This is the most recent recording by Italian pianist Agnese Toniutti. (her third release by my research). It is also the most recent recording of John Cage’s masterful Sonatas and Interludes (1946-8) for prepared piano, a defining work for that unusual instrument. It has been recorded at least 30 times but is rather rarely heard in live performance.
John Cage is perhaps best known for his challenges to the philosophy and the very definition of music itself epitomized in his infamous silent piece titled 4’33” premiered in 1952. The composer eschewed the notion of a “masterpiece” but irony loving “fate” would hand him that title at least for this set of pieces.
Toniutti, a graduate of The Conservatory of Venice, seems to be as much a researcher and activist as she is a widely skilled pianist. While doubtless schooled in the commonly played repertoire for her instrument, she favors new music and music undeservedly neglected in her performances and recordings as well as the commissioning of new works and finding yet unplayed that strike her fancy.
The Sonatas and Interludes, now some 80 years old doesn’t really qualify as “new music” per se nor can it really be called neglected having been recorded 30+ times. In the context of this release this cycle of pieces seems to function much as a new recording of the Goldberg Variations or the late Beethoven Sonatas might function to introduce the skills of a musician whose trajectory was aimed at the conventional recital hall circuit. Toniutti clearly has other plans.
I won’t attempt to compare this most recent interpretation to the other available recordings. I believe this recording does much to validate the music as an essential work in the western canon of art music and to display the estimable understanding and widely skilled competence of the performer whose work is and will continue to embrace new music and advocate for that music to earn an esteemed place in the minds and hearts of listeners and other performers.
This is a very enjoyable recording whether it is to be a collector’s only recording of this music or one that stands most favorably in comparison to previous recordings. If this is to be your first recording of this work or if you simply want to hear another interpretation, you will not be disappointed. This is a wonderful performance.
Pianist Agnese Toniutti previously released a very forward looking recording on Neuma Records. The 2021 release pictured below is a collection of much more recent music. I listened numerous times and didn’t feel I “got it” well enough to say something reasonably intelligent (if not insightful) until this second release. And while I may not fully understand these “subtle matters” I now have a better context.
This collection which I had yet to review represents Toniutti’s understanding and appreciation as well as her apparent mission to expand the experimental repertoire for piano. Here is a fascinating set of composers, each with a unique view of her instrument. Just listen, trust this artist. You’ll be glad you did.
Keep your eyes and ears open for Agnese Toniutti, an advocate for and a master of the avant garde. And to Ms. Toniutti, I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
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.
I have little expertise in the area of soundtrack music. It is my opinion that they largely serve as comforting souvenirs almost regardless of their quality.
John Lunn’s score does rise above the ordinary with its quasi post minimalist gentle music for this mini cult film. He is not Prokofiev or Herman but that level is not what is needed to support what is in the end a well written and well acted/directed costume drama.
Lunn does not burden his audience with obtuse or even obvious references to British music (folk or classical). No quotes from Nimrod or Rule Britannia (thank God). Just competent and unobtrusive incidental music for a decent film. Doubtless there will be a few live orchestra performances concurrent with screening the film in a concert setting. Enjoy the memories.
This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start. Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay. This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son. Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.
English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware. He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning. That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.
The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer. And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.
The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer. And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music. It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer. His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.
I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works. That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen. But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.
As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative of these composers. His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.
Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns. I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative. The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.
What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience. He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary. But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental illness and the current state of our society and our world. This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.
Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human. The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find). The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets. A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.
The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father. The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno. Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies. He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments. But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style. Very difficult to describe in words alone.
Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer. He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups. He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.
Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army. His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from ECM. His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.
Jim Bengston in his studio 2009
Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production. Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.
Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object. The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music. But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show. It is not didactic and only incidentally linear. It is not just a piece of music for listening either. The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).
Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece. It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston. There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany. Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac music.
The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985. According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively. They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time and the quality of their collaboration is apparent. And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.
The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments. Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay. The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks. Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.
The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures. It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo. These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone. And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions. One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.
Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’. It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.
Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways. The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs. Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.
The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This disc works on many levels. You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by. But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object. One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone. This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.
The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus. Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design. Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.
This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.
In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).
What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.
This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.
Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?
Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.
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.
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.
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.
The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18
OM 18 has been my fifth experience at the Other Minds festival. The most amazing thing about Other Minds is their ability to find new music by casting a wide net in the search for new, unusual and always interesting music. As I said in my preview blog for these concerts this year’s selection of composers was largely unfamiliar to me. Now I am no expert but my own listening interests casts a pretty wide net. Well this year I had the pleasure of being introduced to many of these composers and performers with no introduction save for the little research I did just before writing the preview blog (part of my motivation for doing the preview blog was to learn something about what I was soon to hear).
Danish folk trio Gáman
The first night of the series consisted of what is generally classified as “folk” or “traditional” music. Not surprisingly these terms fail to describe what the audience heard on Thursday night.
First up was the Danish folk trio ‘Gáman’ consisting of violin, accordion and recorder. This is not a typical folk trio but rather one which uses the creative forces of three virtuosic musicians arranging traditional musics for this unusual ensemble. On recorder was Bolette Roed who played various sizes of recorders from sopranino to bass recorder. Andreas Borregaard played accordion. And Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was on violin.
The first piece, ‘Brestiskvædi’ was their rendering of this traditional song from the Faroe Islands (a group of islands which is under the general administration of Denmark but which has its own identity and a significant degree of independence). It struck my ears as similar in sound to the music of Scotland and Ireland, lilting beautiful melodies with a curiously nostalgic quality.
Next was a piece by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. It was the U.S. premiere of his ‘Accvire’ from 2008, a name derived from the two first letters of the instruments for which it was written (as we learned in the always interesting pre-concert panel). It was commissioned by this ensemble. The work reflected the composer’s facility with instrumentation and retained some suggestion of folk roots as well. It employed a rich harmonic language within a tonal framework in what sounded almost like a post-minimalist piece. The trio met the challenges of the music and delivered a lucid reading of this music which seemed to satisfy both the musicians and the audience.
The trio followed this with three more folk arrangements, two more from the Faroe Islands and one from Denmark. Like the first piece they played these had a similar ambience of calm nostalgia.
The Danish folk piece set the stage for the next work, a world premiere by one of Denmark’s best known living composers, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. The piece ‘Together or Not’ from 2013 is an Other Minds commission. The composer, who was not present, wrote to Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian saying, “the title is the program note”. While the statement was rather cryptic the music was not. This was less overtly tonal than the Rasmussen work and was filled with extended instrumental techniques and good humor. Again the instrumentalists demonstrated a comfortable facility with the technical challenges of the music and delivered a fine reading of this entertaining piece.
The nicely framed program continued with two traditional drum songs from Greenland (the violinist, holding his instrument rather like a guitar produced a sort of modified pizzicato technique which played the drum part). These haunting melodies seemed to evoke the desolate landscape of their origin.
The program ended with a Swedish polka and, in response to a very appreciative audience, an encore of another spirited polka. These were upbeat dance music that all but got the audience up and dancing. The audience seemed uplifted by their positive energy.
G.S. Sachdev (left) and Swapan Chaudhuri.
The second half of the first night’s concert consisted of two traditional Hindustani Ragas. These pieces are structured in aspects of the the music but allow for a great deal of repetition and improvisation in which the musicians bring the music to life. Hindustani music is deeply rooted in culture and spirituality. The ragas are associated with yogic chakras, moods and time of day. Their performance is intended to enhance the audience esthetically and spiritually.
G.S. Sachdev is a bansuri player. The bansuri is a wooden flute common in this type of music (though Sachdev’s level of mastery is hardly common). He was accompanied by the familiar tanpura drone produced by digital drone boxes instead of the actual instruments which produce the familiar drone sound that underlies Hindustani music performances. Swapan Chaudhuri played tabla. It is difficult to see the tabla as an “accompanying” instrument as much as it is a complementary instruments especially when played by a master such as he. Chaudhuri is the head of the percussion department at the Ali Akbar Khan school in San Rafael in the north bay. Sachdev has also taught there. Both men have ties to the bay area.
