My 2019 in the Arts


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The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.  

In many ways this has been a year of reckoning.  I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year.  I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year).  I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers).  Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo.  They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark.  Please stop by if you can.  After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.

Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list.  Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts.  However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year.  The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979).  The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down).  Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience.  These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.

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The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.

Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure.  Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020.  For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music.  He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music.  This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.

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Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)

Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got.  I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.

The winner for 2019 is:

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Linda Twine (unknown copyright)

Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know

A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month.  It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year.  As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times.  I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say.  I just hope it serves only to her benefit.  Amazing musician.

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Fatu Duo

Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo.  This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it.  I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales.  This is a fun album.

The Three Black Countertenors

I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts.  I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year.  The title pretty much says it all.  First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.

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Jenny Q Chai

This concert was an all too brief presentation of some very interesting work.  Quite a pianist too.  File this artist’s name in your “pay attention” category.

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Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli 

Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list).  If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works.  He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work.  Very pretty album actually.

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Because Isaac Schankler

This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter.  Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it.  Very leading edge material.

 

 

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Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”

A very different music from that of Schankler listed just above.  But another recording to which I find myself returning.  Thanks to Mr. Eamonn Quinn for turning me on to this one.

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A New Voice for the Accordion

I pretty sure that Gene Pritsker can shoulder at least part of the blame for connecting me with this great new musician  The accordion has come a long way and this guy leads it gently forward.

 

 

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Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in a new recording

Loved this one.  I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention.  Hearing this performance was revelatory.  It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/

 

 

 

Black Classical Conductors

Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month.  It’s now been read over 2000 times.  It is my most read article.  It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.

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Blue Violet Records

Blue Violet Duo

So glad this disc got a little exposure.  Its gorgeous.  This disc of jazz influenced classical Americana unearths some real musical gems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shakuhachi Ecstasy 

OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb).  A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know?  About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument.  It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging.  You really have to see and hear this trilogy.  It got over 100 hits.  Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).

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That’s it.  Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.

 

Personal Favorites

It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year.  Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here.  The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.

For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.

 

Keep yer ears peeled.  This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch.  This was also one of my most read review articles.  This guy is making the future of the instrument.  Stay tuned.

 

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This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways.  Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience.  Blues Dialogues is a fine example.  It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.

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I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen.  In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.

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This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming.  No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.

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Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music.  It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work.  His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.

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Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album.  The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon.  Really wonderful album.

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It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention.  This release is a fine example which supports that contention.  Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer.  Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it.  In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.

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My favorite big label release.  This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels.  Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release.  Not easy listening but deeply substantive.

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This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music.  “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture.  Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.

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Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams.  Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs.  I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean.  I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done.  Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.

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OK, I’m a sucker for political classical.  But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways.  This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.

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Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder.  Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording.  Very listenable and substantive music.

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I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach.  Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master.  Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography.  I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology.  I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed.  You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.

The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.

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Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite.  Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.

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Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy.  The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago.  But what a fine disc this is!  The musicianship and scholarship are astounding.  Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records.  This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet.  This one has Grammy written all over it.

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This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling.  What substance!  What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.

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Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire.  Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.

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Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today.  Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is.  And Cedille scores another must hear.

Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive.  It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.

Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


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ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

Michala Petri in the 21st Century


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OUR Recordings 8.226912

Since her debut in the mid 1970s Michala Petri has proven herself as one of the great masters of the recorder.  The recorder is an instrument which, until the 20th century was pretty much only heard in music written before 1750 or so.  Many previous masters such as David Munrow and Franz Brüggen restricted their playing to early music.  Petri has certainly broken that mold.  She has mastered baroque, renaissance and contemporary music for her instrument as her recent releases demonstrate.  And her skills as a musician have only grown stronger and more convincing.

