Art and the Reclamation of History: Akropolis Reed Quintet’s “Ghost Light”


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Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.

Illustrator Ashton Springer

Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)

Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.

Poet Marsha Music

The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.

This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.

The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.

Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.

“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.

“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.

The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.

I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.

The Bewitched in Berlin, Kenneth Gaburo does Harry Partch for your head (phones)


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As far as I can tell this is only the second recording of Harry Partch’s 1958 dance theater masterpiece. The recording that most folks know is likely the CRI release which used that awful simulated stereo (which is rather unpleasant heard on headphones). That recording (thankfully remastered in the original mono for New World Records) is of the 1958 premiere of this inventive and groundbreaking work originally released on the composer’s Gate 5 label.

Neumann KU100 microphone used to record binaural sound (Photo from Wikipedia)

This release of the 1980 (six years after the composer’s death) Berlin performance is here released for the first time on Neuma records under Philip Blackburn’s new tenure. Neuma’s tagline, “Food for the Mind’s Ear” is curiously reflected in the recording method used here. Binaural recording was pioneered in the late 1960s using two microphones facing away from each other inside a dummy head with anatomically accurate human inner and outer ears. The idea was to produce recordings which, when heard on headphones, simulated the experience of being present in the audience. Of course one can listen on conventional speakers but it is truly worth one’s time and money to get a good set of headphones to appreciate this amazing performance.

This is the second Neuma release which embraces Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy. The above recording (reviewed in an earlier blog post) is of a 1967 choral concert curated and conducted by Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Illinois at Champaign where, nearly ten years before that event, the premiere of Partch’s Bewitched was first imposed on a audience. It is Gaburo’s skills as a musical theater director that come into play in the 1980 Berlin production which features the Harry Partch Ensemble conducted by Danlee Mitchell, a long time Partch collaborator and performer.

The recording has a refreshingly superior sound to the 1958 mono premiere but the crucial significance of this release is of Kenneth Gaburo’s holistic theatrical vision which draws upon world music theater conventions such as Japanese Noh, Hindu Mahabharata performances, Gamelan accompanied Balinese Shadow Puppet theater, and the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow as well as ancient Greek theater. Gaburo rehearsed the musicians and dancers to channel Partch’s grand vision in this, the first of his three major dance/theater works (the others being Revelations in the Courthouse Park, 1960; and Delusion of the Fury, 1965-66). It is a masterpiece of American music.

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The Harry Partch Ensemble in this recording consisted of Isabella Tercero (The Witch), Peter Hamlin (Adapted Koto), Phil Keeney (Spoils of War), Cris Forster (Marimba Eroica), Randy Hoffman (Cloud Chamber Bowls), Francis Thumm (Chromelodeon I), John Szanto (New Boo I), Dan Maureen (Bass Clarinet), Donna Caruso (Piccolo and Flute), Robert Paredes (Clarinet), David Dunn (Adapted Viola), Robin Gillette and Anna Mitchell (Kithara II), Ron Caruso (Diamond Marimba), Gary Irvine (Bass Marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (Harmonic Canon II), Ron Engel (Surrogate Kithara). Lou Blankenburg (choreographer/associate director) and Kenneth Gaburo (director). The Partch instruments are as much characters in this piece as the musicians and dancers.

The original recording done by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) was restored and mastered by David Dunn. The booklet includes commentary from clarinetist Bob Paredes as well as Partch’s original scenario taken from the published score.

The Bewitched is a visionary politically progressive music/dance theatrical satire that parallels the work of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater and presages theatrical and musical trends that would later characterize the 1960s and beyond. This recording is a very significant historical document and a great sounding CD, an essential recording for fanciers of Partch’s work, and a performance that sets a standard for the future.

If you don’t already have a good pair of headphones get one and buy this CD. You won’t regret it.

GVSU’s “Return”, an Intoxicating Adventure in Sound


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                                                                        Innova 983

OK, I’ve listened to this lovely CD numerous times and greatly enjoyed it each time. So why has it languished as a draft and why have I failed to publish this?

Procrastination aside there are several things I can identify as things that make this reviewer pause. First (and perhaps least significant) is unfamiliarity. The disc features three composers completely unknown to me: Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, and Matt Finch all of whom are listed as doing the additional duty of acting as mixing engineers (they are all students of the ensemble director as well).