The musicians performed Raga Shyam Kalyaan followed by Raga Bahar. Originally I had thought of trying to describe these ragas in their technical aspects but my knowledge of Hindustani music cannot do justice to such an analysis. Rather I will focus on the performances.
Raga Shyam Kalyaan was first and received an extended reading. How long? Well I’m not sure but this music does create a sort of suspended sense of timelessness when performed well. Indeed that was the effect on this listener. The whole performance of both ragas could not have exceeded one hour but the performances by these master musicians achieved the height of their art in producing riveting performances of this beautiful music. Sachdev’s mastery certainly has virtuosity but his genius lies in being able to infuse his performance with spirituality from within himself and to impart that spiritual resonance to his audience. He was ably aided in that endeavor by Chaudhuri who, clearly a master of his instrument and connected with Sachdev, channeled his connection with the infinite.
The audience responded with great warmth and appreciation concluding the first day of the festival.
Composer, performer, designer, shaman Dohee Lee performing her work, ‘ARA’.
Friday night began with the world premiere of the music theater performance piece, ‘ARA’ by Korean-American artist Dohee Lee. Continuing with the spiritual tone set by yesterday’s Raga performances Lee introduced her multi-disciplinary art derived from her study of Korean music, dance and shamanism as well as costume design and music performance.
She was aided in her efforts by the unique instrument designed for her by sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist Colin Ernst. The Eye Harp (seen in the above photo) is an instrument that is played by bowing and plucking strings and is connected to electronics as well.
The art of lighting designer David Robertson, whose work subtly enhanced all the performances, was clearly in evidence here. This was a feast for the eyes, ears and souls. Dohee Lee’s creative costume design was integrated with the visually striking Eye Harp instrument. And the music with sound design processing her instrument nicely complimented her vocalizations. All were lit so as to enhance the visual design and create a unified whole of this performance.
Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.
Her performance began slowly with Lee in her beautiful costume took on the role of a modern shaman conjuring glossolalia in shamanic trance along with choreographed movement and accompanied by her Eye Harp and electronic sounds through the theater’s great sound system. Like the raga performances of the previous night I wasn’t aware of how long this timeless performance lasted (the program said it was 10 minutes) . But I wished it would have gone on longer. Even with photographs the experience here is difficult to articulate. The sound enveloped the audience who viewed the carefully lit stage in the otherwise darkened hall as the sounds communicated a connection with the sacred.
I am still trying to digest what I saw and heard on this Friday night. I don’t know how most of the audience experienced this piece but they seemed to have connected with it and responded with grateful applause. She seemed to connect as both artist and shaman.
Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.
Following Dohee Lee were three pieces for an instrument called the Paetzold contrabass recorder (two before intermission and one after). Paetzold is the manufacturer who specializes in the manufacture of recorders, forerunner of the modern flute. The square contrabass recorder is a modern design of this woodwind instrument. However, knowing the sound of the recorder in music of Bach and his contemporaries, gives the listener no useful clues as to what to expect from the unusual looking instrument pictured above.
Anna Petrini is a Swedish recorder virtuoso who specializes in baroque and modern music written for the recorder. At this performance she played her contrabass instrument augmented variously by modifications, additions of microphones, little speakers and electronic processing. These pieces were perhaps the most avant-garde and the most abstract music in this festival.
Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.
The creative stage lighting provided a useful visual counterpoint to the music. The first piece, ‘Split Rudder’ (2011) by fellow Swede Malin Bang was here given it’s U.S. premiere. This piece is concerned with the sounds made inside the instrument captured by small microphones inserted into the instrument. The resulting sounds were unlike any recorder sound that this listener has heard. The piece created percussive sounds and wind sounds.
The next piece, ‘Seascape’ (1994) by the late Italian composer Fausto Rominelli (1963-2004) used amplification but no electronic processing. These abstract works were received well by the audience.
