Professor Yeh has been assistant principal clarinet with the Chicago Symphony since 1977 when he was just 19. As a former Chicagoan I can recall that Yeh’s hiring seems to have marked a change in the more traditional image of an orchestral musician. In addition to being an inspiration to aspiring musicians of Asian heritage his media presence also drew interest from both listeners of Asian Heritage but also young listeners (I turned 21 when he was hired and was pleased to find an artist who communicated to me and my age group).
In addition to his duties with the CSO, he has actively supported music and music making in his adopted home town. It is his support for local composers that he showcases here. This disc features music by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), Stacy Garrop (1969- ), Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), Shulamit Ran (1949- ), Teresa Reilly (1976- ), and Robert Muczinski (1929-2010).
Alexander Tcherepnin, whose father Nikolai was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, and whose sons, Serge and Ivan, along with grandsons Sergei and Stephan are all highly accomplished composers comprise a multigenerational artistic dynasty of sorts. Russian born Alexander taught in Chicago thus qualifying him for inclusion in Cedille recordings’ mission to promote artists with a “second city” connection. He is well represented in recordings but is less present in the concert hall these days. His brief Sonata in one movement for clarinet and piano (1939) takes the first track on this fine chamber music release. It is a deservedly popular recital piece with a style that sounds a bit like Shostakovich, one of his contemporaries.
Stacy Garrop is a favorite of this reviewer. Her work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog. She is a freelance composer of immense talent and skill. Her work is featured on at least 12 Cedille albums as well as other labels. Phoenix Rising (2016-18) was originally for alto saxophone (subsequent versions were made for flute and for violin) is presented here in a world premiere transcription for clarinet. As with all her music, Garrop shows herself to be a master of color and texture. She uses both traditional and extended techniques to achieve her compositional visions. These can be challenging for performers but the end result is always worth the effort. Garrop derives inspiration, as she frequently does, from world mythology. Here, of course, the familiar Phoenix bird that lives some 500 years and rises again from the ashes of its funeral pyre.
Leo Sowerby, long associated with Chicago as an organist, composer, and teacher, is represented here by his 1944 clarinet sonata (here in its world premiere recording). Written in the year which saw him win the Pulitzer Prize for music (for Canticle of the Sun), this sonata takes on near symphonic dimensions in its four movements. Sowerby is generally well represented on recordings (8 discs on Cedille alone). His lyrical writing is expressive and accessible and it is perhaps just a matter of time before someone orchestrates this work to present it as a concerto. At just a bit under 30 minutes, it is the largest work on this release.
Shulamit Ran, Israeli/American composer and pianist, student of the great Ralph Shapey, 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner (for her 1989-90 Symphony), Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago is represented on this recording by her Spirit for solo clarinet (2017). The work is dedicated to the composer’s friend, clarinetist Laura Flax (1952-2017). This is its world premiere recording. Ran’s music has gotten some recordings but her large and substantial orchestral works like the Symphony and a fine Concerto for Orchestra remain unavailable on recordings (even more egregious is the general lack of representation of her mentor, Ralph Shapey’s music). This solo clarinet work is a testament to her compositional talents. Here’s hoping we get to hear more.
Teresa Reilly is a clarinetist, composer, and life partner of Mr. Yeh. The Forgiveness Train (2020) is described as, in part, a response to the COVID epidemic (Yeh notes that much of this album is similarly inspired). The three movement work is essentially a sonata with a loosely poetical program. It is a lyrical work with nods to minimalism and jazz. This is the world premiere recording.
The disc concludes with the four movement Time Pieces for clarinet and piano (1983). This work (the second longest on the disc) is, like the Sowerby piece, substantially a concerto that waits an orchestrator for the piano part. Robert Muczinski, Chicago born composer studied under Alexander Tcherepnin whose music opens this release. The Opus 43 work was commissioned and premiered by former CSO principal clarinet Mitchell Lurie with Muczinski at the piano.
Mr. Yeh is, as always, a joy to hear. He is most ably supported by pianist Patrick Godon on piano (tracks 1, 4-7, and 12-15) and, of course by (more properly with) Teresa Reilly (tracks 9-11). This release, from the Art Institute depicted in (Chicago artist) Steve Shanabruch’s distinctive cover art to the composers represented, is pure Chicago in the best ways.
NB, I have made corrections on errors very publicly posted on the composer’s website. The changes are factual corrections and copyright citations. My blog is intended to provide the perspective of an avid listener and to promote music which I believe deserves attention and I believe I have done that. I’m always happy to correct errors of fact but I retain the right to my opinion. To be clear, I like the album very much.