GVSU  hails from the state of Michigan and it’s new music ensemble (consisting of Hannah Donnelly on piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute; Ryan Schmidt, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Darwin McMurray, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Makenzie Mattes, percussion; Reese Rehkopf, piano; Jenna Michael, violin; Kirk McBrayer, cello; Niko Schroeder, sound engineer; and Bill Ryan, director and producer) is also new on this writer’s radar. Add the participation of the extraordinary violinist Todd Reynolds (on one track) and one’s attention is further piqued. Reynolds is an artist who chooses his repertoire and collaborations judiciously so his presence certainly functions as an endorsement.  But “unknown” is the heart of my interests both as listener and reviewer so that can’t be the reason though the lack of liner notes is a bugaboo (though hardly a fatal one).

On the positive side this is an Innova release and that fact alone lends credibility. Anything that Minnesota based label (the official label of the American Composers Forum) is worth your attention. Label director Philip Blackburn has a finely tuned radar which has led to many revelatory releases over the years.  Truly anything released on this label is worthy of your attention if you are a new music fan.

So we have hear a 15 track CD of 15 new works whose sounds seems to travel between ambient and postminimal. The pieces merge nicely with each other in a production which assures a fine listening experience. One can put this on either as background or for more intensive listening. It works either way. The playing is dedicated and insightful and the recording is top notch.

The pieces range in length from 1:32 to 7:32 and all seem to be just the right length communicating substance but never dallying too long. They’re bite sized, so to speak but they each have their charms as well as their complexities.  All are premiere recordings and all are commissioned by the ensemble.

Check it out. Click on the links provided in this review. And simply enjoy.

 

 

The Alchemy of Diversity at Sound and Savor


 

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Freshly baked bialys right out of the oven opened the brunch.

This is another in the continuing account of my encounters with Philip Gelb’s underground vegan salon now called Sound and Savor.  For some twelve years now he has hosted a series of dinners, brunches, and cooking classes.  Many of the multi-course meals also feature some of the finest musicians, many from San Francisco and the east bay.

Today’s brunch started with fresh brewed coffee with a dollop of ginger (vegan) ice cream along with fresh baked bialys with cashew cream, pickled red onions, and “carrot lox”.  So we began with a vegan Jewish theme.  Needless to say these were delicious and the coffee helped waken anyone not ready for this 11AM start.

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The next course was a similarly delicious borscht (beet soup) with beet pakoras.  And clearly Phil has introduced this traditionally Indian dish which worked remarkably well with that soup.  Again all were hot out of the pot/fryer clearly in our view.

As Phil performed his culinary alchemy in the kitchen we were most attentively served by his assistant for this meal, Letitia, a smiling joy of a woman who seems to have the knowledge and genuine caring of customer service in her blood.  She was equally attentive to all in the crowd of about twenty diners with the usual mix of familiar faces and few new ones.  Indeed the beautifully presented courses came at just the right pace.

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The main course in this brunch was a Potato-Onion Tortilla, blood orange salad.  And once again the diversity of cultures mixed to truly savory results as the friendly conversations flowed.  At this point even the hungriest would hope for a pause and that’s exactly what happened.

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With a judicious touch of rearranging Phil prepared a performance space for the three musicians who graced us on this beautiful sunny Oakland day.  Jay Ghandi, bansuri (Indian Flute), Sameer Gupta, tablas (a staple of Hindustani music), and David Boyce, saxophone and bass clarinet (need I say a staple of jazz?).  The alchemy of the food would now find an analogy in this jam session.  Boyce and Gupta had played here about a year ago and Ghandi is a frequent collaborator with both musicians.  All three had played yesterday in San Jose and were scheduled to play in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House.  They are touring to promote their recent release A Circle Has No Beginning.  These are just three of the musicians who participated in this crowd sourced disc which is itself worth your attention.

The energy was immediately palpable as seen in this excerpt from one of three pieces they played.

This last excerpt demonstrates the ease of communication between these musicians who blend diverse backgrounds of jazz and Hindustani musics seamlessly into something new and wonderful.  The audience was energized to a level beyond what coffee could do and broke into appreciative applause after each piece.

The brunch ended with a dessert of (again fresh baked) Citrus Semolina Cake and more of that delicious coffee and ice cream.  And, of course, more conversation.

These events have become a regular part of this writer’s recreational time and a real reason to celebrate living in the diverse and creative east bay.  Phil’s judicious blend of cultures in his culinary experiments provide a parallel to his curation of some of the finest musicians with the only purpose in both case to entertain and enlighten.  He achieved both is a big way this day.  Thanks to all who participated.

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.

