minimalism and even spectralism to some degree. These three homages are gestures of respect to three composers whose work obviously has great meaning for Georg Friederich Haas (1953- ). The composers selected for these homages are György Ligeti (1923-2006), Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), and Steve Reich (1936- )
It echoes a similar work by Ligeti, Three Pieces for Two Pianos – Monument – Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei) – Bewegung (1976) but with conventional tunings. Haas has had a long interest in microtonal music by composers like Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába, as well as the music of Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono.
It is easy to see why he chose Ligeti for the first homage (written in 1984). Haas’ work owes much to Ligeti’s influence including dissonant harmonies and micropolyphony. This first homage is the longest, clocking in at about 30 minutes. And Steve Reich has met with admiration and homages from many fellow composers but I must admit to having been stumped at the inclusion of Hauer’s work. This one I had to look up. Hauer was a Austrian composer whose substantial oeuvre is not really well known in the United States but deserves at least a second look. Hauer created his own 12 tone system apparently in parallel with Arnold Schoenberg but achieved little recognition despite a large catalog of works. That appears to be the reason why he was chosen. Hauer’s homage is placed second in this performance and Reich’s is last. Both the Hauer and Reich homages were written in 1982. And though this piece requires 2 pianos it also requires only the two hands of a talented pianist.
Mabel Kwan‘s recording is the world premiere of this work which is among Haas’ earliest published works (having heard it a couple of times it is difficult to imagine why it waited so long for a recording). Kwan, a founding member of the Chicago based Dal Niente (whose name literally means, “from nothing” but is used in music to indicate basically a long diminuendo, a fade) is no stranger to new and experimental music.. Her musical credentials are extensive and this world premiere recording is a major feather in her musical cap and a demonstration of her formidable interpretive and performing skills. Brava! Ms. Kwan.
I don’t recall when I first heard Guy Klucevsek but I think it was the early 90s. I grew up hearing a great deal of accordions in polka bands at weddings throughout my childhood. This instrument had, pretty much since its beginnings in the early 19th century, been associated primarily with folk bands and not at all with classical music. I don’t think one can find an accordion used in a classical orchestra before Tchaikovsky’s 1822 Second Orchestral Suite and only sparingly after that. So when I discovered this New York musician via his releases on the Starkland label, Transylvanian Software (1999) and Free Range Accordion (2000) and the CRI disc Manhattan Cascade (1992). I was curious to see what this musician would do with this traditionally “low brow” folk instrument.
I had come to trust the Starkland label (which began in 1991) as one whose releases were usually very much to my taste and I was not disappointed to hear Klucevsek’s playing of pieces written by him and other composers for this instrument. Unlike Pauline Oliveros who did much to expand the very nature of the instrument itself, Klucevsek retained, and sometimes parodied, the humble folk/pop origins and reputation of the instrument while still pursuing its possibilities in the New York downtown experimental music scene where he worked with people like Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Coleman, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn among many others. Klucevsek expanded the role of the accordion in his own way.
Klucevsek later put together a commissioning project called, “Polka from the Fringe” (1992), a project which echoes the 1981 “Waltz Project” by Robert Moran and presages another accordionist William Schimmel’s “The Tango Project” of 2006. All of these commissioning projects utilized dance forms common in the 20th century as a “stepping off” place for a new musical piece. And it was Starkland which rescued the fascinating two disc release of Polka from the Fringe (2013) from over two decades languishing in “out of print” status. These projects are significant in that they invite composers to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate their take on the given dance form. Like Klucevsek’s earlier releases this Polka collection is a veritable Who’s Who of working composers of the era much as the Variations (1819) project of Anton Diabelli collected some 51 composers’ works based on Diabelli’s waltz-like theme (Beethoven’s gargantuan set of variations was published as volume 1 and the other 50 variations in volume 2 which included composers like Schubert and Liszt).
So here comes Starkland to the rescue again in this (languished for some 25 years after only having been available for two years) very personal recording which displays Klucevsek’s substantial compositional chops as well as his knowledge and use of extended instrumental techniques for his instrument. It presents pieces written for a dance performances and shows a very different side of Klucevsek, one which shows more of his substance as a composer alongside his virtuosic skills on his instrument. In this digital only release there is an option to include (for a mere $3.00 more on the Bandcamp site) a series of 13 videos featuring Guy Klucevsek talking about the music on this album and his various musical interests. A gorgeous 10 page booklet providing further detail including the original liner notes with updates is included in all purchases. The album will also be available on Spotify, You Tube, and other streaming services but the videos are only available on Bandcamp.