This disc is her celebration of American music for the recorder.  We hear four 21st century concerti for the recorder.  Composers include Roberto Sierra (1953- ), Steven Stucky (1949-2016), Anthony Newman (1941- ), and (a new name to this reviewer) Sean Hickey (1970- ).  These are fine compositions but they are basically mainstream sort of neo-romantic/neo-classical/neo-baroque works.  These are all finely crafted compositions but nothing here is experimental.  Despite the names all are basically concerti which highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble.  Therein lies the joy.

The disc begins with Roberto Sierra (1953- ) wrote his “Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion (2016) as an expansion of an earlier recorder and guitar piece but, obviously, with a great deal of expansion and orchestration.  Despite its colorful title the work is basically a concerto and a fine one at that.  Petri here performs with the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic under Alexander Shelley.  From Sierra’s web page there is a link to a video of the premiere here.  Sierra, born in Puerto Rico, affirms his skills as a composer in this exciting work.

Next up is music of the late Steven Stucky (1949-2016) sadly known almost as much for his recent demise as for his compositions.  However Petri’s performance of his “Etudes” (2000) for recorder and orchestra goes a long way to affirming some of the gravity of the talent we lost and the wonderful legacy he left.  The Danish National Symphony under Lan Shui do a fine job of handling the complex orchestral accompaniment and Petri shines as always.  This concerto is in three movements titled: Scales, Glides, and Arpeggios respectively.

Anthony Newman (1941- ) is a name that must be familiar to classical recording buyers in the late 1970s into the 1980s when Newman’s exciting recordings of Bach dominated record sales.  It is no wonder that he composed an essentially neo-baroque concerto pitting the recorder against an ensemble consisting of a harpsichord (deliciously played by Newman) and a string quartet (in this case the Nordic String Quartet).  Clearly a more suitable sized ensemble that might have been used in the 18th century.  This is the only piece on this album that is actually called a concerto by its composer.  Concerto for recorder, harpsichord, and strings (2016) in four movements (Toccata, Devil’s Dance, Lament, and Furie) shows this performer, musicologist, and composer at the height of his powers in this lovingly crafted work.

Last (and certainly not least as the cliché goes) least is by a composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, Sean Hickey (1970- ) is also the youngest composer here.  His A Pacifying Weapon (2015) is subtitled, “Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion and Harp” which tells you about the rather gargantuan dimensions of his work.  While not representing a specific “program” the work is the only one on this CD that espouses some political content.  The title reflects the composer’s desire to use this concerto to represent some of his response to “current events”.  The three movements are simply numbered 1, 2, and 3.  I can only begin to imagine the problems of balancing the little recorder against such a huge and loud ensemble but the Royal Danish Academy of Music under conductor Jean Thorel are clearly up to the task.

Hickey originally hails from Detroit and is now based in New York.  A quick perusal of his web page suggests that listeners like your humble reviewer have much to hear from this up and coming young composer.

All these are world premiere recordings which show Michala Petri at the height of her powers.  Indeed she is an international treasure whose instrumental skills and her range of repertory continue to amaze and entertain her audience.  The recording under Lars Hannibal’s direction is, as usual, lucid and very listenable.  Joshua Cheeks liner notes save this writer a great deal of research time and pretty much answered all this listener’s questions.

Happy listening all.  This recording has it going on at many levels.

 

 

 

 

 

Project W: The Chicago Sinfonietta Gloriously Features Women Composers (conductor too)


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Cedille CDR 90000 185

The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error.  Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women.  Is there an orchestra that can match that?).

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Florence Price 

With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release.  The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).  Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer.  Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished.  Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.

This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians.  This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.

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Mei-Ann Chen

This is one of their finest releases.  It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present.  The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.

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The late great Paul Freeman (from Chicago Symphony web site)

The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman.  His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087).  The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still.  These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.

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Clarice Assad (from composer’s web site)

Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad.  Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track.  She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.

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Jessie Montgomery (from the composer’s web site)

 

Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician.  Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions.  Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.

As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.

