Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


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Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

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.

Amy X Neuberg

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.

Crazy Nigger, Gay Guerrilla, Precious Artist: Julius Eastman Examined


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This essential collection celebrates the life and work of a composer and performer whose unique presence was nearly eroded to nothing but for the work of composer (and co-editor of this volume) Mary Jane Leach who spearheaded an effort to rescue as many scores and recordings as possible after Eastman’s death in 1990 at the age of 49.  The first evidence of this modern archaeological effort came with the release of Unjust Malaise (2005), three CDs which featured some of the recordings that were gathered in that early effort.  In addition it should be noted that Leach continues to maintain a resource page with the most up to date information on Eastman scholarship efforts.

Now, along with Renée Levine Packer (whose wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music Days, “This Life of Sounds” (2010) is not to be missed) we have a lovingly edited collection of essays which comprise a sort of biography as well as an appreciation of this very important American composer.

One look at the acknowledgements reveals the wide scope of individuals with whom Eastman came into contact and whose contributions became so essential to this volume.  The wonderful introductory essay is so very appropriately written by George E. Lewis whose figure itself continues to loom knowledgeably over late twentieth and early twenty first century music.  He takes a characteristically unflinching look at the cultural, historical and socioeconomic factors that contextualize Eastman’s work as well as his untimely demise.  Eastman’s frequent use of politically incorrect titles that challenge a smooth vocal delivery in the most seasoned of broadcasters is here made to seem quite understandable (if not comfortably palatable) within the complex forces that defined Eastman’s milieu.  Lewis embraces Eastman’s talents and makes the prospect of further study of his work tantalizing.  He provides a truly authoritative context which can serve all future work in this area.

There are nine chapters, a chronology and a select bibliography along with photographs and score examples.  The essays that comprise each chapter focus from the macro-view of Packer’s biographical sketch and Leach’s timeline to micro-analyses of some of Eastman’s works and some additional personal perspectives.  One of the most endearing qualities of this volume is the fact that many of the contributors knew and/or worked with Eastman at one time or another.  It is clear that all the contributors were deeply affected by their encounters with Eastman himself and/or with his music and all are rather uniquely suited to be in this volume.

One suspects that Packer’s biographical sketch which opens this volume will henceforth serve as a basic model for all future biographical research.  Whether one finds agreements or not the material is presented in as complete and organized a fashion as can be imagined.  It paints the picture of a prodigy who, for whatever reason, fell into disarray.  Whether there was drug use or symptoms of mental illness will be the debate which will, of course, never be satisfactorily resolved.  What shines through though are tantalizing moments and a plethora of relationships, however brief sometimes, that contribute to all we will ever really know of the enigma of the life of this precious artist.

Some of what follows has the quality of memoir and some leans more toward academic analysis.  All of these essays, timelines, bibliographies, etc. tie this book together as the first most comprehensive effort at trying to understand the man, his music, his milieu, his unusual personality.

These accounts will always be crucial in any future analysis of the enigmatic talent of Julius Eastman.  Though many will attempt to affix labels to his personality variously attributing his quirks to mental or physical illness no one will ever know him the way the people in this book did, as a precious artist whose work was rescued (as much as it could be) from obscurity by his family (both biological and artistic).  He was and is loved in perhaps the only way that he would allow, through his work and his deeds.

This book is a fascinating read which serves to put the artist back into his proper place as the genius he was.  Much remains to be written, performed, analyzed and recorded but this book will always serve as the reference point for what is to come.

Sarah Cahill et al: By and for Terry Riley


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Had to save this one for Christmas.  If ever there was an album that conjures more of the positive intents of the Christmas season this one gets my vote.  Imagine celebrating a living acknowledged master artist in a milieu of his actual and artistically extended family.  That may seem an extreme notion to some but this writer is utterly charmed and thrilled to hear this “one of a kind” collection.  Other interpretations will, of course, be valid but none will ever match this one.  It’s like the Carter family of the avant-garde (and I mean that unambiguously with great respect).

Any release by Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill is reason enough alone to perk up one’s ears but this massive four disc collection of all new recordings in honor of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday (Terry was born in 1935) is a major release of (almost) all of Riley’s music for piano, piano four hands and two pianos.  In addition two of the discs are dedicated to pieces commissioned in honor of Riley.  This set belongs in the collection of anyone interested in mid to late twentieth century music and especially fans of minimalism and the curiously west coast iterations of modernism.