Listeners may find this new release has some in common with Starkland’s previous Klucevsek release from Starkland, “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy” (2016) which features some similar compositional diversity in a disc entirely of Klucevsek’s works. The line from Citrus, My Love to Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy seems to be a logical succession in Klucevsek’s compositional development. In addition to his accordion studies Klucevsek studied composition in Pittsburgh but it was the influence of Morton Subotnick with whom he studied in his independent post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts that exposed this east coast artist to some of the splendors of the west coast encountering artists like Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. Indeed Klucevsek can be said to be “bi-coastal” in his compositional endeavors. And though this is a “tongue in cheek” characterization it does speak to the roots of Klucevsek’s diversity in style.
There are 12 tracks on “Citrus, My Love” representing 3 separate works: the three movement, “Passage North” (1990), the single movement, “Patience and Thyme” (1991), and the eponymous, “Citrus, My Love” (1990) in 8 movements. The production of this album is by none other than Bobby Previte, another valued east coast musician and colleague. The notes have been updated under the guidance of Tom Steenland with input from Klucevsek who, understandably, expresses great joy in having this album available again.
The first three tracks are dedicated to a single work, “Passage North” (1990) written for accordion and string trio consisting of Mary Rowell, violin/viola, Erik Friedlander, cello, and Jonathan Storck, double bass. They are dubbed “The Bantam Orchestra”. This Copland-esque work was commissioned by Angela Caponigro Dance Ensemble. The second movement is for string trio alone and is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland who died in 1990.
Patience and Thyme (1991) according to the composer “is a love note to my wife, Jan.” He composed the work while in residence at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania, which coincided with his 22nd wedding anniversary. It is scored for piano and string trio, no accordion. Compositionally it seems at home between the larger pieces.
Citrus, My Love was commissioned by Stuart Pimsler for the dance of the same name. It is in 8 scenes and is scored for Klucevsek’s accordion accompanied by his personally chosen Bantam Orchestra. Klucevsek describes the music on this album as representing his transition from hard core minimalism to a more melody driven style and this is the missing link, the “hole” to which I referred in the Beatles metaphor in the title of this review.
For those who already appreciate Klucevsek’s work this album is a must have. To those who have not gotten to know this unique talent this is a good place to start.
For those seeking to get more deeply into Klucevsek’s work (a worthwhile endeavor) and to provide a perspective on the range of this artist’s work I’m appending a discography (shamelessly lifted and updated from the Free Reed Journal) :
Scenes from a Mirage (Review) Who Stole the Polka? (out-of-print) Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse (Experimental Intermedia) Polka Dots & Laser Beams (out-of-print) Manhattan Cascade (CRI) Transylvanian Softwear (Starkland) Citrus, My Love (Starkland) Stolen Memories (Tzadik) Altered Landscapes (out-of-print) Accordance with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Free Range Accordion (Starkland) The Heart of the Andes (Winter & Winter) Tales from the Cryptic with Phillip Johnston (Winter & Winter) Notefalls with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Song of Remembrance (Tzadik) Dancing On the Volcano (Tzadik) The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova) Polka From The Fringe (Starkland) Teetering On the Verge of Normalcy (Starkland)
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy’s in Love With You (Tzadik) Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts Legends of Accordion, Awakening (Rhino) The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup (CRI) Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi (Toshiba EMI) Norwegian Wood, Monk’s Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi (Toshiba EMI) Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae (CRI) Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache (Callisto) A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear (Extraplatte) A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps (Einstein) A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land, Samba D Hiccup (No Man’s Land)
WITH JOHN ZORN
The Big Gundown (Nonesuch Icon) Cobra (Hat Art) Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes (A&M)
On Edge (Mode) Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording) Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)
Laurie Anderson: Bright Red (Warner Bros) Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992(Black Saint) Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter (XI) Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night (Avante) Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements) Fast Forward: Same Same (XI) Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith (Elektra Musician) David Garland: Control Songs (Review) Robin Holcomb: Rockabye (Elektra Musician) Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print) Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (Nonesuch) Bobby Previte: Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)
This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.
It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…
Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.
Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!
I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).
Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.
Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.
Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.
The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.
He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.
Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.
This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.
No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.