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Reena Esmail (from composer’s web site)

 

 

Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer.  She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD.  The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part.  Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works.  In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide.  Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.

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Jennifer Higdon (NYT photo) 

The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon.  In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide.  Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze.  Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording.  But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically.  This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.

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.

 

 

 

American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Gourmet Vegan with Solo Bass


Chef and host Philip Gelb (left) introduces Rashaan Carter

Friday August 17th was one of the last of Mr. Gelb’s famed Masumoto peach dinners incorporating the incredible peak of the harvest peaches into his magical vegan creations.  It is ostensibly among the last of his famed dinner concert series which has now run about 13 years.  Whether the series is ending remains to be seen but the opportunity to partake of Gelb’s culinary art should never be missed and this night we had the opportunity to hear a fine young musician as well.

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Phil started me with this tasty IPA, perhaps the only item that was not peach related.

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Dinner for about twenty happy diners began with this delicious corn soup.  Gelb has an eye for artistic presentation.

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A little peach based salsa added a bit of fire for those of us who enjoy spicy things.

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And on to the Baiganee (eggplant fritters) with peach kuchela and peach chutney.

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The main course was Jerk Stewed Tempeh, Rice, and Peas Calaloo.  Unfortunately my eating got a bit ahead of my picture taking but you get the idea.

Peaches are, as I said earlier, from the Masumoto family farm near Fresno where three generations have been producing some of the finest fruit in the state.  The tempeh is also locally sourced from Rhizocali Tempeh of Oakland.  It doesn’t get better than this.

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The tradition here puts the musician on stage just before dessert.  Rashaan Carter is an American musician from Washington D.C. who now resides in New York.  He was passing through the bay area and Philip Gelb extended an invitation which he graciously accepted.

He began with an improvisation which he had initially done for a dance piece depicting the lynching of a black American woman Laura Nelson and her son in Oklahoma in 1911.  Now this could really bring down the mood of the evening but for the fact that Carter spoke of and subsequently played this piece with such passion that all one could really feel is the tragedy of the act and the heroic expression of what is essentially protest music dedicated to her memory.

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Rashaan has no small bit of the Blarney.  His running commentary during the performance was as entertaining as that of a stand up comic as he engaged most thoughtfully with the evening’s clearly appreciative audience.

He graced us with what he said was originally intended to be a performance of a Charlie Haden piece but decided he wanted to do his own piece as a sort of homage.  Indeed he captured Haden’s spirit oh so well in another virtuosic and passionate performance.

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He ended with another sort of tribute, this time to Henry Threadgill.  Again his gift of gab provided just the right segue into the next piece and his familiarity with Threadgill was immediately apparent.  His facility with the acoustic bass produced nearly vocal sounding lines in a performance that did honor to Threadgill and left the evening’s audience very pleased.

We concluded with Blueberry polenta cake with peach ice cream and blueberry raspberry sauce, all vegan, all absolutely delicious.

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And we will all keep an ear out for Rashaan Carter from this point on.  Bravo!

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


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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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM 2014

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

Mysterienspiel 2012

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something by Howard Hersh ( Snow Leopard Music 888295062350)

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Bresnick_Martin

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..

yehuda_amichai2

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.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act


In this, the 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights act I have decided to do a survey of black composers who have come of age in the aftermath.  The push for equal rights in the way people are treated, given access to voting, education, business and financial opportunities was the spirit of that legislation.  Though many speak of a “post-racial” America it is clear from any fair analysis that we have a long way to go.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil R...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am beginning a series of articles in honor of Black History Month and in honor of this legislation which attempts to address this inequality. Each article will feature a composer or composers whose work I personally find interesting and worth promoting and which was written or premiered in or after 1964.  I will not necessarily limit myself to Americans both because that would be unnecessarily constricting and inconsistent with the spirit of Black History Month and because non-American black composers suffer similar obscurity and may have even benefited from the 1964 legislation.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether the legislation has improved the opportunities for black composers is, of course, open to debate but the quality of these artists stand alone on their own merits.  They may have had opportunities not available to their predecessors and this may be a positive result of this legislation.  But the fact that awareness of their work is limited and promoted in relatively obscure contexts such as this blog suggests that true equality in the area of recognition of artistic merit remains elusive (though the availability of recordings of the music of black composers has certainly increased) .  Curiously the United States has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History whereas England, who abolished slavery before the U.S., celebrates it in October.  Yes, it’s only 3 days, but the irony is hard to miss.

