Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included).  That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.  

It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series. 

Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.   

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Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)

Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992.  That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year.  In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.  

His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time.  This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.

His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City.  It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking).  Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own.  His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)

The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats.  The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts.  The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982).  A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.  

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Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began  with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond).  Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.  

In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers.  This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members.  One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents.  Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life.  His support of this very blog is another example.  It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office.  And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events.  Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission.  More examples abound.

 

Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).  

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There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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Carol Law

At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian.  The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries.  These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts.  I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.

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Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.

 

Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event.  We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis.  And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy.  Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause.  It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.

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Other Minds OM-1025-2

In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records.  One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano.  It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others).  Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.  

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Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements.  As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause.  This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work.  Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.

 

 

 

And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee.  It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.

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The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian.  Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general.  Salud!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


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Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.

 

 

 

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


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I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

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Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

Harold Meltzer: Wonderful New Chamber Music on Bridge


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Bridge 9513

This is the second Harold Meltzer (1966- ) disc to come across my desk in the last two months or so.  This time he is heard on the venerable Bridge label which produces a great deal of quality recordings of new and recent music.  This one contains four works spread over 15 tracks and, like his previous CD, includes some vocal music alongside two chamber music pieces without voice.

Meltzer seems to be one of a generation of composers who have absorbed many of the vast styles and methods which flowered in the twentieth century.  He is not easy to categorize except as a composer.  There are in his music gestures and ideas that span neo-romanticism, minimalism, etc. but he has a distinctive and very affecting style.

Meltzer’s ability to write for the human voice and these songs put this reviewer in the mind of composers like Ned Rorem.  I’m not saying he exactly sounds like Rorem, just that he is as effective in his writing.  Stylistically there is at times an almost impressionist feel in these songs and, while the piano accompaniment is wonderful, they almost beg to be orchestrated.

There are two song cycles on this disc, the first setting poems of Ted Hughes (Bride of the Island, 2016) and the second setting poems by Ohio poet James Wright (Beautiful Ohio, 2010).  Tenor Paul Appleby had his work cut out for him and he delivers wonderful performances with a voice that is well suited to lieder but clearly with operatic ability as well.  Pianist Natalya Katyukova handles the intricate accompaniments with deceptive ease in these cycles.

There are two chamber works on this disc.  The first is Aqua (2011-12) which is inspired by the architecture of the so-called Aqua building in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang.  In a city known for its fine architecture this 2007 building manages to stand out in its uniqueness.  Need I say that his piece suggests impressionism.  It’s string writing is complex with a vast mixture of effects that, under the interpretive skill of the Avalon String Quartet, suggest movement in much the way the building itself does.  This is genius, the ability to mix all these string techniques into a coherent whole.  It is a basically tonal work and it is seriously engaging but listener friendly in the end.  

The second chamber work is a piece written for the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler.  As it happens the Library of Congress, who commissioned the piece, owns Kreisler’s Guarneri violin and it is they who commissioned this work.  Miranda Cuckson does the honors on violin ably accompanied by the trustworthy Blair McMillen.  To be sure some of Kreisler’s style is used here but this work, “Kreisleriana” (2012) comes across as more than an homage, more a work informed by Kreisler.  It’s a really entertaining piece too.

Thanks in particular to Bridge Records for releasing this.  Bridge is one of those labels whose every release deserves at least a bit of attention.  This time I think they’ve found a fascinating voice in Meltzer’s works.  Now how about some orchestral work?

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.

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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.

In the Beginning Was the Word: Other Minds 23


 

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Charles Amirkhanian performing one of his spoken word compositions at Other Minds 20 in 2015

Other Minds has been the the darling of composer/producer Charles Amirkhanian since its founding in 1993.  Along with television producer and arts patron Jim Newman he has presided over the 25 years of this renowned festival which has consistently brought the finest new music composers and performers to San Francisco.

There is little doubt that this year’s festival has to be very close to Amirkhanian’s heart.  Words have been central to his career at least since 1969 when he began his work as a producer at KPFA.  In the 23 years he spent there he presented countless hours of musical programming and interviews.  He crossed paths with most of the major stars in contemporary classical music and many stars whose genre may not be captured by the classical label.  A look at his programming choices and interviews from his time there defined new music for the Bay Area and beyond.  After his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992 he continued exploring cutting edge music and musicians bringing them to San Francisco for live performances.

