Seth Graham’s art work alone might be a reason to buy this release by Canadian musician/producer Nick Storring. He sent this to me with several other releases by Canadian composers and performers of various stripes. Some rock/blues solo guitar, some new classical, but this one…I wasn’t sure at first. And as one accustomed to placing music in some sort of context this left me a bit stumped. But that is NOT an indictment of the music on this disc. Rather it is a reflection of the limits of my own musical understanding as I approach the unfamiliar. In fact this is closest to classical chamber music. Its timbres and development are not stereotypically “classical” but these essays are absolute music in that they have no obvious meaning save for the titles whose poetic ambiguity are open to the listener’s interpretation.
So having gotten myself past that stage of trying to imagine the intended context or intended audience for this music I decided to just listen and I did, several times. What I heard was engaging but still with no obvious clue as to how to characterize it except to describe it in its most obvious aspect, chamber music with a personal twist.
The stylized writing on the back of the album is visually interesting but not easy to read so here is a breakdown of the individual tracks and timings:
Tides That Defeat Identity
Pretending You And I
Tonight There Will Be No Distance Between Us
What A Made-Up Mind Can Do
Now Neither One Of Us Is Breaking
My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell
The titles strongly suggest a very personal meaning for the composer but there are no lyrics and nothing that provides any clues as to the meanings behind these titles. So I found it necessary to simply treat them as individual expressions with, ultimately, abstract titles. The album is characterized on discogs as: modern, experimental, ambient, and new classical, pretty much what I finally deduced after my multiple listens.
I won’t attempt to characterize the individual pieces here except to say that they are tonal, engaging, and not obviously beholden to any particular formula or style. Yet there is an aspect of familiarity, gentle consonance. And therein lies the true value of this music. It does not rely on clichés but moves along to the composer/performer’s whim, which is to say that this is original music, experimental in timbre and musical development.
All the tasks, save for mastering are by Mr. Storring.
A look at Nick’s website reveals it to be very well designed and includes a complete discography (16 albums either solo or collaborative by my count), a well organized CV, and links to his work at Riparian Media in which he produces music by a variety of carefully curated albums by a variety of musicians. Listeners will probably want to peruse the composer’s list of works and performances which also list a variety of musicians, some of whom will be known to new music aficionados and those not familiar hold the tantalizing prospect of being quality composers/performers who have made it on to Nick’s well tuned curatorial radar.
So, after all this rambling let me just say that this album is a fine example of experimental new music which can serve whatever purpose you wish. Dance to it, use it as background music, or listen closely. This is an interesting artist (now permanently on this writer’s radar) who promises to bring forth more interesting music from himself and others.
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 don’t know what it is about political borders and the arts but there must be some kind of walls up that prevent musical immigration from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, etc. In short there is a strong Eurocentric/American flavor to the classical music distributed here.
One of the issues with which the large colonial countries such as the United States and Canada grappled was the tendency for all their composers to sound like second rate European composers. With the dawn of the 20th Century there was the obligatory attention to folksong but that is also arguably Eurocentric…not bad, mind you, just leaving out the Native Americans or, using the elegant Canadian term, First Peoples.
Eventually both the U.S. and Canada began to pay attention to indigenous traditions of the peoples they had conquered. One suspects that an appreciation of the social and spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples also encouraged a different view of the very landscapes. In Canada the composer most closely associated with the post Eurocentric traditions would have to be Raymond Murray Schafer whose incorporation of the vast landscapes of his country embraced it musically and dramatically in a way that no one had previously.
So along comes this disc from composer Vincent Ho (1975- ) born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He was educated variously at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, a Bachelor of Music from the University of Calgary, an MM from the University of Toronto, and a DMA from the University of Southern California. His mentors have included Allan Bell, David Eagle, Christos Hatzis, Walter Buczynski, and Stephen Hartke. In 1997, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Schola Cantorum Summer Composition Program in Paris, where he received further training in analysis, composition, counterpoint, and harmony, supervised by David Diamond, Philip Lasser, and Narcis Bonet.
Impressive credentials for sure but this album demonstrates the very impressive work of a composer who would seem to be poised to take on the mantle of the next generation of artists working to create music that represents the entire country in this generation. This is a man with formidable skills in writing for large ensembles. No doubt his facility with writing music allows him to create convincingly for any size ensemble. A quick look at the composer’s catalog of works inspired the mini polemic with which this review begins. How can so much wonderful music go unnoticed south of the border here in the U.S.? (End rant.)