The pioneering work of musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma has done a great service in promoting the work of black composers internationally.  He was involved in the production of the landmark series for Columbia Records along with the great (now retired) conductor Paul Freeman recording a variety of music from black composers world-wide. I had discussed this set in a blog last year and it is worth mentioning that the complete set of recordings has been reissued on 9 vinyl discs as a result of a Ford Foundation grant and remains available through the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana for $35.  This beautifully produced box set deserves an honored place in any record collection.

This pioneering set has inspired similar series by Albany Records and Cedille Records which have made recordings available of some very attractive music of black composers which deserves a wider audience.  It is largely these sets and the writing of Professor de Lerma which serve as the source for the series I am doing on this blog.

The internet site africalssical blog is also a very useful resource which is updated frequently and reports the work of black musicians working in the so-called classical world.  It is difficult and perhaps superfluous to try to separate jazz and classical so I will include composers without concern for specific genre categories except, perhaps, pop composers whose work is well-represented in the mainstream.

Pioneering black musicians like Natalie Hinderas, Martina Arroyo, Marian Anderson, Dean Dixon, William Grant Still and their like paved the way for their successors such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Paul Freeman, George Walker and others whose stars became visible to the casual onlooker.  Of course there are fine black classical artists whose talents remain too little known.  How many people know Awadagin Pratt, Mark Doss, Michael Morgan and other active black musical artists?  It takes much more work for listeners to find and appreciate their talents.

It takes even more work to find black composers, especially if they are not also performers.  Most people, even most musicians, would have difficulty naming a single black classical composer.

I contacted several prominent black musicians to pose the question of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted black classical composers.  To date I am pleased to say that I have received two gracious replies.  The first is from Michael Morgan who currently serves as conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek.  He has numerous recordings to his credit as well.  Maestro Morgan replied as follows:

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

“I don’t believe the 64 Civil Rights Act has impacted black composers directly, however, the national conversation it inspired did cause performing arts groups (and their philanthropic supporters) to look for new ways to expand their audiences into communities not traditionally as well represented in concert halls. Orchestras are still making efforts (some more sincere than others) to connect with various minority communities. Unfortunately, rather than sprinkle such efforts throughout their seasons, some have opted for the annual Martin Luther King or Black History Month (or Cinco de Mayo, or Chinese New Year, etc. etc.) concert resulting in less sustained contact than might otherwise be possible. Such concerts have, however, been something of a boon for black composers, performers and conductors who find themselves at least included on orchestra programs on those annual occasions.

There may have been a more direct impact on the integration of some concert halls in particularly segregated cities, but the performing arts have historically been somewhat ahead of society in general in terms of promoting fully integrated events, at least in communities where there was significant acceptance of such integration.”

Morgan’s practical approach to programming is evident here and the point is well-taken that consistent programming of minority composers would result in a more sustained impact than simply having focused efforts during given months or weeks.  In fact this notion has convinced me that my blogs on the subject might be more effective if I were to spread them throughout the year, something which I will now incorporate.  My previous blog post on black classical conductors which included Maestro Morgan has been one of my most frequently viewed posts and I will expand on that subject in the months to come.

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

The second reply was from eminent composer Adolphus Hailstork who was the subject of my first blog post for black history month from last year.  He replied very thoughtfully as follows:

“Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Having grown up in New York State and not experienced “legalized” segregation as practiced in the South, I had enjoyed as a youth, all the rights and privileges of American citizenship due me. There were no “colored” this and “white” that signs or classrooms, or lunch counters, etc. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not have a direct effect on my life at that time.

