Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


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All is set up in the diminutive performance space at CNMAT.

Jenny Q. Chai is a graduate of Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music.  She is trained as a pianist but she is in the process of expanding that role somewhat.  Chai is one of an unusual group of people called “synaesthetes”, that is, people who see sounds and hear colors.  Her program tonight is entitled, “Sonorous Brushes”.

I am not a synaesthete and it is most likely that most of the audience was more like me.  The actual prevalence of synaesthesia in which stimulation of one sense (such as sound) simultaneously stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway (such as color or emotion) is estimated to occur in about 4% of the general population (estimates vary).  This condition is unusual but is not pathological.  The interest or the challenge here is the artist’s attempt to convey her personal synaesthetic perceptions in a way that can be understood by those not similarly wired.

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Chai spoke eloquently about her research to the audience.

The program was divided into sections.  In the first Chai performed some mostly conventional repertoire from the early twentieth century namely Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen.  The four Debussy pieces with which Ms. Chai opened this recital (two etudes, “Pour les huits doigts” and “Pour les quartes” and preludes 11 and 12 from book 2) left absolutely  and no doubt as to  and the artist’s virtuosity and interpretive skills.  She then launched into a Ravel homage by one Frederic Durieux followed by Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes and a  truly athletic Messiaen piece.  Understandably these pieces inspired visual creations by this artist and seemed to be the seed for her ongoing research.

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It is curious and somehow very fitting that this musical exploration begin with music that was inspired by the visual.  Impressionism was pretty much paralleled by the music which appears to have been inspired by the visual art, an early argument for synaesthesia.  There is little doubt that many artists (and non-artists) have had this condition for better or worse but it is likely that such unusual perceptions would have been classified as pathological and not the topic of polite conversation back in the 19th century and before.

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On this night it would be not merely a topic of conversation but an introduction to research which began with a grant Chai received from the French government for research into synaesthesia and presenting these ideas to a wider audience.  Far from pathology, this could even be seen as a deficit in those who lack this ability.  The key then is to explore synaesthesia as a potential asset.  Of course a complete and detailed explanation was not the goal of the evening.  This was to whet our appetites.

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Composer Jarosław Kapuściński explains some of the technology behind his compositions and the visual art that accompanied these performances.

 

This next part of the program involved the work of Jarosław Kapuściński (Warsaw, 1964-) whose two pieces were slated for the last portion of the program.  He is, since 2016, the chair of the music department at Stanford University and no doubt spends time with CCRMA (Stanford’s equivalent of CNMAT) investigating music, sound and computers.  He spoke of being inspired by a calligrapher who was also well known to Ms. Chai, a Chinese woman and master calligrapher named Shanshan Zhao (the film was done at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music).  While he did not go into great detail the composer basically shared his visual inspirations and spoke a bit about how his composition program “listens” to the performer (see the photo with the two mikes inside the piano below) and responds in some way.  This sounds like another chapter in the book which includes David Behrman’s early computer/performer interactive experiments.  Some 50 years later (this piece, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” is from 2018 and got its US premiere here tonight).  Another generation shows its expertise.

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Note the two black microphones inside the piano. No, its not the Russians.

The title, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018) references Ziqi, a man whose listening was so perfect that the musician destroyed his instrument after Ziqi died because he knew he would never find a better listener.  This ancient Chinese story (approx 770-476 BC) is also about the merging of sound and image in its way.  Several calligraphies are displayed in process during the performance with the music reflecting the moods of the Chinese characters being displayed.  Each movement involves a different Chinese character and a different attempt at calligraphy.  There may be extramusical references here but the music does a satisfying job of standing with the visuals and further analysis can be left to musicologists and program annotators.

In addition Kapuściński is no stranger to Asian arts.  He has explored eastern musics and incorporated aspects of them into some of his works.  He is also no stranger to computers and their use in composition.  His appreciation of disparate artistic techniques effectively spanning 5000 years and utilizing them effectively is a mark of genius in this writer’s opinion.  This is a challenging piece for the soloist but it is a sensual journey for the audience.  While the geekier folks (this reviewer definitely included) would like to know much more about the technical aspects of this gorgeous music, suffice it to say that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying the art.

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Chai playing the interactive piano part to the visuals in “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018), This was the California premiere.

This was followed by another visual/musical collaboration, Side Effects (2017) also by Kapuściński involves music set to videos by Kacper Kowalski who shoots from a perspective 150 meters directly above his subjects.  Think a latter day Koyaanisqatsi (do I need to footnote that reference?).  Again we see affecting music which captures the composer’s reaction to the visuals.  I didn’t get the sense that there was any computer interaction here, just some good music to some stunning visuals.

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Chai playing the music to the visuals in “Side Effects” (2017)

The capacity audience (the room capacity is only 49) was very appreciative and gave a standing ovation which compelled no less than two encores.  Forgive your reviewer for not being able to recall the first but there seemed to be a new magic afoot when this pianist launched into the second, a wonderful rendition of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It was a loving and intense interpretation (no doubt full of colors as well) and it left the audience satisfied as a dessert would cap the climax of a fine meal.  Brava, Ms. Chai.  And thank you Mr. Kapuściński.

The Shostakovich Fourth, the Symphony That Almost Wasn’t


Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.

The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.