Finally to the disc at hand. This is a beautifully recorded live concert of two major works by Mr. Ho, “The Shaman” (2011) and Arctic Symphony (2010). Both are for large orchestra and inhabit a very listenable realm melodically and harmonically. That is NOT to say that these are ordinary or simple works. In fact they clearly embody the work of a well trained and thoughtful artist. This is exciting music and the audience response at the end of each work was highly approving.
Your reviewer heard the Carnegie Hall broadcast of The Shaman and jumped at the opportunity to review this disc. Dame Evelyn Glennie is reason enough to pay attention. This (essentially) Concerto for Percussion was written for her and she is ostensibly the shaman of the work’s title. Her performance is simply spellbinding. The piece has three numbered movements and an interlude. I will leave it to the program note readers to plumb the additional depths of meaning embodied in the concerto but I will tell you that if you are not enthralled by the “fire dance” finale you may very well be dead.
The Arctic Symphony is another animal. It is a programmatic work inspired by the composer’s experience on a research vessel, the Amundsen, exploring various arctic regions and describing the different areas of research being done. There are environmental themes here for sure and also an incorporation of Inuit songs transcribed by the composer and sonic evocations of various aspects of the composer’s experience of the journey (wind, silence, the strange sounds of uncertain causes that one apparently hears in these nether regions. The five movements fit pretty comfortably into the basic classical forms that comprise symphonies. There are chorales, variations, a nice scherzo in the Amundsen (3rd movement). It is, like the concerto, a very entertaining and exciting piece.
The Winnipeg Symphony and it’s talented conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate must be mentioned for their skill at holding this complex music together. In both works they provided readings that were both accurate and stimulating. One can’t imagine any audience failing to enjoy this music.
One can’t help but wonder about the confluences between the work of Mr. Ho and that of John Luther Adams. Both deal with arctic landscapes and both express environmental concerns. Well I invite listeners to do their part in eliminating the weird musical apartheid that appears to exist by buying this album. It is excellent.
It has always seemed to me that the saxophone has had a difficult time integrating into the mainstream of classical performance. Since its invention by Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th century this family of instruments has amassed a somewhat limited solo repertoire and has only really made it as an orchestral instrument in the twentieth century. The subsequent adoption of these instruments at the forefront of jazz and pop has forever changed the perception of this hybrid woodwind/reed/brass instrument which, for those who segregate musical genres, complicates matters even more.
It is the twentieth century that this album represents and it is the classical voice, not jazz or pop which speaks here. This intelligently chosen set of pieces is like a little tour of the saxophone and piano literature representing some of the best of the early to mid twentieth century repertoire. If that makes it a niche market then so be it, it is a lovely niche.
Now Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose work opens this disc, is hardly a twentieth century composer but these transcriptions by Frederick Hemke (long time saxophonist of the Chicago Symphony and a highly respected teacher) are definitely contemporary and work well for saxophone and piano. Drei Romanzen Op. 94 (1849) are originally for oboe and piano.
Tracks 4 and 11 contain pieces by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992), the Argentinian composer best known for his work with the tango forms. Here we have two film music excerpts in apparent transcriptions.
There are four other sets of pieces on this recording by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), Jean Francaix (1912-1987), Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) and Paule Maurice (1910-1967). The Vaughn Williams Folk Song Suite is originally for cello and piano and is vintage Vaughn Williams at his English folk song best. The Ibert and the Francaix are suites of the sort of nervous, jazz inflected music that characterized an era between the wars. Paule Maurice is a new name to this listener and the artists are to be commended for their part in saving her work from obscurity.
The Aeolian Song by Warren Benson (1924-2008) is probably one of the best known (and deservedly so) pieces on this disc. This is actually the slow movement of a concertino for saxophone and orchestra but has become a sort of recital classic in its incarnation for saxophone and piano.
The Harrington/Loewen Duo are based in Canada and that may be their only flaw. The curious but annoying lack of attention to the musicians who are our neighbors to the north is certainly mitigated to some degree by this release. It is a lovely recital and the musicians are both committed and creative. One hopes for another volume of recital pieces to follow this delightful release.