I first encountered the work of Michael Harrison (1958- ) while searching for Lou Harrison CDs. I came across the New Albion release, “From Ancient Worlds” (1992). It is a disc of short piano compositions played by the composer on an instrument of his own invention, The Harmonic Piano, which was conceived in 1979 and built by1986. Harrison was a student/apprentice of the Godfather of American Minimalism and Guru of non-western tunings, La Monte Young. He has also enjoyed a close relationship with yet another icon of contemporary music and non-western tunings, Terry Riley. Via these associations, Harrison has also studied with Pandit Pran Nath (famously a teacher of both Young and Riley) and Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan.
He holds a B.M. in composition from the University of Oregon, and and M.M. in composition from the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Reiko Füting. His collaborations put him in touch with progressive musicians on both the east and west coasts of the United States and he seems to derive a great deal of joy sharing his enthusiasm with many talented artists imparting his knowledge and learning from them as well.
Mr. Harrison’s major opus, “Revelation” (2002-7) for solo harmonic piano is a sort of manifesto or “urtext” and has been the source and inspiration for much of his subsequent work both directly and indirectly. At his 2009 appearance at the Other Minds Festival 14 he premiered “Tone Clouds” (2008) which incorporated a string quartet (Del Sol Quartet) along with the composer at the piano utilizing material from Revelation. Subsequent recordings with cellists Maya Beiser and Clarice Jensen further expanded his use of string instruments along with the piano.
So here we come to Harrison’s second release on Cantaloupe Records (his first was the Maya Beiser release in 2012) this time incorporating Tim Fain (violin), Caleb Burhans (viola), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Payton MacDonald (vocals), Ina Filip (vocals), Ritvik Yaparpalvi (tabla), and Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy winning vocal ensemble in a work which strikes this listener as a grand nearly symphonic effort reminiscent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Also, like Mahler, the composer uses non-western (Sufi) texts and (unlike Mahler) non-western tunings derived in part from Hindustani and Carnatic influences, and from his studies with Pran Nath, Terry Riley, and Mashkoor Ali Khan.
The eight sections vary in style but have echoes of Arvo Part, Hindustani/Carnatic musics, minimalism, etc. all integrated into a large form neatly bookended by a prelude and epilogue. It is, in effect, a song cycle and, guess what? It’s about the earth, well, sort of. It is, according to the liner notes by W.H.S. Gebel, music which corresponds to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in that author’s book, “Nature’s Hidden Dimension”. Maybe Mahler for the New Age?
Only the second movement, “Hayy: Revealing the Tones” derives directly from the aforementioned Revelation but it is clear that Harrison has integrated his diverse musical studies into a personal style descended from artistic and philosophical ancestors. The work struck this listener as being a successfully unified whole and a landmark in this composers still burgeoning career. This is grand and gorgeous music.
This welcome recording presents music by five contemporary Armenian composers: Artur Avanesov (1980- ), Ashot Zohrabyan (1945- ), Michel Petrossian (1973- ), Artashes Kartalyan (1961- ), and Ashot Kartalyan (1985- ). All of these are new names to this writer and, most likely, to the majority of listeners. That is what makes this disc such an exciting prospect. This post WW2 generation of composers are writing music from the perspective of their generations, one which is qualitatively different than that of previous generations but all owe a debt to the man who is arguably Armenia’s first truly modern composer, Tigran Mansurian (1939- ) whose brave integration of modern trends in western music distinguish him from previous generations of classical composers whose focus was either nationalistic (as Copland was to American music) or traditional religious music for the Armenian Orthodox Christian rites. Mansurian, in addition to embracing European modernism also returned to embrace the traditional religious compositions of Komitas. Spirituality is a frequent and revered aspect of Armenian classical music.
One must, of course, acknowledge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (only now in 2021 finally acknowledged by the United States) as a factor in some degree in the artistic output of this small nation. There are no obvious references as such in the compositions recorded here but the selection of texts which either inspire or are literally set to be sung are notably somber whether hat be the Latin title of the first work on the disc, Artur Avanesov’s “Quasi Harema Maris” taken from the Book of Job or the beautiful but lonely poetry of Vahan Tekayan set in Artashes Katalyan’s “Tekayan Triptych”. Horrors such as this affect generations after all.
It was Maestro Movses Pogossian who kindly sent me a review copy of this album. He played a large role in the conceptualization and production of this album. He also plays violin on the first track. The Armenian born Pogossian, a world renowned violinist, is also the head of the Armenian Music Program at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series and artistic director of the VEM Ensemble, a group of graduate musicians in residence at UCLA. His involvement is yet another reason to get this disc. It is clearly a project close to his heart and one upon which he has invested a great deal of artistic energy.