My 2018 in the Arts


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


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Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Moe, Uncanny and Affable (and very interesting)


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New Focus FCR 212

Here I sit with an album by a composer with whom I have no familiarity.  Fortunately Eric Moe has a delightfully tenacious public relations department (at least with this particular record label) whose prompts did finally get me listening.  OMG, it says “electroacoustic”.   That could be really bad or obtuse.  Well, I did promise to review it so here goes.

Eric Moe (1954- ) is a composer with a very well organized web page.  A quick glance at that web page informs that this is the 12th or so disc from a man who boasts what looks like a list of over 100 compositions.  Moe is also a performer and participates on this disc.  This graduate of Princeton (A.B., Music) and Berkeley (M.A. and Ph.D., music) teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is also an active performer of both his and others’ music.

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This discs contains 6 composition for solo instrument (mostly with) electronics.  Now that combination has given this writer pause because the genre given the name “electroacoustic” can be a mixed bag.  Sometimes these works can be ponderous or obtuse with meanings obvious to the composer and, hopefully, the performer.

However your reviewer’s neurotic fears were apparently unfounded as the tracks played some truly wonderful compositions.  Each track features a different instrument.  The instruments, in order, include a drum set played by Paul Vaillancourt, a viola played by Ellen Meyer, a solo 19tet keyboard played by Eric Moe, an unbelievably virtuosic pipa played by Yihan Chen, solo piano played by Eric Moe, and flute played by Lindsey Goodman.

Suffice it to say that all the soloists here come with a high level of virtuosity as well as the ability to interact meaningfully with the electronics.  Far from being a nightmare of impenetrable experimental music this is rather a very entertaining set of pieces which tend to avoid the worst cliches of this genre.

Rather than attempting to describe each of these pieces (a task which would likely be more painful to read than write) it is best to simply provide assurances that the combination of this talented composer combined with the more than capable soloists provides a stimulating and interesting listening experience.  These are wonderful performers with great material.

The listener will want to hear each track more than once to get a good idea of what the composer is doing but, fear not, this album is much more adventure than ordeal.  It shows a composer at the height of his powers producing art which stimulates the senses and provides an emotional experience.  While there is clearly intellect behind the creation and performance of these works they tend to speak rather directly to the listener providing a stimulating entertainment that leaves the listener with a shred of hope that classical, even modern classical is far from dead.

Kudos to professor Moe and his collaborators and a nod of thanks to the tenacious publicity folks who would not let this release go quietly into the good night.  You shouldn’t either.

Jacob Greenberg Putting Debussy in Context


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New Focus FCR 192

Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation.  Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular.   Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913).  But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Book of the Hanging Gardens” Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces.  Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble.  For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold.  These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.

This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works.  We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers.  Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded.  Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”.  It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.

This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens”.  It is one of the less performed of his works.  These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs.  The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.

In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s “Tristan und Isolde” meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music.  He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.

What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.  One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here.  Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era.  Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.

Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire.  They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span.  One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.

This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well.  Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces.  His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener.  Great set.

Simone Dinnerstein: Bach and Glass


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It has been interesting to watch the progression of Philip Glass’ career.  From his driving amplified ensemble music that so entranced this writer to as near groupie status as he will ever be to the more mainstream orchestral work of his work since at least the 90s the fascination remains at some level.

The familiar arpeggios are still to be found along with basically diatonic harmony with occasional polytonal sections.  What is interesting about Glass’ third piano concerto is a sort of chamber romanticism.  A Far Cry is a small chamber orchestra ideally suited to works like the Bach first piano concerto. Though technically originally written for harpsichord pianists have successfully broken the taboo on strict adherence to using the harpsichord and have developed techniques to optimize the sound of the piano (which has very different qualities from a harpsichord).

Simone Dinnerstein is an artist who I first met (albeit virtually) on Facebook.  Her reading of the Goldberg Variations from a few years ago seemed to signal her entrance into the mainstream of performers.  The choice of works on this disc are a sort of characterization of her interests.  She is an accomplished Bach performer with, obviously, an interest in new music.  So pairing her as soloist with A Far Cry whose interests appear to be in a similar range was perfect.

The performance of the Bach G minor piano concerto (No.7) is as delightful as it gets.  Dinnerstein and the ensemble seem work together very well.  These intense little chamber orchestras seem to be proliferating and one could speculate on the economic and political reasons for that but what is more interesting is the commitment and intensity that these small ensembles can bring to music.

The Glass concerto has the feel of a sort of miniature romanticism.  This writer heard it as echoes of Brahms but on a far more intimate scale.  It is difficult to say whether this new work (or for that matter, the other two piano concertos) will become a regular part of the repertory but it is clear that Glass continues to have his champions both in musicians and listeners.

There is nothing groundbreaking here and that is not what is apparently intended.  What we get in this recording is a couple of dedicated and thoroughly enjoyable performances by clearly dedicated musicians.  This is not an original instruments or musicological discoveries type of album.  It is simply good music making.

If you are a fan of Philip Glass and/or Simone Dinnerstein you will want this disc.  But don’t forget to pay attention the this little chamber group.  They are superb and energetic musicians and this reviewer expects to be hearing more from them in the near future.  Maybe we will get a new set of Bach and/or Mozart concertos.  Here’s hoping.