His work as producer and curator has tended to overshadow his work as a composer, sound poet, and spoken word artist.  This year’s OM festival is dedicated to speech, sound poetry, and the spoken word.  It is about both the history and the present state of the art.  In many ways Amirkhanian’s 1975 release “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” on 1750 Arch Records (now on an OM CD 1006-2) can be seen as sort of the starting point for this festival.  This masterful anthology includes works by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (1939- ), John Cage (1912-1992), John Giorno (1936- ), Anthony Gnazzo (1936- ), Charles Dodge (1942- ), Robert Ashley (1930-2014), Beth Anderson (1950- ), Brion Gysin (1916-1986), Liam O’Gallagher (1917-2007), and Aram Saroyan (1943- ).

 

“Word! Thou word that I cannot speak!

At the end of the second (and last completed) act of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful opera “Moses und Aron” (1932) Moses sings, or actually half speaks and half sings this text lamenting his expressive deficits.  Speech song or, in German, sprechgesang is an invention by Schoenberg in which the singers are asked to find a point between speech and music.  Perhaps this is a good example of some of the artistic thinking going on at about the time when speech music/sound poetry began to take shape.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Some of the history of sound poetry is featured in this unprecedented 6 day festival (April 9-14).  Some of the earliest practitioners of this unusual genre include the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose composition Ursonate (1922-32) will be performed in its entirety, a rare event by itself.

Another early gem will be the Spoken Music (1930) by German-American composer Ernst Toch.  This three movement suite has been known for its last movement, the Geographical Fugue.  The other two movements, once thought lost, were discovered in sketches in 2006 and reconstructed by Christopher Caines.  The now complete version will be presented I believe on day 3.

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Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

 

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to tell the history of text sound so I will refer readers to the Other Minds website for further details.  Or you could come to the festival too I suppose.

With due respect given to the past the festival will move on to the present.  San Francisco Beat Poet Michael McClure (1932- ) will make an appearance as will post beat colleagues Anne Waldman (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (yeah the guy from that cool anthology), Aram Saroyan (another guy from the classic text sound disc).

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Alvin Curran in conversation last year in Berkeley.

Other Minds alumnus Alvin Curran (1938- ) will be premiering his collaboration with Clark Coolidge entitled, Came Through in the Call Hold.  Curran’s eclectic sensibilities will doubtless result in an interesting composition.  This event alone, at least for this writer, is worth the price of admission.  And this is just the first day!

Other events include workshops, discussions of the history of the art, and even some curious variations on a theme.  Apparently the writer Lawrence Weschler is the grandson of Ernst Toch and has written a variation on the Geographical Fugue called, The Medical Fugue which will be premiered at this festival.

The increasingly ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill will be present to perform Virgil Thomson’s unusual but entertaining setting of a Gertrude Stein (a one time Oakland resident) text called Capital, Capitals.  She will accompany the men of the Other Minds Ensemble.  Jaap Blonk will be tasked with performing Schwitters’ Ursonate and, along with Enzo Miranelli will also perform other historical works including some by a couple of Italian Futurists.

Other Minds Administrative Director Randall Wong will end the evening by undertaking a performance of the late great Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody.  That promises to be a wild evening I think.

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Jaap Blonk (1953- )

Northern Europe, including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries will literally have their day.  As it turns out they are doing a great deal of creative work in this increasingly diverse genre of speech music.  Other Minds is at its best in introducing the new and the innovative from wherever Charles’ radar has tracked it down.  Indeed Mr. Amirkhanian and his wife, artist/photographer Carol Law traveled throughout these regions in the early 70s talking with and learning from these diverse artists.  (Amirkhanian’s work, Just was recorded in a Scandinavian studio during one of those trips).

As usual homage will be paid to the past with some recorded classics by Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell, and Lily Greenham.  Some new voices will be introduced including Tone Åse and Sten Sandell.  The Norwegian/Russian-American duo OTTARAS (consisting of visual poet Ottar Ormstad and composer Taras Mashtalir will also perform.   One can fully expect a mind expanding experience which will redefine the possibilities of the art form.

Auspiciously or perhaps dangerously Friday the 13th has been reserved for Bay Area talents.  First up will be the man of the hour, Charles Amirkhanian.  Hearing him do his work live is an uncommon but entirely enjoyable experience.  If that alone weren’t enough we will get to hear the even rarer public collaboration between him and his life partner Carol Law whose photography and collage work deserves wider recognition and will happily get that here.