(I much later came to appreciate the value of the changes in the south when I came to live there as a working adult.)

Actually, it was the assassination of Dr. King that opened doors to my beginning my doctorate degree that same year when I got out of the army (1968).

Also, that tragic event influenced the unfolding of my career, because it led to an interest in the music of African-American classical composers for the honoring of Dr. King’s birthday celebration in January and, by extension, the heightened interest in such music during the February Black History Month observance.

I believe the history of African-Americans is tragic, heroic, triumphant, and, of course, filled with awesomely dramatic stories. It is an honor to attempt in some small way to pay tribute through music to our story.”

Clearly Dr. Hailstork notes the difference between his experiences in the north where he was born and was able to see the profound contrast he experienced working in the south at Old Dominion University in Virginia particularly during the early civil rights struggles and their aftermath.  The emotional impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the same year he concluded his military service  is noted as a formative issue as well.

One can easily hear the deep emotional impact of which he speaks in works like his second symphony from 1999 which reflects his feelings after having visited the slave markets of West Africa and his American Guernica (1983) which is about the Birmingham 16th Baptist Church bombing which killed 4 little girls in 1963.  Other works such as his Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979) also reflect the impact of these events on him personally and reflect what he describes as his feeling of honor in being able to pay tribute to these tragedies describing them aptly as “our story”.

I think it is important to begin to see the tragic and triumphant events of the civil rights era as our American story and not just as the story of black Americans.  Indeed these events are part of our collective history as human beings and as Americans.  These are stories that need telling and re-telling as a part of the healing process and the exorcising of the evil deeds of our collective past.

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MLK, the Classical Playlist


President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that rhythm and blues is the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement but in this, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I am issuing a programming challenge to the classical music world.  Hey there all you classical music stations, both internet based and broadcast.   Hey there Spotify and Pandora.  Have you explored the music written for and about the Civil Rights era?  Well, here’s your chance.

I begin my programming day with Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World” (“Daybreak of Freedom”), written in 1982.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” are made due to the similarity in character and the use of a narrator.  The other work on this  Oregon Symphony CD under the late great James De Preist is  a work by an older composer Nicolas Flagello.  The cantata, “The Passion of Martin Luther King” from 1968, was composed in the shadow of the assassination of Dr. King and first performed in 1969.  Both works deserve more hearings for their musical accomplishments as well as for the subject of their dedications.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

Moving on to the next segment I will move on to Adolphus Hailstork‘s 1978 “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed”  followed by William Grant 1930 Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.  Still is rightfully known as Dean of Afro-American composers.  A contemporary of Aaron Copland, his accomplishments established without a doubt the place in classical music for black composers.  Hailstork acknowledges his debt to the older master.  He is the next generation of black musicians contributing to the repertoire.  I will conclude this segment with Hailstork’s Symphony No. 2 which contains his impressions upon visiting the slave market areas of western Africa, places where began the shameful history of black slavery.

And on we go now to Luciano Berio’s 1968 “O King”, a chamber piece later incorporated into his masterwork, “Sinfonia” of the same year.  I program the version from Sinfonia, it’s my favorite rendering.  The vocal parts of this piece are solely comprised of the name “Martin Luther King”.  Also from 1968 there is Michael Colgrass’ “The Earth’s a Baked Apple” which is subtitled, “A Musical Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (psst, I have a bootleg of it).

We move on to afternoon programming featuring Anthony Davis’ opera, “X”, based on the life of Malcolm X.  This is  a work that deserves a new production.  Following this I will move on to Duke Ellington‘s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige” Suite and then his “Three Black Kings” titled in French with rhyming wordplay as “Les Trois Roi Noir”.