I hope that my flippant title for this review does not offend. But an artist who creates new acoustic instruments of unusual tunings which he plays and for which he has written music sounds a lot like spiritual progeny to Harry Partch. Partch had no children and even if he did it is unlikely they would have followed in his footsteps. Strictly speaking, Cris Forster may be more like “nephew of Partch” given that he is following his own distinct trajectory and is doing so in a very different time. But he embodies the ethic and has made it his life’s work to compose in non-standard tunings and to create instruments capable of playing those tunes accurately and effectively. Forster is, in a metaphorical sense, a sort of spiritual progeny, one that would have made daddy proud.
Cris Forster (1948- ) was born in Brazil, became a US citizen in 1966, and earned a degree in history from UC Santa Cruz in 1970. After graduating in 1974 from Lone Mountain College (now the University of San Francisco) with a degree in piano performance, he began building his own instruments in 1975 and, in 1976 (two years after Partch died), he began a four year stint as curator, archivist, and performer for the Harry Partch Foundation. While there he maintained the original Partch instruments, created what I’m calling “Post Partch” instruments, and subsequently performing both Partch’s music and his own compositions. In 2000 he published “Musical Mathematics”, a comprehensive accounting of his researches.
It is fairly easy to write about Forster, his book, his CD. But it is extremely difficult to communicate meaningfully about the sound of his music and how these beautiful but odd looking instruments are played. To that end I will provide a few YouTube links so that readers can experience the music itself: “A child said What is the grass” (1986); “Blue Nights” (2013). These are from Forster’s YouTube channel where you can see/hear more. Don’t worry about the unusual tuning. After a few listens (at least for this listener) one begins to hear it as the beautiful music that it is, a worthy successor to the Partch legacy.
There are eleven tracks featuring selections from two large works, Song of Myself: Intoned Poems of Walt Whitman (1977) written for Chrysalis I, Harmonic/Melodic Canon, and Voice; and Ellis Island/Angel Island (1978-2023) for a larger ensemble but without voice consisting of four groups of instruments: Stringed instruments: Chrysalis I, Chrysalis II, Harmonic/Melodic Canon, Bass Canon, and Just Keys; percussion instruments: Diamond Marimba I, Diamond Marimba II, and Bass Marimba; friction instrument: Glassdance; and wind instruments: Simple Flutes. And the informative liner notes are by Heidi Forster who also plays in the ensemble.
1.Song of Myself: Intoned Poems of Walt Whitman Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 2, “A Child Said What Is the Grass?” Cris Forster: voice, Chrysalis I
2. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): X. Blue Nights David Boyden, Heidi Forster, Isabelle Jotterand, Benjamin Koscielak playing Glassdance, Just Keys, Bass Canon, and Bass Marimba
3. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): IX. Dream Time Jacob Richards playing Diamond Marimba II
4. Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 10, “The Past and Present Wilt – I Have Fill’d Them, Emptied Them” Voice and Harmonic/Melodic Canon played by David Boyden
5. Song of Myself (Excerpts): No. 11, “The Spotted Hawk Swoops by and Accuses Me, He Complains of My Gab and My Loitering Voice and Harmonic/Melodic Canon played by David Boyden
6. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “I. Good-Bye” Just Keys played by Isabelle Jotterand
7. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “II. Farewell” Just Keys played by Isabelle Jotterand
8. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “III. Far Away” Just Keys played by Cris Forster
9. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): “VII. Lullaby” Glassdance played by Heidi Forster
10. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts): XI. Wild Flower Cris Forster and Benjamin Koscielak playing Diamond Marimba II and Bass Marimba
11. Ellis Island/Angel Island (Excerpts):“IV. The Harbor” Heidi Forster, Benjamin Koscielak, and Jacob Richards playing Glassdance, Bass Marimba, and Diamond Marimba II
The tuning sounds unusual at first but it grows on the listener. Happily there are plans to release the rest of the Whitman settings. Meanwhile we have this lovely release produced by John Schneider and Heidi Forster (with Cris Foster doing the recording and Scott Fraser the mastering) to listen to while we wait.
This is Tim Brady’s fourth Starkland release, a distinction shared by only two other composers, the late Tod Dockstader and (the delightfully very much living) Guy Klucevsek. And given the impressive track record of the Starkland label’s ability to find and promote innovative composers and performers who later achieve much wider recognition, this is an event that demands serious attention.