This album was recorded in May, 2019 and released in 2020 where it ran up against the pandemic shutdowns which affected performing musicians and temporarily stifled this reviewer as well. So here is my very appreciative review perhaps a year later than intended.
There are 18 tracks containing pieces by five Armenian composers, all of whom took part in this production.
The first track contains a piece for piano quintet in one movement (Movses Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; Niall Ferguson, cello; and the composer Artur Avanesov at the piano). “Quasi Harena Maris” (2016) takes its Latin name from the Biblical Book of Job. The title in English reads, “Like the Sand of the Sea”. It is a metaphor spoken by Job as he compares his grief to the sand of the sea sinking in its heaviness. The piece is described by the composer as a set of variations. Microtonal gestures evoke a choir interacting in a sort of call and response strategy with the piano. This is a powerful piece sometimes meditative, sometimes declamatory, but always evoking pain and sadness such as that described by the Biblical Job. While embracing modernism in his compositional methods Avanesov embraces spirituality as well.
The second track contains another single movement work, Novelette (2010) by Ashot Zohrabyan. It is scored for piano quartet (Varty Manouelian, violin; Scott St. John, viola; Antonio Lysy, cello; and Artur Avanesov once again at the piano. This work seems to have much in common with the first in that it embraces modernist techniques with spiritual references to suggest longing and separation. It is another powerful expression which engages the listener with clever invention while evoking a post apocalyptic sadness.
Now we move from quintet through quartet and on to, of course, trio. This work, also in a single movement, is scored for piano trio (Varty Manouelian, violin; Charles Tyler, cello; and Artur Avanesov on piano. Michel Petrossian’s, “A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire” (2017), the title a contrasting of two different translations of the biblical event in which the Angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush. The composer describes this piece as an investigation of identity (his own being variously of “Armenian by birth, Russian by education, and French by culture”). It is also an homage to Mr. Pogossian. More kinetic and varied than the previous two pieces, this tour de force nonetheless also knows pain.
Tracks 4-6 contain the “Tekeyan Triptych” by Artashes Kartalyan showcases the poetry of Vahan Tekeyan in an English translation by Vatsche Barsoumian. The UCLA VEM Ensemble (Danielle Segen, mezzo-soprano; Ji Eun Hwang and Aiko Richter, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; and Jason Pegis, cello). This is a beautifully lyric setting of some mighty somber poetry which is very much in keeping with the tone of this recording. The VEM Ensemble handles this lyricism with ease and professionalism.
We now move on to music for something other than strings and piano, namely the “Suite for Saxophone and Percussion” (2015) by Ashot Kartalyan. This five movement suite puts this writer in the mind of similar works by American composer Alan Hovhaness, the composer whose immersion in Armenian culture introduced many (this writer included) to the splendors of Armenian art music. This piece uses instrumental choices similar to Hovhaness and utilizes contrapuntal writing as well. but one cannot miss the jazz inflections doubtless gleaned from Kartalyan’s exposure to the work of his jazz musician father. This suite is also a more animated piece providing relief from the intense and somber music on the first half of the disc.
The final seven tracks are given to a selection from a series of works by the hard working pianist/composer who performed in the first three works on the disc. And it is here that we can solve the mystery of the title of the album as well. These brief works seem to be etudes, experimental compositional efforts which doubtless become material in some way for later works. The third piece presented here is titled “Modulation Necklace”. This selection comes from what the composers says are some seventy similar works under the title “Feux Follets” (frenzied flames in English). They are said to have no singe unifying aspect but it appears that these are an insight to some of the composer’s compositional methods. They provide a calm and curiously speculative little journey which leaves the listener wanting more.
This is a delightful disc made with serious scholarship and dedication which introduces audiences to the splendors of contemporary Armenian art music. One hopes that this well lead to more and larger works being recorded.
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.
First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.
I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.
That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.
Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.
There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.
The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.
Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.
Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.
The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.
Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.
Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.
Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.
The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.
Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.
The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.
This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.
This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.
As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.
It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.
This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.
The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.
What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.
On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.
The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.
This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.
It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.
Albany Records has demonstrated a commitment to lesser known composers of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the term “neglected composers” is more accurate. This disc, headed by an artist new to these ears, Elizabeth Chang is an exciting release for folks who appreciate post-Schoenbergian music. That is a limited audience for sure but the sheer quality of the works of the composers represented should entice hungry minds.