Album cover

Album cover

The program would be incomplete without programming the wonderful Other Minds CD of Sarah Cahill’s album “A Sweeter Music” featuring a diverse collection of compositions written for her on commission by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Kyle Gann, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono and The Residents.  The title is taken from Dr. King’s Nobel Prized lecture in which he refers to peace as “a sweeter music”.

Dizzy Gillespie

Cover of Dizzy Gillespie

I will end my fantasy program with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K’ and Hale Smith’s “In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  But fear not I leave you with a useful reference I have recently discovered.  “A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.” edited by Anthony McDonald.

Stay tuned for more on these subjects coming up during February for Black History Month.  Peace, Dr. King.

A mural painted on the side of the African Ame...

A mural painted on the side of the African American Museum depicts the Hough riots, the civil rights movement and a family looking towards a bright new future for the city and the community. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

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


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

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

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

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

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

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

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

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

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Peace through “A Sweeter Music”


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Album cover

Album cover

It is fitting that this CD, this music has been released in the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington and just prior to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The series of 18 pieces in this major commissioning project by the wonderful bay area pianist, producer and new music advocate Sarah Cahill called “A Sweeter Music”, its title taken from a phrase in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize lecture.  Though only 8 composers are represented on this recording this is a fine document of some truly wonderful and heartfelt music.  And Cahill’s introductory note indicates that there are plans to record the other ten pieces as well.

The project was planned to include video projections by Cahill’s husband, the skillful video artist John Sanborn.  The first formal performance took place on the Berkeley campus and the video projections across three screens added a dramatic perspective on the various pieces.  I was present at the first performance in Berkeley and later at a small multi-purpose hall in Point Reyes in the north bay.  At the smaller venue the projections were limited to a single screen but the images still added to the impact.  At the time of this writing Sanborn has posted some of these videos on You Tube ( http://www.youtube.com/user/sanborn707?feature=watch).

Still from one of Sanborn's videos.

Still from one of Sanborn’s videos.

Each of the recitals contained a selection of the pieces commissioned.  Sarah Cahill kindly provided the complete list which includes: Be Kind to One Another by Terry Riley, Peace Dances by Frederic Rzewski, There is a Field by Jerome Kitzke, Dar al-Harb by Preben Antonsen, The Olive Branch Speaks by Mamoru Fujieda, The Long Winter by Phil Kiline, Two, Entwined by Paul Dresher, War is Just a Racket by Kyle Gann, B’midbar by Larry Polansky, drum no fife by The Residents, Devotion to Peace by Michael Byron, Sonamu by Carl Stone, After the Wars by Peter Garland, A New Indigo Peace by Pauline Oliveros, Movement (Deep in My Heart) by Ingram Marshall, Study War No More by Bernice Johnson Reagon, toning by Yoko Ono and excerpts from Steppe Music by Meredith Monk.

The pieces represented on this recording are a diverse set including those by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono, The Residents, Phil Kline, Kyle Gann, and Carl Stone.  Missing from this disc, and planned for a future release, are the pieces by Jerome Kitzke, Larry Polansky, Pauline Oliveros, Preben Antonsen,  Sanborn’s images definitely enhanced the experience of the music and this writer hopes that some day this music might be released in a DVD format with those images but the pieces here stand easily on their own merits.

The disc opens with Terry Riley’s ‘Be Kind to One Another (rag)’ (2008-10).  Riley takes his title from a statement made by Alice Walker which followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  Rather than express an anti-war stance Riley harkens to the days of his youth when he played barrel house piano music while he studied composition.  This is a jaunty and entertaining but substantial piece which expresses the wish for kindness.  It is a challenging work to play but not to hear.

‘Steppe Music’ (1997) is apparently a reworking of a 30 minute piano piece (the piece at hand lasts about 8 minutes) commissioned by Sarah Cahill for another masterful pianist, Nurit Tilles.  Meredith Monk is of course best known for her extended vocal techniques and dance/theater pieces.  Little of her piano music has been recorded and one hopes that there will be more to come.  This is a less literal contribution which, the composer says, is about “color, texture, resonance, and gesture…”.  Like her performance pieces this is music about images which evoke emotion and it is unlike any of Monk’s recorded piano music.