With a catalog presently numbering some 39 plus CDs and a CV that boasts 4 operas and a massive catalog of compositions for ensembles ranging from solo to large orchestra, this proudly Canadian composer has mounted (metaphorically, of course) an invasion from the United State’s northern border of his distinctive artistic vision prompting this reviewer to suggest a comparison to the pop “invasion” of the Beatles in the early 60s.
My admittedly tongue in cheek Beatles comparison is not meant to eclipse the incredible artistry of this obviously very industrious artist. My previous reviews compared his work to electric guitar giants like Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca. But this only serves to illuminate a fraction of this man’s work. I invite listeners to peruse his well organized website to get a perspective.
But let me get back to this release. It is undoubtedly a bold move to use the term “symphony” to describe a work for a solo artist. Charles Valentine Alkan (1813-1888) wrote a symphony for solo piano (opus 39 nos. 4-10 from 1857) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) referred to his third piano sonata (1922) as a symphony and later wrote six more symphonies for solo piano between 1938 and 1976. And more recently the late Glenn Branca (1948-2018) wrote several works for various configurations of guitars he called symphonies. But this is the first symphony written expressly for solo guitar as far as I can determine.
“Symphony in 18 Parts for solo electric guitar (2021) – 50 minutes For solo electric guitar, FX pedals and looper, in 18 movements” as it is listed on the composer’s website is (if I counted correctly) his 8th Symphony. Brady apparently numbers his symphonies in order of composition without reference to instrumentation. While several of his symphonies involve one or more electric guitars, this is the first solo guitar work to which he gives the weighty title of “Symphony” (unless, as noted above, you count the solo version of Symphony No. 5).
The term “symphony” carries with it connotations, at least, of grandeur, painstaking structure, and serious music making. And this work is very serious and meticulously constructed. It is, of course, reflective of a mid career composer who has written a great deal and has learned from that experience. It has as much a right to be called a “symphony” as any similarly large and painstakingly written piece of music.
First, let me say that, other than a tendency to use one (or a lot more than one) electric guitar in his music, Brady’s music has relatively little in common with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. In fact, Brady seems to have more in common with Steve Reich and Elliott Sharp. But while Chatham and Branca emerged from a music scene dominated by punk in all its iterations, Brady seems more connected to the Beatles and Les Paul.
The work is divided into 18 sections, each running a modest 1.5 to just under 5 minutes. It is a structure similar in this listeners mind to American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2008), whose Symphony No. 9 (1949-50) “St. Vartan”, a similarly epic masterpiece in no fewer than 24 short movements. It is the interrelatedness of those movements that make them a part of the whole symphony. And so it is with Brady’s Symphony. David Lang (Pulitzer Prize Winner and founding Bang on a Can” member) says essentially this in his segment of the liner notes that come with the recording. Tim Brady acknowledges much the same in his segment of the liner notes.
The cover art by fellow adventuring guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp is functionally an homage to Brady and his work. The recording by Tim Brady and Morris Apelbaum, mastered by Brady, Apelbaum, and John Klepko is lucid (and great on headphones especially when Brady pans the sounds across the stereo field).
The 18 movements all have titles which are metaphorically related to the music therein. David Lang aptly describes these varied and intense movements as sort of biographical statements about what the composer can do with his instrument. Each movement has both form and development much as one would expect of a symphonic movement.
On the one hand, this symphony is not easy listening. On the other hand it is likely catnip to electric guitarists as well as to new music enthusiasts including your humble reviewer. Brady’s Canadian invasion, far from a takeover, is simply a musician sharing his substantial art from across the northern border and presenting his latest efforts. Like the Beatles, Brady deserves to be welcomed. This prolific composer/performer/teacher/innovator has interesting things to say.
At first I attempted to write something about each of the 18 movements but I don’t think that would have added anything useful for prospective listeners. This piece taken as a whole most aptly deserves the descriptor “tour de force” as each movement seems to have its own character deriving from the composer’s use of various (apparently deeply studied and judiciously chosen) techniques and ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the listener, sometimes with sheer volume, sometimes with dazzling virtuosity, sometimes with softness, sometimes with silence, and always with interesting ideas.
In some ways this is a collections of ideas and techniques the composer has amassed over some 50 + years of playing. Each movement seems to be a more or less self contained exposition of playing techniques and the composers own approach to harmony and invention. That sounds potentially very dull but this is not a collection of etudes didactically accounting for and crystallizing his ideas. It is the organic appropriation of personal achievements in developing his compositional style. And it is an homage to electric guitarists that preceded him. Not a textbook as much as perhaps a signpost defining his present stage of development even as he moves forward with other projects.
