Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.
The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.
The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.
They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.
The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.
These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.
Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.
With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.
The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.
Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.
The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.
Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.
Microtones and alternate tuning systems are increasingly one of the most significant streams in new classical music as well as in the revisioning of old classical music to capture the sound of the music in its original milieu, which is not current performance practice. In the liner notes John Schneider says that hearing Bach in 12 tone equal temperament (current performance practice) is analogous to “exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.”
That image conjures for me a childhood memory of my mother bringing home some of the promotional gimmicks by one of the Chicago based supermarkets. It involved prints of famous paintings with a wax textured surface to imitate the look of oil paint on canvas. It’s a tortured metaphor for the present recording but it speaks of “cheesy imitation”. The present recording is one of an increasing number of recordings done with the scholarship of the very complex area of tuning, the surprisingly varied types of scales devised to solve harmonic complexities that occur due to the physics of sound itself. And by so doing, placing earlier efforts as “cheesy” by contrast.
In fact, Schneider (who kindly sent this disc to me), is one of the scholars at the forefront of recreating the musical scales as they existed at the time of the compositions so to get a clearer idea of how it must have sounded at the time. Toward that end one can now obtain guitars capable of being tuned to the subtleties of the scales. Another such disc was reviewed here. In fact guitarist Dan Lippel, in that recording played one of Mr. Schneider’s guitars.
I am working to learn more about the fascinating field of alternate tuning systems to better understand the various tunings in the flow of new music that comes to my desk. But listeners need not concern themselves with these details. The curious fact for this listener is that, on first hearing, the subtle differences in tunings were not immediately obvious (Well Tempered Kirnberger III on this recording). A better trained musical ear would doubtless hear these differences much sooner than I had but I have noticed that I have begun to hear these subtleties having been listening to this disc and some of the similar efforts on the aforementioned Lippel recordings and other titles on Mr. Schneider’s fine Microfest label. It seems like a sort of learning curve in which my brain learns to process these sounds and to hear them as more natural rather than altered.
I apologize for all this chatter but this album is not just about Bach, it is about hearing Bach as he heard it, freed from the shackles of the dominant western paradigms of how to tune a scale. It is a revelation but a gentle one whose radiance is clearer in the light of the retuning of the scale, removing the “wax paper” of the familiar western tuning to reveal a clarity not heard since the composer’s time. It is analogous to the 2018 restoration of the Rose Window (1210) in Chartres Cathedral bringing light in ways not seen in a very long time.
The fine Slovenian guitarist, Mak Grgic is a new name to this writer but one I hope to hear from again. In his selection of repertoire as well as his distinctive playing he makes a compelling and loving case for this music. His well organized web site details his work as musician, teacher, musicologist, composer, and international performer. This release is (by discogs) his seventh appearance on CD and his second recording for Microfest Records.
These are apparently Grgic’s transcriptions, not the “usual suspects” one might expect from a new Bach recording with the exception of the Cello Suite in D. This is apparently a very personal selection of music chosen with curational care. I’ve included a photo of the back cover to show the unique selections.
The Rose Window depicts the revelation and the final judgement of mankind. The present audio document is a gentle revelation but doubtless not the final word on Bach. But the scholarship is fascinating and the sound simply gorgeous. The wax paper has been removed.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.
It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…
Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.
Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!