Three composers are represented: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), and Roger Sessions (1896-1985). Schoenberg is the only one adequately represented in recordings (if not in performances). The two American composers, Kirchner and Sessions, are both Pulitzer Prize winners and were respected as teachers as well as composers.
The recording opens with Kirchner’s Duo No.2 (2002) for violin and piano. I am familiar with Kirchner’s four string quartets, the third of which earned him his Pulitzer. His catalog of works is large and, sadly, most recordings are out of print. This late work compares favorably with the quartets. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this work is decidedly very post-Schoenberg with an almost neo-romantic lyricism. The demands, met ably by the artists (Steven Beck, piano; Elizabeth Chang, violin), perform what is nearly a mini concerto.
The second piece, covering tracks 2-5, is the major standout here. Roger Sessions Sonata for Solo Violin (1953), can stand beside other twentieth century works in this genre such as Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece. It has been recorded by Paul Zukofsky, Hyman Bress, Curtis Macomber, and, most recently, by Miranda Cuckson. While I have not heard any but Zukofsky’s rendition, it would seem that this performance is a welcome addition to the discography of this major masterpiece. I will leave it to the fine liner notes by David E. Schneider for more details on this rather complex work.
Sessions is given more exposure with a late work, the Duo for Violin and Cello (1978). The fact that this was found among the composer’s papers after his death with sketches for at least one more movement suggests that this was intended to be a much larger work. What does exist would make a fine companion to the (also too little performed) 1922 Maurice Ravel masterwork for this unusual combination of instruments.
The recording ends with Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47 (1949). Both this and the previous work represent the last chamber music compositions by Sessions and Schoenberg. I am somewhat chagrined to admit that this is my first hearing of the Schoenberg piece. It is a thorny, almost pointillistic piece which is a very fine piece. and one that deserves more attention from this writer and
Even if this release may speak to a limited audience it is, nonetheless a significant and enjoyable contribution to the recorded legacy of this very significant western art music.
This 2020 release of chamber and solo pieces by William Susman (1960- ) is the third reviewed by this writer. The music here is from the last six years but these pieces rather unmistakably have Susman’s compositional fingerprints on them. There are six works in total and the solo piano pieces from Susman’s Quiet Rhythms series provide a sort of punctuation on tracks 2, 4, and 6. The Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2012, 2013) series appear to function sort of like working papers, little essays many of which are later used in other compositional projects. Three of those pieces similarly punctuate an album by pianist Erika Tazawa (Belarca 005) of piano pieces by Francesco Di Fiore, Douwe Eisenga, Marc Mellits, Matteo Sommacal and William Susman.
Francesco Di Fiore handles the piano on tracks 2, 4, and 6 playing Quiet Rhythms Nos. 1, 5, and 7 (all from 2010). These are just three tantalizing works from nearly 100 pieces in 4 books. Though these works seem to be a working out of ideas they interesting and engaging rather than simply didactic.
Susman, himself an accomplished pianist, plays the piano with Karen Bentley Pollick on violin in Aria (2013). This is the longest work on the disc and it is tantamount to a concerto or grand sonata which keep both performers very busy. It is above all a joyously lyrical piece likely to please listeners. The liner notes state that this piece uses material from an opera in progress. And a grand teaser it is.
Seven Scenes for Four Flutes (2011) is one of those delightful works which will doubtlessly be performed by a soloist against prerecorded tracks. Patricia Zuber, no stranger to Susman’s work, handles all four flute parts with seeming ease. The piece’s seven movements traverse a variety of moods in the poetically titled movements. This is a pretty densely written piece whose charms belie its complexity. Music using multiples of the same instrument (whether live or multi-tracked) inevitably invoke Steve Reich’s counterpoint pieces but there is in fact a large and growing list of such pieces which produce their own unique results consistent with their respective composers and this one is a most welcome addition to this genre.
The penultimate work is one for accordion, an instrument which has risen from folk music roots to a sometime part of an orchestra and, increasingly, as a solo instrument for classical repertoire both new and old. The soloist here, Stas Venglevski, rises to the challenge of Zydeco Madness (2006), a piece which takes the listener though various sections which challenge the artist and entertain the audience.
Despite the title this album is neither quiet nor mad (well maybe a little obsessive). But it is a welcome selection of music by a consistently interesting composer that leaves this listener wanting more.