I suppose one could challenge the notion of calling this a work for solo guitar given the effects pedals, looping systems, etc. but the use of electronics and looping techniques as a compositional aid or method is so ubiquitous that point is moot. Call it what you like but just listen. Let the music flow over your ears. At the very least this is a defining milestone in Brady’s long and productive career. It’s hard to to imagine what he might do next but I’m sure he’ll think of something.
This is the third volume in the Catalyst Quartet’s wonderful and insightful survey of neglected works by black composers. The first focused on music by the black English composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1875-1912), the second on music of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century American composer Florence Price (1887-1953). The present disc focuses on the works of three men whose musical careers were entirely in the twentieth century: William Grant Still (1895-1978), George Walker (1922-2018), and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).
William Grant Still is roughly contemporary with Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland has often been called the “Dean of American Composers” and Still has been called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. Such honorifics, while well intended, do nothing to describe the true depth and significance of either of these composers.
Similarly their best known works, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944), and Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” (1930) are fine pieces of music but cannot represent the whole of their respective authors’ outputs. Both produced quite a bit of music and went through stylistic changes as their artistic sensibilities evolved. Copland’s oeuvre is pretty well documented, allowing listeners to grasp its entirety while Still’s work has not enjoyed the same distinction. That is changing, slowly, and that is reason to celebrate.
Still is represented here by his “Lyric Quartette” (published in 1960 but likely written 1939-1945). These three movements for string quartet are intended to represent a plantation, the mountains of Peru, and a pioneer settlement, respectively. This appears to be the first commercial recording of the work, a set of vignettes (Still never wrote a string quartet as such) seemingly published as an afterthought after looking back over his files. That’s not to denigrate the music. It is finely crafted and reflects a composer closer to the folk eclecticism of his contemporaries William L. Dawson (1899-1980) whose use of folk idioms resembles that of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), two white contemporaries (rather than his later more post romantic style). These composers’ use of folk idioms and the comforting tonal harmonies, very much in vogue when the music was first written, sound rather old fashioned in their year of the Lyric Quartette’s publication. Nonetheless, it is a vital work in understanding Still and his development as a composer. This would make for a great encore or second selection following a Haydn or Mozart Quartet.
George Walker was a sought after concert pianist and he forever holds the distinction of being the first Black American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music (for his 1996 “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra). I learned from one of my personal favorite Chicago broadcasters that he, Bruce Duffie (WNIB host 1975-2001) played Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” (1946, orch. 1990) as the final sign off music at the closing of the beloved independent station (reportedly very satisfying to that terminal audience). The link provided is to a transcript of his subsequent conversation he had with Walker in 2001, worth your time to read.
So what does all this have to do with this release? Well, that, “Lyric for strings” is actually Walker’s orchestration for string orchestra of the second movement, “molto adagio“ of his three movement String Quartet No.1 (1946) “Lyric”. Samuel Barber garnered a great audience with his “Adagio for Strings” from the molto adagio of his String Quartet (1935-36).
The outer movements (1 and 3) of Walker’s quartet (carefully conceived and thoughtfully developed at length) frame the beautiful adagio with a passionate elaborately developed allegro and a high energy, virtuosic finale (much as in the Barber work). The quartet’s title, derived from the slow movement which was originally titled “lament” is dedicated to Walker’s grandmother, a former slave. A very different perspective of America, for sure, but a truly spectacular example of string quartet writing.
I wrote my review in chronological order to clarify my narrative but the actual track order is:
Allegro vivace Lyric Quartet William Grant Still (1895-1978)
The Sentimental One
The Quiet One
The Jovial One String Quartet No. 1 “Lyric” George Walker (1922-2018)
Allegro con fuoco
So String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” (1956) by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson is leaving the most recent for last. This work, shares with the other two it’s having been written fairly early in the composer’s career (he was about 24 when he wrote this piece, Still was in his 40s and Walker about 24 when they wrote their respective quartets). So Catalyst adheres to these important but early utterances from these three important artists. And for clarity the name permutations we encounter here comprise: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is the English poet, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is the black English composer honorifically named after that poet, and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) the black American composer honorifically named in honor of said English composer.