As a listener I have always treated every Terry Riley release as a major event as well and this collection does about as fine a job as one can imagine in paying homage to one of the brightest artistic lights of the Bay Area.  Riley came to prominence (at least historically speaking) with his open score piece, In C (1964).  It is among the earliest examples of the style which, for better or worse, became known as “minimalism”.  Since then he has continued to produce music in pretty much all genres, chamber music, orchestral music, solo music, concerti, etc.

Riley’s style, however, continued to evolve and his later works show diverse influences from his days playing barrel house piano, his interest in progressive jazz, and his studies of Hindustani and Carnatic musics (under the tutelage of Pandit Pran Nath).  Like pretty much every composer of that first wave of “minimalists” Riley has evolved a much deeper and individualized style but, even with the diversity of influences as mentioned, he remains uniquely Terry Riley.

Throughout his career as composer and performer Terry has been a teacher and an advocate of new music.  His enthusiasm and talent has affected all who know him and, I dare say, all who have experienced his work.

This collection ranges over his entire career from the early “Two Pieces” (1958/9) to later solo and four hand compositions on the first two discs.  It is worth noting that Be Kind to One Another (2008/14) was one of the commissions in Sarah Cahill’s wonderful series of anti-war pieces, “A Sweeter Music”.  It then goes on to the homages which, of course, can also be said to be influenced by Riley’s work.

This is not simply a collection of Riley’s piano music.  What we have here is a lively celebration of most of Riley’s music for piano, two pianos and piano four hands from the full spectrum of his career (as the liner notes say a couple of large compositions were not included, most likely a matter of space) along with a touching set of homages by composers related musically and aesthetically to Mr. Riley.  They range from contemporaries to students, artistic descendants to actual family.  It is a multi-generational tribute and a loving artifact that celebrates this artist on a very personal level.

Regina Myers supplies the other two hands in the disc of four hand piano pieces by Riley.  She credits another Bay Area composer/teacher/conductor, the Mills College based Steed Cowart for recommending her for this crucial role.  Such touches add to the sense of this being a Bay Area family project on so many levels.

The interrelationships that comprise this lovely production make it stand distinctly apart from the (no less significant or lovely) homages to fellow minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  This is a much more personal album which reflects Riley as composer, teacher, inspiration, father, icon and friend.  Anyone who has met Terry or experienced him in performance has experienced a certain warmth like that of a wise and gentle guru.

After the two discs of Riley’s music we are treated to music inspired by another generation of artists and, last, by long time colleague, the late great Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), another wise and gentle guru who died just about a year before the release of this album.  She and Terry worked together (along with Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Steve Reich, William Maginnis, and Tony Martin) as founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center which would become the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music (still operating today).  The producers wisely dedicated an entire disc to one of Oliveros’ last compositions, this loving tribute to her friend and colleague. It is now, sadly, a tribute to her memory as well.   Samuel Adams shares the performing duties along with Ms. Cahill on this extended homage.

There is little doubt that the other composers whose music graces this tribute will continue on their unique paths to continued success always acknowledging their connections to Mr. Riley.  Danny Clay is among the less familiar (to this reviewer) names here but his Circle Songs seem to fit quite well to open the first tribute disc.  Gyan Riley is, of course, one of Terry’s children and a fine guitarist and composer  in his own right.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Gyan and Terry play together cannot miss the close bond personally and musically of these two.  They are a joy to behold.  The affectionate Poppy Infinite is a reference to the elder Riley’s Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band which was the “B side” of his classic Rainbow in Curved Air.  Samuel Adams is the son of Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams whose early work China Gates was written for and championed by his fellow classmate at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sarah Cahill.  The younger Adams’ contribution here is called Shade Studies.

The eclectic Christine Southworth also seems to embody the (perhaps loosely defined) West Coast style.  Her interests in electronics and world music describe this superficially but her sound is a welcome one here as well.  Keeril Makan earned his PhD. in music at Berkeley which doubtless has left a stamp on his style.  His composition “Before C” makes reference to what is doubtless Terry Riley’s best known work, the oft performed, “In C”.  Elena Ruehr is a composer whose connection is not as clear as some of the others here but her work, “In C too” demonstrates her understanding of and her respect for Riley’s work.  Last on this disc of tributes is Dylan Mattingly.  He is a Berkeley native and can frequently be seen/heard performing in various venues in the Bay Area.  His contribution YEAR demonstrates both his individual style and his connection to the West Coast Style mentioned earlier.