 

 

 

Ross Feller: X/Winds


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Innova 911

 

 

This album is both an auspicious debut and a fine representative sampling of the compositional efforts of Ross Feller.  Feller holds MM and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana, that venerable rural Illinois institution which oversaw some of the most significant early developments in computer technology.  More importantly for the present context it is has been the home of many important composers whose works have incorporated this technology directly or indirectly.  Like similar centers in New York (Columbia-Princeton), Oakland (Mills College), Stanford (CNMAT), Berkeley (CCRMA) among others a distinctive musical thread developed in that rural outpost and it is this provenance that makes this recording of particular interest.  Feller is also an editor at the Computer Music Journal and teaches at Kenyon College.

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

Feller represents the current state of the art whose ancestry includes the likes of Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano, both major innovators in both music and technology.  Martirano was one of his teachers and Martirano’s widow, the fine violinist Dorothy Martirano, performs on this recording.  This writer had the pleasure of hearing the Martiranos in concert some years ago and can attest to the astounding quality of the work of this too little known composer.  Judging by the works on this recording Feller appears to be a worthy successor.

Eight works are represented here ranging from solo to acoustic ensemble to electroacoustic works.  The only thing missing is a purely electronic work and one hopes this will occur in a future release.  Composition dates range from 1994 to 2008 though, properly speaking, the 1994 work was revised in 2006.

Triple Threat (1994, rev 2006) is a sort of mini concerto for three soloists (B flat clarinet, trumpet and violin) and an ensemble of nine.  It is a sort of contemporary concerto grosso in that the soloists are more integrated into the overall texture of the piece.  It is a taught, well organized composition whose technical aspects discussed in the composer’s very useful notes are beyond the scope of this review.  What is well within the scope of this review is the fact that this is a marvelously engaging work in a sort of neo-mid century modernism sort of vein.  The technical aspects which will no doubt entertain theorists function in service of the music and are not an end in themselves.

Still Adrift (2013) is the first of three electroacoustic pieces on the disc.  This is an intense and virtuosic essay ably handled by soloist Adam Tendler.  It is obviously a very personal work evidenced both by its intimate focus and the composer’s own liner notes.  One suspects, however, that something is lost without the visuals and immediacy of seeing a live performance.  Nonetheless this piece easily stands on its own sonic merits.

Bypassing the Ogre (2006) is the first of two tracks for soloist without electronics.  This is perhaps the most experimental of the pieces on this disc.  It is essentially an etude focused on the soloist’s (Peter Evans) formidable improvisatory techniques on the trumpet.  It reminds this reviewer at times of the more experimental work of the justly lauded West Coast composer Robert Erickson (1917-1997) whose work also pioneered developments in electroacoustic musics as well.

Disjecta (2006) for percussion ensemble is actually the most extended work here at 14’10”.  It is sort of a catalog of Feller’s experiments with writing for percussion ensemble using playing techniques and naturally occurring (instead of electronically mediated) acoustic phenomena.  The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s term which he applied to a collection of miscellany.  This one requires close ,multiple listenings to grasp the composer’s intent but it appears to point the way to innovations in writing for percussion.

Sfumato (2006) for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound comes from the same apparently very productive year, 2006, as do three other tracks on this album.  This is the second electroacoustic track here.  As is often the case with electroacoustic compositions it is frequently difficult for the listener to determine whether the sounds heard are acoustic, electronic or some combination of the two without seeing a score or at least seeing the performance.  What is important is the sound and the impact of the music.  Again the music is engaging and satisfying.

Retracing (2009) for violin and electroacoustic sound is related to Still Adrift in that it incorporates gestures as well as textiles and dancers but stands on its sonic merits as a concert piece as well.  This is a very intense essay beautifully handled by Dorothy Martirano.  Even without the visuals there is much to engage the listener.

Glossolalia (2002) is the second of the two unaccompanied solo pieces here.  This one is for cello.  Unlike Bypassing the Ogre this piece seems to have impressionist leanings.  It is certainly filled with a variety of techniques but the end result is a coherent musical narrative.  It is abstract without an obvious narrative so the listener is free to apply their own impressions elicited by this very intense piece.

X/Winds (2008) for symphonic woodwind ensemble is the piece from which the album derives its title.  Here we return to the rich orchestral palette of the opening track.  Feller seems particularly strong in his ability to write meaningful and engaging music for large ensembles.  It left this reviewer wanting more.

These are incredible performances by highly competent and creative musicians of music which is well served by these skills.  Very engaging music very well performed and recorded.