Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


nakedeye

Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

Ken Thomson’s Restless: a Feast of New Chamber Music


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Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive.  Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.

The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument.  This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.

The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano.  It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development.  It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas.  The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano).  This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.

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Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)

The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys.  Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.

More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation.  It is pretty clear and very effective music.  This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.

Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


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Starkland ST-225

As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do.  The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century.  It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.

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Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

Guy Klucevsek  (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s.  He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh.  He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts.  His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat.  He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities.  The accordion will never be the same.

Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label).  He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule.  He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.

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Starkland ST-225

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Starkland ST-209

Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.

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Starkland ST-218

The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga.  His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world.  Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.

On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface.  What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed.  To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann.  You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.

Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording.  Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians.  Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.

The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds.  Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music.  There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.

Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano.  No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.

The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels.  William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer.  Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.

Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit.  The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums.  Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks.   Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.

The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end.  Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.

As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones.  Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia.  This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved.  Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.

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Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein.  Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin.  Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown.  All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.

Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.

 

Pictures at a Post-Minimalist Exhibition: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye


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Eighth Blackbird is Chicago’s more than adequate answer to New York’s Bang on a Can and this album is solid proof of that.  The liner notes tell us that this is “a collection inspired by a collection” and these 9 tracks are sonic impressions by the individual composers of an art exhibit.  The end result is very much like the romantic/impressionistic Mussourgsky gem updated to the post-minimalist era.

It is well worth your time to check out the artwork which inspired this music (here) and this writer imagines that this piece could really work well as a film score, a DVD perhaps of these images.  The music invokes various minimalist and post-minimalist composers and styles.  It is almost a sonic tour of post-minimalism.  And apparently there are plans for a multimedia tour of this piece as well.  Sounds like a wonderful idea.

This album is the work of a composer’s collective called Sleeping Giant and consists of Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Robert Honstein, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne and Jacob Cooper.  Each has chosen a selection of art to which they wrote a piece of music providing their musical impressions.  The result is a remarkably coherent set of pieces which, while each different, seem to flow into a unity.

Casual listeners may be familiar with the names of Timo Andres or Andrew Norman but all these composers are basically new to these ears and it appears to be a talented lot that deserves some serious attention as they may very well be THE ones to watch/listen to in the coming years. They utilize a variety of techniques in their compositions but there is never a feeling of this being experimental or tentative.  These are fully fleshed out works by master composers.

The music is appealing immediately upon first listen.  One hears the influences of Terry Riley here, John Adams there, David Lang, etc.  In short these pieces are informed by the preceding generations of minimalists much as they also address their debt and do honor to their mentors.  It has some of the character of Lang’s “Child” in that this is essentially a suite of pieces of post-minimalist chamber music (though this music has an almost symphonic quality at times).

The recording is superb and up to the high standards of Cedille releases and the musicianship, as always, is superb.  The liner notes by Sleeping Giant along with Tim Munro are lucid and the album design by Karl Jensen is eye-poppingly psychedelic.  This project was funded by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Andrew W. Mellon and the Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.