I first encountered the music of this undeservedly obscure but unique composer/pianist in the late 1980s with the purchase of a double vinyl album of his “Lund-St. Petri Symphony” a work for solo piano which is stylistically one of the tributaries of minimalism. Melnyk was born in Germany of Ukrainian descent and now lives and works in Canada. I began this article for inclusion in my series about minimalist composers (the designation of “minimalist” is imposed by the author and is not necessarily the identity embraced by the artist). In addition to providing a sketch of the artist I am pleased to be able to review this major label release.
Ilirion marks this composer/pianist’s big label debut and this is a fitting recognition for this long established composer, pianist and teacher. Lubomyr Melnyk (1948- ) has been performing since the 1970s and has released over 20 albums. His web site is in need of updating and here’s hoping that this release will help provide the impetus for that and for the greater distribution of this artist’s work.
Below is the description of Melnyk’s music from his web site:
Melnyk’s Continuous Music is based on the principle of a continuous® and unbroken line of sound from the piano — this is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard. To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master — this technique is the very basis of the meditative and metaphysical® aspects within the music and the art of the piano. Moreover, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, but in his more recent works, Melnyk has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music. Melnyk’s earlier music was generally classified as Minimalism®, although Melnyk strongly refutes that term, preferring to call his music MAXIMALism®, since the player has to generate so many, many notes to create these Fourth Dimensions of Sound®. Because his piano music is so difficult and requires a dedicated re-learning® of the instrument, no other pianists in the world (so far) have tackled his larger works — and so, his recordings are truly collector’s items (both as LP-s and CD-s). He has however recorded extensively for the CBC in Canada, as well as various European stations. He has performed and given lecture-recitals across Canada and in Europe.
I’m not sure how useful this explanation will be to listeners but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the composer has attempted to establish a system explaining his work. However one does not need to be deeply familiar with the underlying theory to appreciate the music. One does not need to understand Schoenberg’s twelve tone theories or Anthony Braxton’s far out ideas to appreciate their music. One doesn’t even need to understand the basics of western classical harmony to appreciate Mozart, for that matter but such knowledge can contribute to appreciation. I certainly lay no claim to understanding this man’s music and I am not aware of any musicologists or critics who have written anything analyzing Melnyk’s work but I find his music compelling and worth wider attention.
Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of Melnyk’s output (and risking muddying the field) I am simply going to recommend a couple of discs which I have found particularly interesting and may help put this latest release in useful perspective. The disc which is intended to provide a sort of exposition of his work is KMH.
The other disc, and the one which I have admired most, is the Lund St. Petri Symphony. I bought it as a two disc vinyl album and it does not appear to be easily available now but it is well worth seeking (and maybe Sony will consider re-releasing it).
The present release on Sony contains 5 tracks:
Beyond Romance is the first and longest track on the disc (16:12) and is certainly representative of his work. The composer’s brief notes describe this work only as a grand romantic piece. It perhaps has echoes of Liszt but certainly with at least an echo of minimalism.
Solitude No. 1 is a much briefer piece (7:36) and is a live improvisation by the composer recorded in the Netherlands.
Sunset (3:49) is the briefest on the disc and is an impressionistic description of its title.
Cloud No. 81 (16:02) is a far more extended impressionistic essay with more harmonic variety than the other tracks.
The title piece, Ilirion (14:12) is another extended essay more akin to the first track.
These discs range from interesting to enthralling for this reviewer and the limited descriptions contained in this release do little to guide the listener. So I guess I can only say, “Please listen”.
Tracks 1, 3, and 4 were recorded at Clearlight Studios in Winnipeg, Canada. Track 2 is a live recording from Tilburg, Netherlands and the last track is described as being an archive recording from also from Tilburg. All were recorded between 2012 and 2015.
The rather sparse liner notes are by one Charles Bettle who is described as a “long time friend and admirer” of Melnyk’s work. The even sparser notes on the music are by the composer. The beautiful photography is by Alexandra Kawka.
It is difficult to say why this artist remains as marginally known but, as I have asserted before, artists from Canada get strangely little notice here and Mr. Melnyk does not appear to be a very good publicist. I hope that this endorsement by Sony results in more releases and, more importantly, in more good studio recordings of his work. It is unique and highly recommended to aficionados of piano music and minimalism.