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Amy X Neuberg.

Trained in both linguistics and music, Amy X Neuberg will be on hand to perform her indescribable electronic cabaret including the world premiere of “Say it like you mean” and other genre bending work.  She is another valued Other Minds alumnus having given numerous performances at the festivals.

Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, another alumnus will present “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsors” which premiered at Stanford in 2016.  Enzo Miranelli will conclude the evening with his theatrical combination of movement and text in “Fame: What I Want to Say”.

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Pamela Z

The festival concludes on Saturday April 14th with Jaap Blonk followed by the wonderful San Francisco based Pamela Z who, like Neuberg uses electronics, but creates her own unique sound world.  She too is an alumnus of Other Minds.

Another composer from that great anthology, Beth Anderson, will make an appearance to perform “If I Were a Poet”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Ocean Mildew Minds”.

The finale will feature Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner performing excerpts from two works, “House with a View” and “Loose Tongues” both dealing with the lives of working class southern women.

This will be both a feast and a marathon but it promises to be one of the finest Other Minds productions maybe ever.  Come to be entertained, come to be challenged, come to expand your mind.  You’ll never be the same.  See you there.

American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traceur, American Music for Clarinet and Piano


traceur

New Focus Recordings FCR-172

This is a nice little program of pieces for clarinet and piano by 20-21st century composers. It might even be a representation of the state of the art for this genre.  All of these pieces are basically tonal and would work well in a recital.

Michael Norsworthy, professor of clarinet at Boston Conservatory at Berklee has an impressive set of credentials in the interpretation and performance and teaching of new music.  This performing academic has quite a list of recordings to his credit.

David Gompper is a composer and pianist with a similarly extensive set of credentials in support of new music (his own and others’).

The disc opens with a six movement suite of short pieces by Robert Beaser (1954- ) called, Souvenirs (2001-2).  Beaser is one of the finest composers of his generation and his tonal style was a hallmark of his work from the very beginnings.  These short, personal sketches are a delightful example of his work.  These pieces were originally written for piccolo and piano and are here presented in the composer’s transcription for clarinet and piano.

The next piece, Black Anemones (1980) is originally for flute and piano and is a sort of modern classic (here is a recent review of the flute and piano version).  The Pulitzer Prize winning Joseph Schwantner (1943- ) is also among the finest composers working today. This transcription for clarinet by Mr. Norsworthy will most certainly guarantee further performances.  This is truly lovely music inspired by poetry of Agueda Pizarro.

Three American Pieces (1944-5) by Lukas Foss (1922-2009) are another sort of classic set of pieces.  These are early compositions in a neo-classical/nationalist style characteristic of this period of Foss’ compositional style.  It is great to have a new recording of these entertaining pieces.  Foss is due for a reckoning I think.

Marti Epstein (1959- ), also a professor at Berklee was represented in an earlier review of a disc (here) dedicated entirely to her gentle music imbued with memories of her upbringing in the great plains of the Midwest.  Nebraska Impromptu (2013) is characteristic of this composer’s gentle but substantial music.  Her website also contains a very interesting occasional blog that is worth your time.

Derek Bermel (1967- ) is here represented by schiZm (1993-4).  Originally for oboe and piano the composer also made this transcription for clarinet and piano.  Bermel describes some of the fascinating techniques that underlie the structure of this two movement piece but the result of those techniques is a very interesting piece of music.

Last but definitely not least is the title track Traceur (2014-5) by composer/pianist David Gompper (1954-).  It is the longest and most complex of the pieces presented and requires the most involvement on the part of the musicians as well as the listener.  I don’t mean to imply that this is difficult music because it isn’t.  It is substantial music whose charms demand close listening, an effort for which one will be rewarded.

This lucid recording was produced by Norsworthy and Gompper (with the assistance of Robert Beaser in the recording of his work).  It was recorded in 2015 with editing and mastering by Patrick Keating.  Very nice disc.  Highly recommended.

 

Poems to Sing at Night, New Piano Music by Brian Buch


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This is the second album by composer/pianist Brian Buch.  He holds a B.M. in composition with emphasis in piano performance from Indiana University and a Doctorate from Boston University.