‘SinewOod’ (2008) by Mattias Petersson involved introducing sound into the body of the instrument as well as miking it internally and setting up electronic processing with which the performer interacts. Like the two pieces that preceded it this was a complex exercise in the interaction between music and technology which is to my ears more opaque and requires repeated listenings to fully appreciate.
Craig Taborn performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the 2013
The second concert was brought to its conclusion by the young jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn. Detroit born, Taborn came under the influence of Roscoe Mitchell (of AACM fame) and began developing his unique style. Here the term jazz does little to describe what the audience was about to hear.
Taborn sat at the keyboard with a look of intense concentration and began slowly playing rather sparse and disconnected sounding notes. Gradually his playing became more complex. I listened searching for a context to help me understand what he was doing. Am I hearing influences of Cecil Taylor? Thelonius Monk? Keith Jarrett maybe?
Well comparisons have their limits. As Taborn played on his music became more complex and incredibly virtuosic. He demonstrated a highly acute sense of dynamics and used this to add to his style of playing. I was unprepared for the density and power of this music. Despite the complexity it never became muddy. All the lines were distinct and clear. And despite his powerful and sustained hammering at that keyboard the piano sustained no damage. But the audience clearly picked up on the raw energy of the performance.
This is very difficult music to describe except to say that it had power and presence and the performer is a creative virtuoso whose work I intend to follow.
Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.
The final concert on Saturday began with the world premiere of another Other Minds commissioned work, ‘Work Around the World’ (2012) for live voice with looping electronics and percussion ensemble. This, we learned in the pre-concert panel is another iteration in a series of language based works, this one featuring the word ‘work’ in 12 different languages.
Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais’ ‘Work Around the World’.
Language is an essential part of the work of local vocal/techno diva Amy X Neuberg’s compositions and performance work. With her live looping electronics she was one instrument, if you will, in the orchestra of this rhythmically complex work. William Winant presided over the complexity leading all successfully in the performance which the musicians appeared to enjoy. The audience was also apparently pleased with the great musicianship and the novelty of the work. Its complexities would no doubt reveal more on repeated listenings but the piece definitely spoke to the audience which seemed to have absorbed some of the incredible energy of the performance.
Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’.
Back to the recorder again but this time to the more familiar instrument if not to more familiar repertoire. Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri whose work was first made known to the record buying public some years ago is familiar to most (this writer as well) for her fine performances of the baroque repertoire.
Tonight she shared her passion for contemporary music. First she played Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’ (2011) which he wrote for her. It was the U.S. premiere of this solo recorder piece. Vogelstimmung is inspired by pictures of birds and is a technically challenging piece that Petri performed with confidence. At 17 minutes it was virtually a solo concerto.
And then back to electronics, this time with Paula Matthusen who now teaches at Wesleyan holding the position once held by the now emeritus professor Alvin Lucier. Her piece for recorder and electronics, ‘sparrows in supermarkets’ (2011) was performed by Ms. Petri with Ms. Matthusen on live electronic processing. This was a multi-channel work with speakers surrounding the audience immersing all in a complex but not unfriendly soundfield.
Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian
Some technical difficulties plagued the beginning of the first piece after intermission so the always resourceful emcee, Other Minds executive director Charles Amirkhanian took the opportunity to introduce the new Operations Director Michael Straus. Straus replaces Adam Fong who has gone on to head a new music center elsewhere in San Francisco.
Mr. Amirkhanian also spoke of big plans in the works for the 20th Other Minds concert scheduled for 2015 which will reportedly bring back some of the previous composers in celebration of 20 years of this cutting edge festival. No doubt Mr. Straus has his work cut out for him in the coming months.
Ström, part of the video projection
With the difficulties sufficiently resolved it was time to see and hear Mattias Petersson’s ‘Ström’ (2011) for live electronics and interactive video in its U.S. premiere. Petersson collaborated with video artist Frederik Olofsson to produce this work in which the video responds to the 5 channels of electronics which are manipulated live by the composer and the five lines on the video respond to the sounds made. The hall was darkened so that just about all the audience could see was the large projected video screen whilst surrounded by the electronic sounds.