It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.
The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.
This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.
The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.
The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.
The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.
The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.
The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.
This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.
This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting
This is another in an ongoing series from various labels which are publishing a selection of repertoire chosen by artists who define themselves by their individual approaches to new and recent music. Kathleen Supove, Sarah Cahill, R. Andrew Lee, Lisa Moore, Liza Stepanova, and Lara Downes come to mind as recent entries into this field. In the past similar such focused collections has opened many listeners minds to hitherto unknown repertoire. One would have to include names like Robert Helps, Natalie Hinderas, and Ursula Oppens, all of whom produced revelatory adventures into the world of new and recent piano music in historical landmark recordings. (A recent such collection by Emanuele Arciuli was reviewed here).
On this Reference Recordings disc Nadia Shpachenko presents a series of works, many commissioned for her, of piano music whose focus is architecture, buildings, facades, etc. It is a curious and unique angle on choosing new music. There are 11 pieces here all involving Shpachenko at the piano but sometimes with various combinations of electronics, another piano, and a couple of percussionists.
Strictly speaking this is the third disc by Shpachenko featuring new music. Last year’s “Quotations and Homages” and 2013’s “Woman at the Piano” are doubtlessly worthy precursors to the present disc.
These works are neither trite nor easy listening. They are new works and one can get lost in their complexity worrying about the way in which architecture is incorporated. Or one can listen simply to hear the gorgeous sounds (this is a Reference Recording) of the introductory interpretations by a master musician of works which may or may not become repertory staples but whose substance deserves more than a passing listen.
I won’t go into any detail about these works except to say that the disc seems to have been well received by virtue of the amount of reviews it received on Amazon (I am frequently the first and only reviewer on Amazon when it comes to new music such as this) and those reviewers seem to have heard this release in a way similar to what this reviewer has experienced.
Shpachenko is an important artist who, along many of the artists mentioned at the beginning of this review, is pointing the way to some of the best music currently being written.
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
There are 555 Sonatas for piano (or harpsichord) by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and there are literally scores of recordings of these pithy little essays that lie poised between the style of the late baroque and early classical. I first heard this composer’s work in the early 1970s in the wonderful synthesizer transcriptions by Wendy Carlos. Since then I have found this composer’s work to move in and out of my life, just randomly. Sometimes I don’t hear his music or even hear about him for months, perhaps years. But then he pops up somehow. Either I find a compelling YouTube performance on a period harpsichord or some algorithm sends me a video of Horowitz playing one or two of the sonatas.
They are deceptively simple in sound but are quite difficult to perform. To make matters more unnecessarily complex there are no less than four separate numbers assigned to each sonata by musician scholars. The first numbering was the Cz number by the celebrated pianist/composer Carl Czerny. The second (from about 1906) is the L for Alessandro Longo. Famed harpsichordist, pianist, and musicologist Ralph Kirpatrick did his edition in 1953 giving us the K numbering. And finally another scholar named Georgio Pestelli gave us, you guessed it, a P numbering system.
One thing is pretty clear from all this fussy scholarship, that Scarlatti’s music continues to mean a great deal and is played in transcriptions probably for every imaginable grouping. There are purist arguments as to why they should only always be played on a harpsichord and wonderfully scholarly treatises on the use of the pedal when playing these pieces on the modern piano.
Lucas Debargue (from his website)
So if you want to get into Scarlatti where do you start? I would suggest that here is a great place. This young fine artist Lucas Debargue (1990- ), a French pianist, has chosen 52 (yes, of 555) and plays them beautifully on the piano. These 4 CDs will do a fine job of filling that annoying collector’s gap when you suddenly realized you had no Scarlatti. In fact you might find yourself so pleased as to not need any other versions of these works.
If you already have the complete Scott Ross collection of the sonatas or are just getting to know these little gems this is a great set. It is a superior musician of the generation now rising to their fame as legitimized interpreters of these lovely and challenging works.
I had contemplated maybe providing a list of which sonatas are included here (they’re not even listed on the back of the box, you have to read the liner notes) but I decided that ultimately it doesn’t matter unless you are scouring the recorded archives of the world for alternatives to the Wendy Carlos versions. The quality does vary in some of these but any collection of this sized by such a serious artist is bound to have many pleasing to the listener’s ear. The music itself is a fine ride. Let’s see how this new whippersnapper handles it. You won’t be disappointed.