This is another outstanding but neglected American composer who happens to be black. This fine string quartet is defined by its serious tone and elaborate development in a passionate romantic tonal idiom. Of course the composer shares his prominent jazz (Perkins was nothing if not eclectic) influences in rhythms and harmonic structure. Based loosely on the hymn, “Calvary” from which it takes its name, it was actually premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of a memorial for composer and baritone Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). The opening allegro is a searching and unsettling matter followed by a calming slow movement characterized by an incessant pizzicato repeating figure. The finale, a touch more hopeful sounds almost improvisatory at times much in the manner of some jazz forms. Truly another outstanding example of good string quartet writing. This is powerful music!
These recordings are both beautifully done and, arguably, definitive in their interpretation of these delightful and essential additions to the quartet literature. The Catalyst does a fine and honorable job in their ongoing mission to reclaim forgotten gems such as these for present and future listeners. Thank you for that. Please keep working on this body of work lest it be lost to history.
This release completes Sarah Cahill’s monumental survey of piano music written by women which saw its first two CD volumes last year.last year. This, the third volume titled “At Play”, follows the first two as seen below. This trilogy is not, of course, the last word, the end on the subject of piano works by women. There can be no last word but these selections are a reflection of Cahill’s perspective as a performer but also a producer/programmer whose scholarship and advocacy are well known and respected worldwide. These releases speak to women, certainly. But they also speak to audiences in general, producers, and fellow musicians. They comprise a careful sampling of some three hundred years of music which effectively demonstrates that “there’s gold in them thar hills” (after all Cahill is a Californian). Here’s hoping that this survey will help start a metaphorical gold rush to unearth the gold that can be found in this neglected music.
I recall my fascination with Cahill’s earlier commissioning project which resulted in her CD “A Sweeter Music” (2013). I recall attending a very preliminary recital at Mills College where she did brief run through of some of the compositions and spoke about the project. She later toured the music (sometimes with John Sanborn’s wonderful accompanying visuals, sometimes without). Little did Cahill know that she hit upon a genre of classical music dear to this listener’s heart, that of politically inflected classical music. As a result, my interest in her artistry and choices of repertoire escalated tremendously (I heard two of her Bay Area recitals of this music and reviewed the recording in the early incarnation of this very blog). So another project, this time supporting female composers, with even greater dimension than that earlier project has similarly grabbed my attention in this landmark collection of music by women composers which has largely been neglected by mainstream artists, producers, and programmers.
This trilogy of recordings hardly solves the egregious neglect of this music but it does contribute rather authoritatively to the canon (there is one now) of music by non-male composers. Cahill is not the first artist to do this, and there are multiple ongoing projects exploring the work of female composers, but this project deserves top billing as it casts a mighty wide net with its three volumes covering about 300 years (of neglect). These recordings of some 30 pieces are but a fraction of music by women composers in this pianist’s repertoire. But, more than simply righting wrongs, this is about celebrating a legacy of artists getting their due recognition. (The “bad idea” Biblical metaphor of hiding a lamp beneath a basket comes to mind). Just look, er, listen at/to what’s been under that basket!
This now completed trilogy doubtless will not mark the end of Cahill’s advocacy but it will stand as a major manifesto of sorts and will hopefully bring more performers and producers to be open to performing and recording them. Simply hearing these recordings exposes the listener to music of stunning substance selected by an artist whose curatorial radar is finely tuned and whose choices will speak definitively to listeners (and likely fellow performing artists) for years to come. (N.B. Listeners would do well to check out Cahill’s YouTube channel where one can find a gold mine of music which reflects the scope of her performances and advocacy, not just for women composers, but for an amazing range of artists.)
This third volume is entitled, “At Play”. Like the previously released volumes, this collection gets a collective title that vaguely hints at the character of the music herein. The sequencing of the music is, like the previous two volumes, pretty much chronological. The essential program notes by Ms. Cahill (in all three volumes) provide just enough background to provide useful contexts for the listener. And you have to love the “Cahill and friends” photo galleries (on each volume) reflecting the deeply personal nature of this undertaking. That may sound hyperbolic but just listen to this music and feel the love, the passion, the connections, the sincerity, and the incisive playing. (Should I throw in a “Pied Piper” metaphor?) Listen and you’ll likely get hooked.
There are 16 tracks comprising nine works by nine female composers over nearly three centuries. Four of the nine works receive here receive their first (or first commercial) recordings. As noted earlier, the track sequence is chronological. (N.B. That makes 30 + works over the 3 CDs), a little less than half of the total commissions.