He studied composition with a variety of notable teachers including Don Freund, P.Q. Phan, Sven-David Sandstrøm, Nancy van de Vate, Sam Headrick and Richard Cornell.  He lists his mentor as Alla Cohen, a name unfamiliar to this writer but no doubt a significant teacher and composer.

This album was released in 2015 and contains tracks comprising 5 compositions with multiple movements.  These represent a small portion of his output which apparently includes music for various ensembles including vocal, orchestral and chamber music.  All the pieces on the present album were written between 2014 and 2015.

These seem to be very personal pieces and the poetic titles reflect a sort of post-romantic style reminiscent of Bartok and Scriabin and perhaps even Debussy. This music benefits from multiple hearings and his performances are engaging and, no doubt, definitive. His muscular and assertive playing matches the poetic intensity of the music.

Poems to Sing at Night 1 and 2 both have poems which are to be recited before each performance though that is not done on the recording for some reason.  Both pieces are in four distinct movements while all the others are in three movements.

One hears jazz and classical influences here and the medium is basically tonal.He is not afraid of dissonance and unusual harmonies but the listener need not fear either because the music is always listenable.

John Weston recorded and engineered this album which was recorded in April, 2015 at the Futura Studios in Roslindale, MA.  The sound is warm and lucid.

In some ways this album seems to hearken back to the romantic composer/performer of the 19th century with its very personal style and poetic rather than classical forms.  This young man (b. 1984) has established and is developing a very personal style which bears watching/listening.  Very enjoyable album.

 

 

 

Gene Pritsker and Some of His Collaborators, a Heady Mix


Gene_Pritsker

Gene Pritsker

We have here three very different CDs all of which feature composer/performer Gene Pritsker along with a variety of his colleagues and collaborators.  Each of these CDs is a unique production and reflects a marvelously creative group of composers and performers.

I first came to know of Pritsker’s work when he sent me a copy of his wonderful chamber opera, Manhattan in Charcoal and when I began to learn of the scope of his work through his numerous You Tube videos and his website I found myself rather overwhelmed and wholly intrigued.  In fact I can’t shake a comment which Leonard Bernstein once made about Igor Stravinsky to the effect that he was able to switch between different styles at different times with seeming ease and certainly skill (It was a comment made on a vinyl disc in which Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky in general on one cut and described the imagery of Petroushka on another.).  Pritsker’s Russian origins certainly play a part in reminding me of this association but it is the sheer extent and variety of his compositional visions and techniques that drive me to be reminded of this.  His virtuosity on the guitar also puts me in the mind of Frank Zappa at times too.  And he seems to be doing it pretty much all at once too, utilizing a wide palette of styles selectively with care and subtlety.  Pritsker switches between some very classical sounds to rock, jazz, rap, etc. as though the distinctions don’t exist or matter.  In the end they don’t matter really.  All is music I suppose and he seems be able to use them all pretty well and these discs are a nice sampling of some of this interesting musician’s various guises and interests.

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Fortunately I am not attempting a comprehensive cataloging of all that but rather reviewing a nice little selection of some current releases which Mr. Pritsker was kind enough to entrust to my critical ear.  First up here will be a Mozart tribute of sorts. Regular readers may recall another entertaining Mozart-based recording by John Clark (here). Indeed Mr. Clark makes an appearance here both as composer and performer.  This curious little disc consists of short, clever glosses on Mozart by Gene Pritsker, Patrick Grant, John Clark, Milica Paranosic, Dan Cooper and David Taylor.  Pritsker in particular seems to have a penchant for reworking music by other composers.  His Bach-based works also deserve attention as well.  But that is another matter.

There are 13 tracks and all have a somewhat improvisational character.  Of course variation forms are ubiquitous and varied throughout music history and these are, if not strictly speaking, “variations”, then something close which is why I have chosen the term glosses.  But all are entertaining and reflect a sort of new music take on Mozart who appears to have some meaning for each of the composers (Mozart is my desert island composer by the way).  I am sure that Mozart himself would have been amused and honored.  These are most certainly homage at the very least.

The CompCord Ensemble consists of Charles Coleman, voice; Chanda Rule, voice; Milica Paranosic, voice/gusle; Patrick Grant, voice/harpsichord; Lynn Bechtold, violin; Dan Barrett, cello; John Clark, horn; David Taylor, bass trombone; Gene Pritsker, guitar; Dan Cooper, bass; Javier Diaz, percussion/voice; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Franz Hackl, trumpet.