The liner notes by Sarah Cahill are part of the tribute and a good description of the various influences behind the man of the hour, Terry Riley.  Credit is properly given to the artistic influences that inspired Mr. Riley and a brief description of what must have been an intimidating but loving project.  It is likely that there are even more connections involved in this undertaking but that must be left to future musicological and historical research.

The Kronos Quartet has long ago championed Riley’s work for that medium and new versions of his classic, “In C” continue to come on the scene.  One can only hope that the energy embodied here will inspire recordings of some of Riley’s lesser known work with orchestra which richly deserves hearings.  But regardless there is much to celebrate here and best holiday wishes go out to Mr. Riley and his talented progeny.  Happy listening, all.

 

 

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

In Celebration of a Lost Culture: Sephardic Journey by the Cavatina Duo


cavaduo

Cedille CDR 9000 163

This tasty little disc of world premieres commissioned through grants to Cedille Records in Chicago consists of new works which celebrate the culture of the Sephardim, the Jews of southwestern Europe, primarily Spain.  It both memorializes and resurrects the rich music of this all but lost culture.  In the last few years we have seen a growing interest in this culture through settings of texts in the original Ladino language as well as in the melodies which sprang from their folk traditions.

The Cavatina Duo consists of Eugenia Moliner, flute and Denis Agabagic, guitar.  Moliner is originally from Spain and Agabagic is originally from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) and they are husband and wife.  Both have a strong interest in the folk musics of their respective cultures and in exploring other folk music cultures.  Their previous album for Cedille, The Balkan Project, similarly demonstrates their affection and scholarship for the cultures of that region of the world.

Five composers were commissioned for this project: Alan Thomas (1967- ), Joseph V. Williams II (1979- ), Carlos Rafael Rivera (1970- ), David Leisner (1953- ) and Clarice Assad (1978- ).  This is one of those wonderful crowd funded efforts through Kickstarter.

Thomas’ contribution adds a cello (played by David Cunliffe) to the mix for this Trio Sephardi in three movements each of which is based on a traditional Sephardic song.  The piece makes good use of the vocal qualities of the songs quoted and the lyrics seem to exist as a subtext even though they are not sung here.

Isabel by Joseph V. Williams is a sort of homage to Isabel de los Olives y López, a Sephardic woman who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  She outwardly converted to Catholicism but lived secretly as a Jew.  One can hardly miss the sad irony of this tale of religious intolerance from the 15th century and its relevance for today.  This piece is based on a resistance song which masquerades as a love song, again a metaphor for our times.  It is scored for flute and guitar.

We move again into the realm of the trio, this time with violin (played by Desiree Ruhstrat), for this piece by Carlos Rafael Rivera called, “Plegaria y Canto”.  This is the most extensive single movement amongst all the works on the disc and is a deeply affecting and dramatic piece for which the composer’s notes provide insights.

The last two pieces utilize the forces of the Avalon Quartet for whom this is their second appearance on the Cedille label.  Their first disc, Illuminations, was released last year. They are currently in residence at Northwestern University and Cedille does a great job of promoting the work of talented Chicago area musicians.

Love and Dreams of the Exile is David Leisner‘s poignant contribution.  Its three movements tell an aching tale of love, pain and, ultimately, transcendence.

Clarice Assad is a Brazilian composer too little known in the U.S.  She is indeed related to the famed Assad family of musicians and she clearly has as abundant a talent.  Her Sephardic Suite concludes this program with this three movement essay on love and relationships.

Bill Maylone is the engineer with editing by Jean Velonis and the executive producer is James Ginsburg.  Photography of the Alhambra Palace by Maureen Jameson graces the cover.  Design is by Nancy Bieshcke.

This is music of an oppressed culture and it is tempting to look upon the creative impetus which oppression sometimes seems to provide but the message here is one of sadness and nostalgia but also of hope.  It is perhaps a tribute to the ultimate triumph over said oppression even if it took 500 years.  There is some comfort and healing to be had from the celebration of this lost culture and that is the triumph of this disc.

 

 

 

The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

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Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.