The seven ‘Peace Dances’ (2007/8) were written by a composer/pianist well-known for his political statements in music as well as for his virtuosic music.  Frederic Rzewski is probably best known for his massive set of variations on the protest song ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido‘ (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) commissioned in 1976 for Ursula Oppens.  His catalog contains a great deal of music with explicit and implicit political references.  Rzewski’s music sounds deceptively simple but is in fact very challenging to play.  These are part of a much larger set of compositions called “Nanosonatas”.  The dances here contain a variety of musical and political references that will entertain and frustrate musicologists for years to come but present the listener with some welcome additions to the repertoire.  Cahill plays them effortlessly and repeated listenings reveal more of the rich textures.  Rzewski’s inspiration, like that which inspired this series, is rooted in the same struggles as represented by Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, gospel music and contemporary folk music.  The last of these dances was a birthday present for the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter.

Kyle Gann’s ‘War Is Just a Racket’ (2008) is written for speaking pianist.  He takes Christian Wolff’s ‘Accompaniments’, which was written for Frederic Rzewski in 1972 requiring the pianist to sing and speak as well as play.  It reminds this writer of Rzewski’s own ‘De Profundis’ of 1992 for speaking pianist using a text by Oscar Wilde.  Gann takes as his text a very interesting text by one General Smedley Butler who gave this speech in 1933.  Like Rzewski, Gann is no stranger to politics in his music.  This addition to the “speaking pianist” repertoire is spoken with feeling by Cahill as she pounds out the angry chords and melodies.  This is perhaps the most literal of the pieces on the disc and probably the least friendly to a conservative audience.

Sonamu (2010) was written by Carl Stone for piano and electronics.  It’s not the electronics your grandmother listened to either.  Stone uses a computer to perform “spectral convolution”, a process, the composer explains, which isolates various aspects of the sounds to “…shape and enclose the pitch and harmonies of separate voices…”.   The intention stated by Stone is to evoke ghosts and memories of the aftermath of war.  This most complex and abstract piece reminds me of the ghost electronics compositions by Morton Subotnick.  This piece requires repeated listenings and would no doubt be enhanced by Sanborn’s images.

Composer Phil Kline describes a process of using various musical fragments edited together to evoke images of living in a land under siege.  Kline was an eyewitness to the World Trade Center disaster and his personal experiences contained metaphorically in ‘The Long Winter’ (2009) have a memorial-like quality.  In the liner notes he describes his fantasy images leading to the realization that he (and we) do live in a land (or perhaps a world?) under siege.  The piece is in two sections ‘Crash’ and ‘Embers’.

Yoko Ono’s ‘Toning’ (2008) purports to be an effort to heal both performer and audience through sound.  As with much of her work this piece has an anti-art quality like the work she produced for the Fluxus performances.  This is perhaps the technically simplest of the pieces on this recording.  I think that reactions will vary to this music much the way that they vary to Ono’s oeuvre.  Those familiar with her work will see the threads that connect and others may simply dismiss her work entirely.

The enigmatic San Francisco based group “The Residents” aspire to anonymity as individuals in the hope that their audiences will focus on their art.  This is clearly one of their performance art pieces and is fairly explicit in its anti-war stance.  It consists of recorded voices and sounds in addition to the live piano performance and demonstrates the eclectic range involved in these commissions.

This CD was recorded at the recital hall at the University of California at Santa Cruz by Tom Lazarus.  It was released as another of the fine recordings of contemporary music on the Other Minds label with Charles Amirkhanian of ‘Other Minds’ as executive producer.  It is a major addition to the recordings of this political classical genre and a significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire as well as a snapshot of an eclectic range of contemporary music of the moment.  Highly recommended.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.