There are no liner notes here and perhaps that is for the best.  I have no doubt that there are a great deal of personal stories here as to how these pieces came about and what they mean to the respective musicians but they do stand on their own as entertainment and to my ear sound like they could even work as a film soundtrack (most likely a non-American film). This is entertaining material, perhaps a bit “inside” with its references but not difficult or obscure.   I will leave it to some future musical archaeologist to elucidate those details. The listener need only sit back and be entertained.

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Now to the second disc.  This is quite different in character being a duo between a guitarist (Gene Pritsker) and a drummer (Peter Jarvis).  Such scant scoring tells one nothing about what is to come.  Each of the six tracks is by a different composer (Peter Jarvis, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Joseph Pehrson, Jessica Wells and Daniel Palkowski).  As with the previous disc there are no liner notes so one is left with nothing but the sound.

This appears to be much more of an improvisational nature than the previous recording considered above.  The style here ranges from free jazz to rock and perhaps some contemporary musical styles as well.  Each track is a succinct statement and none of the tracks seem to go longer than necessary.  The musicianship is superb so if you are fond of the sound of guitars and drums played creatively and well you will enjoy this disc.  These musicians extract a great deal of varied sounds from their instruments.

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Finally we have this disc of song cycles.  Now the only song cycles I know at all well are those of Franz Schubert but that is, I think, an adequate place to begin to understand what is going on here (still flying without liner notes).

Eight composers and eight poets are featured in six song cycles. The first and last cycles (tracks 1-3 and 16-19) are the only ones which include instruments in addition to the voice and piano.  Only one song here (Inside on track 15) features poetry by the composer.  The rest, like Schubert utilized existing poetry.

Most of these composers are unknown to me which is both the joy and the bane of reviewing such discs.  All of these fall roughly into the classical art song tradition even with their occasional blues inflections (as in the Pritsker songs) or extended instrumental techniques.  David Gutay, Zach Seely, Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory are all new names to me and it Mr. Pritsker is to be commended for his efforts to promote others’ music.  The two composers here who are familiar are Mr. Pritsker and, another reason for commendation, Lester Trimble (1923-1986), a man embraced by Leonard Bernstein and cut from similar sonic cloth as both Bernstein and Copland.  This recording of Trimble’s Canterbury Tales is a welcome addition to the discography of mid to late twentieth century masters who deserve at least another listen.

The poets include: Tony Roberts, Jacob Miller, Dorrie Weiss, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Eleanor Cory and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Performers include Elizabeth Cherry, soprano; Thomas Carlo Bo, piano; Katie Cox, flute; Charles Coleman, voice; Derin Oge, piano; Patricia Songego, soprano; Taka Kigawa, piano; Lynn Norris, soprano; Amir Khorsrowpour, piano; Eleanor Taylor, soprano; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Circadia Ensemble consisting of: Melissa Fogarty, soprano; Kaoru Hinata, flute; Christopher Cullen, clarinet; Jenifer Griesbach, harpsichord (in the Trimble cycle).

The performances are uniformly excellent albeit a collection of separate recordings all mastered, as were the previous two discs by Sheldon Steiger.  If you love art song this is a treasure trove of current compositions but with a healthy respect for the past.

 

 

Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe Music Remains Forever, A New Martin Bresnick Disc


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This latest release from Starkland adds significantly to the discography of the Yale based composer Martin Bresnick.   Born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York, he studied at  the University of Hartford (B.A., 1967), Stanford (M.A., 1968; DMA, 1972) where he studied with electronic music pioneer John Chowning and Györgi Ligeti.  He also studied with Gottfried von Einem in Vienna (1969-70).   He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University  and Yale where he is now a professor of composition.  Bresnick is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous prizes and awards.  His wife is the wonderful new music pianist Lisa Moore whose work with Bang on a Can as well as her solo efforts have made many valuable additions to new music recordings.

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Composer Martin Bresnick

I had heard of Bresnick but had not yet sampled his music so the opportunity to review this disc prompted me to follow-up on my long-planned intent to investigate the work of this American composer.  Not wanting to judge him just from this disc alone, I obtained  for comparison the CRI recording which contains his second and third string quartets and a couple of other chamber pieces for strings which range from 1973 to 1994 in their composition dates.  As I listened to both that disc and the one which is the subject of this review I found myself increasingly intrigued with this unique musical voice.