The work started at first with silence, then a few scratching sounds, clicks and pops. By the end the sound was loud and driving and all-encompassing. It ended rather abruptly. The audience which was no doubt skeptical at the beginning warmed to the piece and gave an appreciative round of applause.
Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’
Next up, again in a darkened hall was a piece for solo performer and electronics. Composer Paula Matthusen came out on stage and assumed the posture in the above photograph all the while holding a stethoscope to her heart. The details of this work were not given in the program but this appears to be related to the work of Alvin Lucier and his biofeedback work on the 1970s. Again the sounds surrounded the audience as the lonely crouching figure remained apparently motionless on stage providing a curious visual to accompany the again complex but not unfriendly sounds. Again the audience was appreciative of this rather meditative piece.
Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen
Following that Ms. Mathussen joined another bay area singer and electronics diva, Pamela Z for a joint improvisation. Ms. Z, using her proximity triggered devices and a computer looped her voice creating familiar sounds for those who know her work while the diminutive academic sat at her desk stage right manipulating her electronics. It was an interesting collaboration which the musicians seemed to enjoy and which the audience also clearly appreciated.
Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’
For the finale Pamela Z performed her 2009 arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ 1986) which appeared on a crowd sourced CD curated by another Other Minds alum, DJ Spooky. Z effectively imitated Monks complex vocalizations and multi-tracked her voice as accompaniment providing a fitting tribute to yet another vocal diva and Other Minds alumnus. The audience showed their appreciation with long and sustained applause.
Looking at the previous four installments in this, my personal tribute to Black History Month, I decided that I needed to write one more (for now) in this series. So here I will present some of the resources I have found useful in learning about this music. While I have some knowledge in this area I could not have written these posts without these sources and I will continue to look to them to help me discover more musical gems. I hope that these essays have sparked some interest and I hope that any such interest will have ways to grow further.
The most useful general search terms formed the titles of these posts: black classical (or “African-American classical” which then limits your search to U.S. or the Americas). The term, “classical” is problematic but did serve to differentiate my searches from blues, ragtime, traditional jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, pop, rap and related genres that are more stereotypically associated with black people in music.
africlassical.com is a good general site that lists many black musicians and its far more up to date companion site http://africlassical.blogspot.com/ has postings of great interest on an almost daily basis has been both essential and revelatory at times (I bookmarked this blog).
Center for Black Music Research is a rich resource and also publishes an academic journal on the subject as well as many other useful and interesting publications. They also maintain a large research library of books, journals and recordings. And they cover all forms of music. An excellent resource.
But the starting point for my personal interest in this subject is the landmark set of recordings which I encountered in the mid to late 1970s. Columbia records release of nine albums entitled ‘Music by Black Composers’ is perhaps the best starting point due to the wonderful scholarship and musicianship in this set. Conductor Paul Freeman along with musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma collaborated on this set. They produced a fine overview of neglected black composers from the 18th century to the mid-20th century in an intelligent selection of music and excellent performances by American orchestras. I was pleased to find that the reissue of these albums as a 9 vinyl disc boxed set remains available for only $35 plus postage from here. I jumped at the opportunity to acquire this great reissue funded by the Ford Foundation and my order was sent to me in less than a week.
Chicago-based Cedille Records has some great releases and even more great black classical is available at Albany Records. Search for the work of Paul Freeman on both labels.
The ultimate goal for me in all this would be to have black classical musicians and composers equally represented on recordings, in performances and in programming. But until that happens (I’m not holding my breath here) the recordings and resources thus far cited (and many that were not) will have to suffice. While I continue to enjoy discovering this music as a “best kept secret” or a limited boutique-type item I would much prefer that the art of these black musicians become common knowledge, not a political issue of which Marian Anderson‘s concert at the Lincoln Memorial has become emblematic.