Hiroshima After the Fact


English: Photo of Polish composer, Krzysztof P...

English: Photo of Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’ was an experiment in extended techniques for string instruments and the use of tone clusters written in unconventional musical notation using specialized symbols for the extended techniques and marking time in seconds rather than a tempo and metric divisions. It is scored for 52 solo strings which play sounds, not melodies for the indicated durations in the score.

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It was written in 1959 and was originally titled, ‘8’ 37″‘ perhaps a reference to John Cage’s ‘4’ 33″‘ of 1952. The composer had just won prizes for three works (Strophen, Psalms of David and Emanations) at the Warsaw Autumn Festival earlier that year. The Threnody effectively launched his career as a composer.

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Penderecki states that he simply changed his mind about the title and decided to dedicate it as “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”, a title which was certainly topical in the Cold War paranoia of the times about nuclear holocaust. It is under that title that the piece has received numerous performances and recordings. It was used briefly in the film, ‘The Lives of Men’.

Penderecki’s music has been used in films such as ‘The Exorcist’ (which first introduced me to this composer), ‘The Shining’ and ‘Shutter Island’ among others. But the sound world or sonic signature of his work has been very influential.

He has not been largely political in his musical output but the ‘Lacrimosa’ (1980 later incorporated into the ‘Polish Requiem’, 1980-2005) was commissioned in commemoration of the Solidarity struggles which signaled the end of communist rule in Poland. His composition, ‘Dies Irae’ (1967) has been subtitled the ‘Auschwitz Oratorio’ and is dedicated to the victims of the infamous Nazi death camp.

Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries


My earliest listening adventures in new music, the ones that shaped my present interests, included the early Odyssey vinyl which contained Steve Reich’s tape piece of 1966, “Come Out”, Frederic Rzewski’s 1974 recording which contained Attica (1972) and Coming Together (1972) and the RCA budget disc of new music which contained Penderecki’s harrowing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). In addition to satisfying my fascination with new sounds they were also pointedly political in their messages.

In late 2008 or very early in 2009 I read of a recital to be held at Mills College premiering some of the pieces in a set of piano pieces commissioned by Sarah Cahill called, “A Sweeter Music”, a title taken from a speech by Martin Luther King. I was already familiar with Cahill’s fine pianism and her support of new music. Pieces had been commissioned from Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. I think this was a significant set of commissions and I am happy to read on Cahill’s website that a recording will be forthcoming from Other Minds records.

The recital was a very informal affair in a small concert room at Mills. Many of the pieces were in stages of rehearsal and none of them had the later added multi-screen video projections which were created by Cahill’s husband, the fine videographer and filmmaker, John Sanborn. The audience was small and only a few pieces were actually played but Cahill discussed the project plans and afforded the opportunity for the audience to examine the actual scores.

Needless to say I enjoyed the evening. I spoke with Ms. Cahill and asked if she knew of any books on the subject of political classical music. She concentrated seriously for a moment, searching her knowledge of the literature and replied, “No, I don’t know of any, you should write one.”

That idea has continued to intrigue me so I have decided to begin a series of blog posts on what I do know about contemporary classical music written with the intention of stating a political or social issue. It didn’t take much thought or research to know that this would be a big topic.

At some point I will need to construct a sort of taxonomy of the types of political music to more widely define the area. Fo)r now, though, I decided to limit my research to music written after 1950 by non-pop composers (much has been written about folk/pop political music) which was written with the intention of stating and/or influencing a political or social issue.

I found a great article by Kyle Gann (he always seems to know about music I like, including his own) which appeared in 2003. It is a fine starting point for these efforts.

I will begin by trying to construct a list of such music and, in addition to the pieces listed above, I would suggest  Rzewski’s magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1968), Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (1960), Hans Werner Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968), George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

I am open to suggestions in the construction of this list and welcome comments as I attempt this project.