Kathleen Supové is one of a handful of new music pianists whose repertoire choices are such that anything she does is worthy of at least one listen and most frequently many more. (She was previously reviewed on this blog for her wonderful The Debussy Effect album from 2017 on New Focus recordings.) Starkland, analogously, is a label whose choices of both repertoire and artists is similarly reliable. So it is with this most recent release.
Five composers are represented on 16 tracks. All but one utilize some form of electronics (computer, sampler, etc.). It is difficult to characterize the sort of choices Supové makes except to say that she leans toward the experimental but includes a variety of genres that run the gamut from minimalism to obtuse and complex experimentalism. The issue here is not the genres but the quality of the performer’s choices and that is what makes this release so compelling.
The title track is by the still too little known Mary Ellen Childs (1957- ). Eye to Ivory (2005) is a commission written for Supové is described in the brief but useful program notes as a composition focused on the sound densities of the various ranges of the keyboard and one which requires a variety of movements by the pianist (including sitting standing, etc.). Obviously the visual component is not captured here but the sound clusters, no doubt analogous in some way with the movements, make for compelling listening.
Talkback IV (2010/12) by one Guy Barash, a composer new to this reviewer’s ears. It is described as one of a series of pieces exploring the interaction between the piano and a computer in real time (i.e. the computer responds to what the piano is playing. Barash does the real time digital processing. Here is some of the edgy, perhaps even somewhat obtuse (to the casual listener I think) music where Supové and Starkland excel. Its not easy listening but it is substantial enough to prompt this reviewer to bookmark the composer’s internet page (you should too).
It is with Rama Broom (2000) by Nick Didkovsky aka Dr. Nerve (1958- ) that we begin to hear a more intimate music making via the use of the performer’s voice speaking a text of her own composition. Written for this artist, the piece is an opportunity to showcase her dramatic abilities both as a writer and as a vocal performer. There are algorithmic composition processes here but the music belies these complexities and what comes through is the drama in music, text, and performance. Play this one on Halloween (that’s all I’m gonna say).
Also of 2000 vintage and continuing the intimate aspects of this album is the next selection, “In the Privacy of My Own Home” written by the Bang on a Can composer Randall Woolf. He is also Supové’s husband and a composer of serious note. If you haven’t yet encountered his work then you owe it to yourself to do so.
The intimacy of the work involves Woolf’s sampling of the pianist’s various types of laughter and playing the laughter on a sampling keyboard more or less simultaneously with the piano. This twelve movement work has got to be this writer’s favorite of the group both for its melodic invention and the novel use of what is basically involuntary sounds made by or provoke from the pianist. It’s like, “tickle me, I want to play piano” and it is a piece full of good humor and also deeply personal, even kind of sweet actually. Will this be played by other artists using Supové’s sampled laugh or will they need to be tickled and sampled? It is a delightful work.
Dafna Naphtali is yet another composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, also one with a fascinating, now bookmarked, internet page. Her work Landmine (1999-2017) is another work written for Supové and another work involving real time interaction between a computer (which alters the timbre of the piano). Its four movements are named with computer code (which adds a curious dimension especially to the tech challenged such as I). And yes, this is probably one of the more obtuse and complex works but one which, with the curation of this artist, demands at least a listen or two.
Enjoy this album for its sonic beauties (Silas Brown’s mastering is always an event in itself) but also as a sort of advance guard suggesting the path of music yet to come. It is in some ways similar to the CRI SD 288 recordings discs by the late Robert Helps from 1971 which helped guide this writer into the realms of new music. It is a rich realm.
The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series. Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex. The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.
But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event). When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step. When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”
If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music. A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key. Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought. 1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris. It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work. This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.
Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.
While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music. That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive. One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.
The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs. You can download a PDF file of the program here. It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.
One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers. Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music. Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann. His extensive information on the subject can be found here.
The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos. It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals. The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett. This was a US premiere.
Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days). This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.
Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.
Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere). The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”. It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers. What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive. Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.
Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works. She would appear in the second half of the program.
If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique. Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning. So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.
Shot of the two piano stage set up. Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.
It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket. As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo. The link to their work in that area can provide more information,
Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo
They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives. It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.
Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.
Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn. As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus. This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.
The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963). This time they performed without a conductor. Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically. This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently. And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.
Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38: Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959). Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance. The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present. What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.
The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two. Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion. This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight. It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony. The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.
This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.
Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it. With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement. This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.
On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer. The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.