Let me end by referring my readers to my favorite fiction book about black musicians: Richard Powers‘ 2003 masterpiece ‘The Time of Our Singing‘. Powers, who is also trained as a musician, demonstrates amazing insight to music as well as civil rights issues in this sweeping epic of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled, Easter, 1939 (too long to quote here) brings the Marian Anderson concert to life in powerful prose. Read it, preferably out loud to a friend, because it will give you a history lesson and perhaps put you in touch with the emotional power and significance of that event.
Happy Black History Month to all. And happy listening.
The annual Other Minds concert series is coming up on February 28, March 1 and 2. Now in its 18th iteration the festival seems to constantly be able to find new and interesting music from all over the world. And it gives every season’s musicians a week’s retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists program during which they perform and discuss their music with each other sharing what must be a wonderful mind-expanding experience for them.
Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco provides a comfortable venue that is both visually and acoustically well-suited to the marvelously diverse collections of composers and musicians that come together for three nights following their week-long workshop/retreat. Under the direction of Charles Amirkhanian who was music director at KPFA radio from 1969 to 1992 this concert series threatens to invade the musical consciousness and tastes of Northern California and beyond. At the very least it holds off the danger of the music scene becoming stuck in a rut. And at best it cross pollinates the DNA of the musical world to yield as yet unknown artistic mutations.
For die hard fans of new music like myself the festival provides an opportunity to hear some exciting artists whose work has interested me as well as an opportunity to widen my horizons and hear younger artists whose work is yet known only to a smaller audience. There are world and local premieres every year. And one of the thrills, at least for me, is the chance to hear artists who later rise to greater fame, “I remember when I first heard…”
This year’s line up is no less varied than previous years. Casting its usual wide net composers are included from Denmark, India, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and the United States. For me it will be the first time in which I will have had practically no knowledge before hand of these composers. But some of the performers are known to me including electronic diva gurus Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z, two Bay Area artists with distinctly different approaches to the ‘voice with electronics’ genre. Having appeared previously in the ‘Other Minds’ concerts presenting their own compositions (composers thus far have only been allowed a single appearance presumably to make room for the new) they are engaged to perform music by other composers.
Neuberg recently appeared doing her own arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ‘California’ in a well-received performance with 9 other bands playing their arrangements of the other nine tracks from Mitchell’s classic album, ‘Blue’. This wonderful concert was reviewed in a previous blog. She will perform along with virtuoso percussionist William Winant and his percussion group in the world premiere of Canadian American Aaron Gervais ‘Work Around the World’.
Pamela Z is also well known and is pictured above in a performance at the annual Chapel of the Chimes Summer Solstice concert. The world premiere of her Kronos Quartet commission, ‘And the Movement of the Tongue’ for string quartet and electronics occurs on February 20 and 21 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. She will be performing an improvisation with another soloist with electronics performer, Paula Matthusen as well as her own arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ on the last day (Saturday).
While I had been aware of recorder player Michala Petri I am only familiar with her recordings of baroque music. But we will get to hear her artistry in performances of fellow Danes Sunlief Rasmussen and Paula Matthusen in contemporary pieces, one a U.S. premiere.
In addition there will be performances by Danish folk trio (recorder, accordion, violin) and Indian Bansuri master G.S. Sachdev as well as a performance by jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn.
Swedish contrabass recorder artist Anna Petrini will perform three works for contrabass recorder and electronics (an unusual combination to say the least) by three Scandinavian composers. Mattias Petersson is featured in a performance with video and electronics of his work ‘Strom’ from 2006 in its U.S. premiere.
And the second (of three) nights will feature the world premiere of a theatrical work, ‘ARA’ by the South Korean vocalist Dohee Lee featuring video and multi-channel electronics. I’m betting that this may be a major premiere.
If, as most biologists now believe, diversity is crucial to the survival of a species then the Other Minds festival appears to be mixing enough artistic DNA to keep new music alive for a couple of hundred years. I don’t know how many friends and acquaintances will be awed in 5-10 years when I tell them I was at the premiere of ‘ARA’ or ‘Work Around the World’ or try to describe the sound of a contrabass recorder with electronic enhancement but even the blank stares with some scratching their heads won’t detract from my own self satisfaction of having been there.