ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

Game of the Antichrist, a spectacular new music drama by Robert Moran


 

Cover of Game of the Antichrist

Game of the Antichrist (Innova 251)

Despite the title, this is neither a Stephen King adaptation or that of a given miniseries.  This is an actual medieval mystery play which was performed to disseminate religious ideas during that period.  The medieval passion plays are better known but eclectic composer Robert Moran managed to find an actual drama and added to it his unique blend of experimentalism, minimalism, jazz and lyrical melodies to create this visually and musically striking (there is a Video here) setting of this forgotten little play.

Moran (1937- ) studied in Vienna with Hans Erich Apostel, a student of both Berg and Schoenberg.  He earned a master’s degree from Mills College having studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.  He has produced everything from electronic music, to happenings involving whole cities and has written in musical styles derived from chance operations to minimalism and is not afraid to write beautiful melodies.  His collaboration with Philip Glass in The Juniper Tree (1985) is a fine example of his facility with vocal writing and music drama.

This drama is performed in a cathedral space and Moran takes advantage of the resonant space by the inclusion of Alphorns, harp and organ whose tones are transformed in part by that space.  Musical styles vary suited to the unfolding drama and work well with the staging of the piece.

Moran, who professes a love of opera since about the age of 9 or 10 has a great sense of the dramatic and for beautiful vocal writing.  He says he listens to operas all the time.  His 2011 Trinity Requiem was written for similar forces and performed in a similarly resonant space also to great effect.  And his sense of eclecticism allows him to select from a wide variety of musical styles and effects.

The end result is, for this reviewer, a very successful integration of the composer’s various skills and influences.  It would be hard to imagine a better setting of this piece.  He starts with an anonymous text from Quirinus Monastery Cloister Tegernsee in Bavaria ca. 1150 and, with Alexander Hermann, creates a realization for performance.  The piece is scored for children’s chorus, vocal ensemble, soprano, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, oboe, english horn, Alp horn, Bar piano and organ.  In addition there are two other defined ensembles consisting of harp (representing the Heathen and his Babylonian followers), guitar, recorders and synthesizer (representing the Synagogue and Jerusalem), trumpets, horn, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion (representing the Church and its Devotees).

There are roles for dancers and, in the performance depicted on the CD cover, choreography by Jarkko Lehmus and Bettina Hermann design by George Veit and menacing puppets created by Fabian Vogel.  Unfortunately there are no current plans to release a DVD of this work but settling for the music alone is hardly a terrible sacrifice.  Moran brings his eclectic musical range, knowledge of opera and music theater combined with careful selection of dramatic text to create a piece that can work as aural theater as well.

The disc concludes with another piece, Within a Day (2014), of aural theater which, in this case, has no specified stage actions.  It is a collaboration with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, Edward Shocker’s improvisational ensemble.  It is an example of Moran’s ability to write less determined music as well as his ability to collaborate with other creative artists.  The piece premiered at San Francisco’s Center for New Music in January, 2014 and subsequently recorded in Lisser Hall at Mills College in May, 2014.  It is a collective improvisation based on what appears to be an indeterminate score by the composer.

This is a clearly different music with more abstract aims and it contrasts strangely with the music drama but this is a good example of Moran’s facility with the art of composition as well as collaboration (Can you get more collaborative as a composer than an indeterminate score?).  This more ambient sort of music is a little sonic theater for the mind based loosely on Moran’s interest in Tibetan texts invoking the gods and goddesses through their chants.

This disc made one of my best of 2014 and I highly recommend it for listeners interested in music drama and sound theater.

Henry Brant?…never heard of him: A Centennial Sketch


Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California

Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in the Sojourner Cafe, my favorite little restaurant/hangout just off downtown in Santa Barbara, California.  I was having one of many conversations with the great and interesting staff and patrons when I mentioned the name of Henry Brant, saying he lived in Santa Barbara.  “I never heard of him” came the response from Chris, a musician when not serving at the restaurant.  No one else showed any signs of recognition either.  I proceeded to tell him about the Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It was then that flicker of recognition came across his face.  He told me that the frail figure using his walker was a familiar sight in the neighborhood, his eyes widened with interest as I told him about this major American musician.

Henry Brant

Henry Brant (1913-2008) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to American parents.  His father was a professional musician. Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments.   Henry went on to study at McGill University and later in New York at a school later named Julliard.  He was the youngest composer mentioned in Henry Cowell’s anthology, “American Composers on American Music” to which Brant contributed an article on what he called “oblique harmony”.

Brant, who had an early connection and affinity with the American experimental music tradition, would go on to develop “spatial music” in which musicians were scattered around the performance space as an essential part of the composition and performance.  He began writing music in the sort of post modern style of the time as in his Symphony No. 1 (1945 rev. 1950) and pithy little jazz inflected pieces like Whoopee In D (1938, Rev. 1984), Jazz Toccata On A Bach Theme (Toccata On “Wachet Auf”) (1940) and Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933, Rev. 1984).

He would write for unusual combinations of instruments such as Angels And Devils (1931), a concerto for flute and orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles (2002) also for flute and flute orchestra or Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice.  His first spatial composition, Rural Antiphonies (1953) predates Stockhausen’s famed experimental opus, Gruppen (1955-7).  In all he composed over 100 “spatial” works along with chamber music such as Homeless People (1997) for piano and string quartet.  His composition Ice Field (2001) commissioned by Other Minds and performed in Michael Tilson Thomas‘ “American Mavericks” series won him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Brant had worked as an orchestrator and conductor in Hollywood assisting with scores by Alex North and with the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks.  His extensive knowledge of orchestration led him to write his textbook (published posthumously) ‘Textures and Timbres’.  And one of his last musical works was the orchestration of Charles Ives‘ massive and complex Second Piano Sonata which Brant titled the “Concord Symphony”.  This major opus has been performed several times and recorded twice.  A series of recordings on the Innova label have begun to release new recordings, many of them first recordings, of Brant’s huge catalog of compositions.

Brant was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient several prizes and honorary degrees.  He was and continues to be a great force in music as well as a connection the American experimental traditions of Ives, Cowell and their contemporaries.  There is much to do in researching and documenting the work of this now past master who would have been 100 years old on September 15th.  His archive of over 300 scores is now in the venerable archives of the Paul Sacher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.   But I am left with the image of the frail figure walking the streets of Santa Barbara no doubt followed by more of his industrious efforts when he got back home to his studio.  Happy Birthday, Henry!