Harold Meltzer: Wonderful New Chamber Music on Bridge


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Bridge 9513

This is the second Harold Meltzer (1966- ) disc to come across my desk in the last two months or so.  This time he is heard on the venerable Bridge label which produces a great deal of quality recordings of new and recent music.  This one contains four works spread over 15 tracks and, like his previous CD, includes some vocal music alongside two chamber music pieces without voice.

Meltzer seems to be one of a generation of composers who have absorbed many of the vast styles and methods which flowered in the twentieth century.  He is not easy to categorize except as a composer.  There are in his music gestures and ideas that span neo-romanticism, minimalism, etc. but he has a distinctive and very affecting style.

Meltzer’s ability to write for the human voice and these songs put this reviewer in the mind of composers like Ned Rorem.  I’m not saying he exactly sounds like Rorem, just that he is as effective in his writing.  Stylistically there is at times an almost impressionist feel in these songs and, while the piano accompaniment is wonderful, they almost beg to be orchestrated.

There are two song cycles on this disc, the first setting poems of Ted Hughes (Bride of the Island, 2016) and the second setting poems by Ohio poet James Wright (Beautiful Ohio, 2010).  Tenor Paul Appleby had his work cut out for him and he delivers wonderful performances with a voice that is well suited to lieder but clearly with operatic ability as well.  Pianist Natalya Katyukova handles the intricate accompaniments with deceptive ease in these cycles.

There are two chamber works on this disc.  The first is Aqua (2011-12) which is inspired by the architecture of the so-called Aqua building in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang.  In a city known for its fine architecture this 2007 building manages to stand out in its uniqueness.  Need I say that his piece suggests impressionism.  It’s string writing is complex with a vast mixture of effects that, under the interpretive skill of the Avalon String Quartet, suggest movement in much the way the building itself does.  This is genius, the ability to mix all these string techniques into a coherent whole.  It is a basically tonal work and it is seriously engaging but listener friendly in the end.  

The second chamber work is a piece written for the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler.  As it happens the Library of Congress, who commissioned the piece, owns Kreisler’s Guarneri violin and it is they who commissioned this work.  Miranda Cuckson does the honors on violin ably accompanied by the trustworthy Blair McMillen.  To be sure some of Kreisler’s style is used here but this work, “Kreisleriana” (2012) comes across as more than an homage, more a work informed by Kreisler.  It’s a really entertaining piece too.

Thanks in particular to Bridge Records for releasing this.  Bridge is one of those labels whose every release deserves at least a bit of attention.  This time I think they’ve found a fascinating voice in Meltzer’s works.  Now how about some orchestral work?

More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


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Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything).  This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.

This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns.  The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.

Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world.  He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland.  The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing.  He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc.  His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.

The first presentation was perhaps the most striking.  Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording.  He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this).  He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing.  When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished.  What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.

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Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.

One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason.  The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way.  This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.

Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places.  What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually.  The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.

There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers.  But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition.  Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.

It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world.  Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination.  All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.

Final Culmination of a Long Collaboration: Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston


Starkland's Alcatraz DVD

Starkland’s Alcatraz DVD

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.

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.

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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.

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 Cisterci...

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.

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