As it turns out the unsuspecting consumer may have already been exposed to this man’s work in one of several film scores including two of the Cadillac Desert  series, The Day After Trinity and an Academy Award nominated short from 1975, Arthur and Lillie.  The most recent film score listed on his site was for The Botany of Desire, after Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on human interactions with food.   I must confess that I don’t really recall the music from these films but I will be listening closely next time I screen them.

The CRI disc consists of Bresnick’s earlier works for strings.  It is an enjoyable if more an academic musical experience.  But the present disc, Prayers Remain Forever consists of more recent compositions ranging from the 2010 Going Home to the 2012 Ishi‘s Song.  These are much freer compositions concerned more with expression than form.  David Lang, who wrote the liner notes on the inside of the gatefold, describes them as being “deeper and more personal.”

A look at Bresnick’s starting places for these pieces gives a clue as to their nature.  The composer, writing in the booklet that comes with the disc, cites Kafka, Goya, Ishi (the last of the Yahi-Yani Indian tribe), mortality, religion and his own emotional response to having visited his ancestral home in Belarus.  All in all a somber, elegiac set of pieces that deal with deeply personal emotions and memories.

Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6 were recorded at the Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Hall at Yale University by Eugene Kimball.  Tracks 2 and 4 were recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT by Nick Lloyd who also mastered this disc.

The first piece on the disc, Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello.  It was inspired by the composer’s experiences having visited the ancestral home of his family.  He speaks of remembering the stories he heard from his grandparents of the “alte heym” (Yiddish for old home) and the suffering they endured, the murder of his great grandparents, the destruction of the town.  Bresnick, who is himself a trained oboe player, weaves a beautiful, though painful, picture here.  This could conceivably be a film score to the images that are in the composer’s memories.  It is, for this writer the most poignant and personal of the pieces on this recording.  It is beautifully played by an ensemble who call themselves “Double Entendre” with Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford, viola and Brian Snow, cello.

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

The second track, Ishi’s Song, was inspired by an actual recording of Ishi, thought to have been the last of his tribe of Yahi-Yani Indians of Northern California.  Ishi lived out his life at the University of California at Berkeley under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and remains a beloved figure to many especially in the San Francisco  bay area .  Ishi recorded a song he that he had been taught and it is this song that forms the basis (or cantus firmus according to the composer) of this piece for singing pianist.  Lisa Moore is no stranger to the repertoire for speaking or singing pianist having recorded Frederic Rzewski’s masterful De Profundis (1992).  Her talents are put to good use here in this virtuosic set of variations on the haunting tune.

Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Josephine, the Singer (2011) is perhaps the most unusual piece here.  It is inspired by the Kafka story of the same name which is about a mouse that can sing.  This piece is a significant contribution to the solo violin repertoire.  It is an expressive piece in a single movement which is played with an easy sense of virtuosity and expression by violinist Sarita Kwok.

Strange Devotion (2010) is a lyrical piano piece sensitively played by Lisa Moore.  Bresnick’s inspiration, according to his notes in the accompanying booklet, state that he is here depicting a one scene from Goya’s horrific set of etchings, Disasters of War in which a donkey pulls a cart holding a coffin as people kneel by the roadside while it passes.  The “strange devotion” to which he refers is the devotion to religion.  The mood here is not one of cynicism it is more like a lament.

A Message from the Emperor (2010) is another piece based on Kafka.  This piece is scored for two speaking percussionists who play marimba, vibraphone and small tuned drums.  This little narrative follows in the same basic tradition as the speaking pianist piece.  The musicians speak sometimes separately, sometimes together coordinating their substantial duties on their instruments as well.  The story tells of an important message that, as is characteristic in Kafka’s absurdist world, can never actually be communicated.  It’s not clear if this (or, for that matter, the other tracks on this disc)  is intended as political protest music but the analogies are certainly there if the listener chooses to apply them..

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Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

The last work here is inspired by “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever”, a poem by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000).  One  line of the poem, “Tombstones crumble” provides the inspiration for the appropriately somber cover art while  the music at hand, Prayers Remain Forever (2011) chooses perhaps a more optimistic line from the poem.  Again we have a deeply felt emotional expression here expertly interpreted by TwoSense  (Lisa Moore, piano and Ashley Bathgate, cello).

