Art and the Reclamation of History: Akropolis Reed Quintet’s “Ghost Light”


New Focus FCR-292

Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.

Illustrator Ashton Springer

Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)

Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.

Poet Marsha Music

The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.

This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.

The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.

Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.

“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.

“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.

The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.

I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.

Unheard Hovhaness


KALAN 773

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.

First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.

I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.

That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.

Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.

Sahan Arzruni with composer Alan Hovhaness

There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.

The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.

Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.

Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.

The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.

Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.

Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.

Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.

The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.

Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.

The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.

This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.

This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.

Bearthoven: Post Minimal, Post New York School


wollschlegeramdream

Cantaloupe CA 21145

So many associations here.  Jaime Boddorf‘s lovely photography complements the sparse evocations of the music but this writer immediately flashed on the old Pat Metheny album, “American Garage”.

methenygarage

 

This is most definitely not a Pat Metheny album but the somewhat spare sound world of Scott Wollschleger is reflected (metaphorically of course) in the cover photo and the others on the inside. In fact the resemblance stops with the visuals. And don’t jump to conclusions about the name, “Bearthoven”. It’s not Beethoven either.

bear2

 

So what is American Dream and who is “Bearthoven”?

 

 

 

Well, a look at their website suggests we have a classical ensemble spiritually patterned in a way like a prog rock design school dalliance.  Think Talking Heads. For the record, they are (left to right): Matt Evans , percussion; Karl Larson , piano; and Pat Swoboda , bass.  bear1

Well, no, don’t think about Talking Heads or Pat Metheny.  At least for a minute.  And here’s why.

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This is Scott Wollschleger (1980- ), originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, now resides in New York.  The fact that he studied at the Manhattan School with Nils Vigeland suggests an educational provenance which can be traced most directly to Morton Feldman.  But this is not a case of derivation as much as it is of evolution and incorporation of styles inherited from his teachers and his experiences upon which he attempts to improve for better or worse.  Isn’t that the basic way an artist works?

Whether such musings hold any water will wait the test of time while we consider the actual music here.  This reviewer encountered this letter laden composer’s work here.  This previous album, Soft Aberration which was a wider ranging sort of snapshot of the composer’s work made a similar impression.  His use of fragments is seemingly idiosyncratic.  I can’t figure out exactly what he is doing but that is secondary to the fact that I like what he is doing. And a quick look at the track titles on American Garage and then reading Wollshleger’s commentary one sees some philosophical/metaphorical confluences.

His intriguing and evolving compositional style draws the listener in.  Like the Soft Aberration Album (in art design and musical content) this album relies heavily on metaphor.  So it is with the impressions penned by the musicians involved which are included in . And it is oh so consistent with the metaphorical tone of the photos as well.  There is something amazingly integrated here.

Going into details about these pieces is both outside my expertise and certainly above my pay grade but I can tell you these works touched me on an emotional level and, like the best in art, will continue to speak to those who want to hear.  This is highly evocative music which, if you listen patiently, will gently surprise you.

 

The Future Was Noise


Luciano Chessa’s book, ‘Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult is as of this writing the only book available about the Italian futurist composer other than the composer’s writings themselves.   I purchased this book with a sense of excitement having read about Russolo (1885-1947) in various references in books on 20th century music and being puzzled as to why this subject had not been dealt with in any real detail.

Well that is now no longer the case.  Chessa’s book, published in March of this year fills this scholarly musicological gap quite well.  The book provides a comprehensive picture of the cultural milieu of the Italian Futurist movement embracing visual as well as musical arts as it developed in the early twentieth century prior to, during and after the first world war and into the second.

The cultural milieu was heavily steeped in the Theosophy movement, an exploration of various ecstatic and esoteric spiritual practices which flourished as the practice of Spiritualism was waning in popularity.  Both practices shared an interest in the after life but Theosophy was perhaps more comprehensive as adherents explored various eastern religions and practices in search of answers about consciousness before, during and after life itself as well as the interactions between the material and the spiritual.  Both Spiritualism and Theosophy along with the immediate thought content philosophical theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) informed the futurists as they, along with the rest of society began to explore the impact and implications of the industrial revolution and discoveries like electric light, recording machines, x-rays and radio.

Having only a slight acquaintance with Theosophy and practically no acquaintance with Italian visual arts in the early twentieth century required a bit of time for me to absorb.  But there is no question that these are essential to understanding the genesis and practice of the ‘art of noises’ as Russolo named it in his 1913 manifesto.

Chessa recounts an era in which this philosophy along with fascism were the formative underpinnings of the futurist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century.  In only 230 pages of text (and 64 pages of notes and references)  he provides a wealth of information most of which was new to this writer and will likely be unfamiliar to the average reader as well.  This book opens virtually a whole new world begging to be researched and understood both for the arts the produced in that era as well as its influence on later developments in both art and music.

The futurists attempted to create new art forms that would more directly express or represent ‘thought forms’ as described by the theosophists and the world of the spirits.  The industrial age, mechanization, new media like recordings and radio transmission, x-rays all held a mystique which resulted in the questioning of philosophy and religion as well as politics much as the atomic bomb and, later, computers would shake beliefs and ideas in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Prior to the publication of this book Chessa had recreated the lost ‘Intonarumori’ which were destroyed and/or lost during the second world war.  Only one sound recording exists of this music and even the scores have been lost but Chessa has essentially resurrected the noise machines, performed with them and has had music written for them as well.  This is music which in 1914 and 1921 that provoked riots comparable to the 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and presaged the work with noise by the likes of George Antheil and later John Cage.

There is no explaining the neglect of this area of art and music history but there is joy in this wonderful book which is both an intriguing tale and a fine reference work for further research.  One wonders if Chessa might now embark on further explorations of this era and perhaps even a biography of Russolo but the essential ground work has been laid here for many researches to come on this fascinating era.

The book is available in hard cover, paperback and kindle editions.  This reviewer downloaded the kindle edition which has been produced with the same care as the print editions.