Other Minds 24, Concert Three, Reviving the Music of a Forgotten Master


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Photo: Ebbe Yovino-Smith

The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series.  Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex.  The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.

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But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event).  When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step.  When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”

If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music.  A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key.  Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought.  1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.

Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris.  It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work.  This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.

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Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.

While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music.  That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive.  One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.

The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs.  You can download a PDF file of the program here.  It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.

One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers.  Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music.  Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann.  His extensive information on the subject can be found here.

The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos.  It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals.  The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett.  This was a US premiere.

Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days).  This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.

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Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.

Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere).  The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”.  It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers.  What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive.  Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.

Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works.  She would appear in the second half of the program.

If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique.  Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning.  So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.

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Shot of the two piano stage set up.  Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.

It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket.  As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo.  The link to their work in that area can provide more information,

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Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo

They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives.  It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.

Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.

Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn.  As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus.  This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.

The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963).  This time they performed without a conductor.  Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically.  This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently.  And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.

Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38:  Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959).  Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance.  The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present.  What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.

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The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two.  Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion.  This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight.  It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony.  The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.

This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.  Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.

Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it.  With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement.  This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.

On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer.  The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.

Clarice Jensen Solo Debut Album


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Miasmah Records MIA041 

Another refugee from one of those new music groups comes forth with a debut album.  This time it is cellist Clarice Jensen who also serves as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).  And what amazes this listener is the sheer diversity one can find in solo cello recordings.

This recording focuses on the special tunings by La Monte Young student Michael Harrison who has carved his own unique compositional style as well as some interesting work by the late Johan Johannson and by the soloist herself.  

There are 4 tracks: 
bc by Clarice Jensen and Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cello Constellations by Michael Harrison 
For this from that will be filled (a) by Clarice Jensen
For this from that will be filled (b) by Clarice Jensen

While there are consistencies between the sound world of these pieces they have their own identity.  Johansson’s work opens the disc and sets the tone for all that comes after.  This is not simply a cellist with a set of cool effects pedals.  Rather this is a soloist seeking to become one with her instrument (which includes the electronics).

Michael Harrison’s work is heard too infrequently.  The former student of La Monte Young carries on the tradition of exploring new tunings in a manner one might expect of the next generation of this practice.  Harrison (no relation to Lou) creates dream like worlds with the psychological  effects of these tunings and this work is a stunning example.

Jensen plays the two parts of the title track, “For this from that will be fulfilled”.  Multiple generations beyond the kitschy “one man band” novelty concept, Jensen’s playing must be a mesmerizing live experience.  This track was originally designed to accompany visuals by one Jonathan Turner who did the striking photography of the album’s cover.

The review copy lacked liner notes (a personal bugaboo) and the press release and notes on the soloist’s site and that of Bandcamp also tell precious little.  Fortunately this is music which speaks pretty directly and can easily be  enjoyed with no knowledge of whence it came.  Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Jensen’s playing is magical.

Jensen in performance (photo from web site)

Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


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Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Josh Modney’s “Engage”, New Music for Violin Solo and Not Solo


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New Focus FCR 211

This is an awesome undertaking.  I recall when pop musicians were cautioned that it may be unwise to release a so called “double album” for fear that their inspiration (or talent) may not be up to the task.  Well here comes Josh Modney violinist and Executive Director of the Wet Ink Ensemble , a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and a performer with the Mivos Quartet for eight years.  This 3 CD set is his solo violin debut album.  And what an album it is.  There is no lack of talent, skill, or imagination here.  This is essentially three faces of Josh Modney a sort of sonic CV.

The first disc features four tracks of music by contemporary composers for violin with soprano, piano, and/or electronics.  All four are fairly recent compositions:  Sam Pluta’s “Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011), Taylor Brook’s “Vocalise” (2009), Kate Soper’s “Cipher” (2011), and Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 22” (1998).All of these are challenging for the musicians and none are easy listening but all demonstrate aspects of Modney’s skills as a musician

The second disc features J. S. Bach’s “Ciacona” or “Chaconne” (1720) from the second violin partita.  But this is not just another performance of this towering masterwork of the solo violin repertoire.  Modney has chosen to perform it in just intonation.  Now how’s that for versatile?

The effect is subtle and may even be lost on some listeners but fanciers of Bach and alternate tunings will likely find this to be anywhere from mildly interesting to revelatory.  It is a fine performance and it is interesting to hear it in just intonation and amazing to know that this performer has this uncommon skill of playing accurately in an alternate tuning on the violin.

Filling out the second disc is a piece by pianist Eric Wubbels, “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012).  This is a very different piece and I’m not sure why it was paired with the Bach except that it fit the available space.  Wubbels contribution is a sort of electroacoustic collage.

The third (and last) disc is of solo violin compositions by Josh Modney.  Again we move into contemporary and experimental compositions which reflect Modney’s skill with the instrument as well as his insights into it’s potentials.  Again there are no echoes of Bach here but rather more of the experimental/avant garde/free jazz style which dominates this album.  The solo violin repertoire is not huge so it is reasonable to assume that these little gems will find a place there.

This is a lovely production with striking cover art and excellent sound.  If you like cutting edge violin music you will have a wonderful time with these discs.  And if you’re looking for a wildly skilled and imaginative musician check this set out and get ready to be wowed.