 

Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever

I saw in the street on a summer evening
I saw a woman writing words
On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
And went off.

I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
Who will read the writing and not the words.

On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.

One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
Amen, Amen, may it be His will.

Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
Prayers remain forever.

(found on http://jpbaird.com/2013/11/)

Perhaps these non-literal musical expressions here can be said to be poetic and, like the prayers of Amichai’s poem may even last forever.  At least that seems to be the optimistic point Bresnick seems to make here.  This is a beautiful recording with talented and dedicated musicians that will continue to make it to my playlists.  And I am now compelled to seek out more by this wonderful composer.

Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings


Close your eyes and listen intently in the darkened hall.  From the back of the hall comes first a growling gutteral sound in an unfamiliar language.  This is followed by beats on a drum and the sound of a rattle.

Slowly the primitive creature comes up the center aisle growling, chanting, reciting and playing his drum and rattle moving slowly towards the stage and into view in the light.

He is seated on the stage and continues his chanting, speaking and playing.

He is playing unfamiliar instruments and telling unfamiliar stories.

There is both precision and passion in his playing and reciting.

Tim Rayborn is a resident of Berkeley, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer, familiar to local audiences in both his solo performances and with his group Canconiér.  His area of focus is authentic performance of music and poetry of the middle ages and before.

But how does one determine the authenticity especially as one goes further back in time and finds fewer records and accounts of how these performances sounded?  In the pre-concert lecture Mr. Rayborn spoke of this project, ‘The Far Famed Ones-Music and Poetry of the Vikings’.  He told the audience that there are no scores of this music and, like the languages in which the poetry was written, we have only the barest clues as to how these things must have sounded some 1000 years ago.

The clues, he explained, come from archaeology, linguistics and a few extant bare threads of oral tradition…there are pieces, an immense puzzle that some scholars say can’t or shouldn’t be solved.  But Rayborn asserts that these puzzles, if not able to be completely solved, are worth time to approximate the answers.

In a very real way this music, this performance is entirely new comprised of minimal facts, educated scholarship, conjecture.  No one can ever know what this body of work sounded like without travelling back in time to hear it.  Failing that we have the laborious work of Rayborn and his fellow scholars attempting to piece together an approximation of this work, not unlike the re-creation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (albeit without the attendant dangers)…a few pieces of evidence held together with educated guesses producing something new, an opportunity to hear these reconstructions of music and ritual as it may have existed those thousand years ago.

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The stories and poetry, like the music are very different from what we think of when we use those terms today.  The performance of these poems integrating music were a medium of entertainment and communication in a pre-literate society.  They varied greatly from one performance to the next dependent on the performers choices.  Even the musical instruments varied in style and construction.

In a sense, all performance is an approximation.  Any musical score or performance text require interpretation and vary from one performance to the next dependent on the artists’ choices.  But choices are more limited in work whose performance practices and directions for performance are more completely communicated and understood.

With this work Tim Rayborn reaches further back than almost anyone has into the darkness of the dark ages to attempt to illuminate some portion of these traditions that would later evolve into poetry, prose and musical compositions.  The Viking Age lasted from the 790s to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  And while history knows this era for its battles and plunders it was not devoid of culture.

Rayborn is an affable, genial man who is first a serious scholar and a performer second.  He speaks with great precision leaving as little ambiguity as possible as one finds with serious academics.  His joy and enthusiasm, love for this work combine with that scholarship to make his performances a riveting experience.

He described this performance (January 27th, 2013) at the little church hall in Albany as a ‘work-in-progress’ evolving over time, being tweaked with each new performance to reflect the scholarship and the instincts of the experienced performer.  Rayborn is part scholar, part musician and part actor.  He is as serious, precise and joyous in each of these endeavors.

Following the opening comments there was a brief intermission which led into the performance without interruption (as the performer requested) of all the pieces on the program.

What followed was an integrated program of performance, poetry, song and music making of perhaps one hour’s duration.  There was drama and humor in this entertaining mix.  The audience sat respectful and engaged to the end when Rayborn stepped out of character to acknowledge the conclusion.  And the far-famed ones came just a little bit closer.

The audience stood applauding loudly this ‘new’ old music dredged from the darkness of the ages like relics recovered from a peat bog, and restored as best as anyone can to most closely resemble what they originally were.  What was once thought lost to time has now been restored.