We begin with the last of 9 sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Her lifespan covers the classical to the early romantic eras in western musical history but recordings of her music didn’t begin to appear until about 2006 when Jérôme Dorival published a biography of her. Listeners will likely find this music similar to that of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven but with a level of virtuosic writing that anticipates Chopin and Liszt. This three movement sonata was published in 1811. This is apparently the second recording of this work as another new music champion, Nicolas Horvath, released a recording of all nine of these in 2021, further testament that time has come for this composer (and perhaps women composers in general).
Next is the Thème varié, Op. 98 (1895) by Cécile CHAMINADE (1857–1944). This late romantic composer is probably the only name with which most listeners may be acquainted. A recording of her Concertino for flute and orchestra (1902) continues to receive attention by classical broadcasters but most of her work remains very little known. Cahill makes a strong case for this music with her interpretation of this virtuosic early romantic styled work. She is far better known in her native France. It is time we see what the French have been hiding.
Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909–1969), represented here by her Scherzo (1934), has gotten recognition in her native Poland but has only fairly recently become known internationally. This early work, less modernist than her later work, has apparently been recorded before but is new to this reviewer’s ears. Bacewicz was a prolific composer and this fine piece, a virtuosic showpiece, is likely to encourage listeners to further explore her extensive catalog which includes Symphonies, Concertos for violin, viola, cello, and for piano, 7 string quartets, symphonies, operas, songs, and much more.
Now Cahill brings us into present time, featuring living composers, beginning with the music of Chinese-American composer Chen YI (b. 1953). Guessing (1989) is a small piano piece which incorporates a Chinese folk song in a set of variations.
This is the first commercial recording of this music. To be honest, I am not familiar with much of this composer’s work (nor most of them here) save for Oliveros and Wong) but this piece as with all the selections here are sufficiently intriguing to prompt listeners to explore further. That is the point of an anthology such as this, to spark curiosity, suggest another path for the journey. Mission accomplished.
Franghiz ALI-ZADEH (b. 1947), born in Azerbaijan, incorporates elements from her ethnic heritage into modern classical idioms. Music for Piano (1989/1997) utilizes Cagean-like preparations, in this case a glass beaded necklace laid across the strings. The resulting sound, evoking Alan Hovhaness and/or Henry Cowell at times, is intended to evoke that of the traditional Azerbaijani string instrument called “tar” (not a reference to the recent film). The composers use of different scales also seems to derive from folk models. The piece is in several sections delineated by dynamics and by register in which is, I believe, an ingenious use of register used to control when to allow for those prepared strings to sound. The piece is by a composer with a wide expressive pallete and the ability to use those methods judiciously toward her unique creative ends.
Next, in the briefest entry at just over 4 minutes, we get one piece from a set of commissions (all by women composers) Cahill made to honor the 100th birthday of American composer Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Pauline OLIVEROS (1932–2016) submitted this work (her first notated composition since the 60s) which uses her own unique approach to indeterminate composition in Quintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford (2001), here in its world premiere recording. Oliveros, who exerted a profound influence on a generation of composers, performers, and listeners via her work in electronic music and improvisation, but most powerfully via her “Deep Listening” concepts which effectively define the role of the listener as being a part of the compositional process.
Hannah KENDALL (b. 1984) is a black British composer whose three movement “On the Chequer’d Field Array’d” (2013) is based on the 1763 poem Caissa by Sir William Jones and depicts the three sections of a game of chess. The lengthy Elizabethan styled poem can easily be read as protofeminist given that the female chess piece heroically wins. Read it if you don’t believe me. And there are musical metaphors as well. It is these: mindplay, middlegame, and coda into which the work is divided. The music, like the poem is an intimate perspective which invites the reader (or hearer of the music) to create their own meanings here.
Aida SHIRAZI (b. 1987), an Iranian born composer, takes the performer inside the piano. Her blandly titled, “Albumblatt” (2017) belies her deep understanding of the piano and its possibilities. This is arguably the most avant garde (or modernist if you prefer) composition of the trilogy. Cahill’s choices reflect her eclectic approach to music programming.
In addition to a chronological approach, this trilogy is stylistically diverse. This music borrows from forbears such as John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as Henry Cowell. This meditative music only reveals itself fully to the focused listener. This is like an etude comprised of sounds you rarely hear (intentionally) from a piano. Played much of the time inside the piano but also at the keyboard more conventionally, the piece also demands close attention to dynamics (down to silence). Here is where the recordist’s art shines through. The subtleties of dynamics and the ability to capture the variety of harmonics evoked. Of course said performer had to accomplish rather large postural changes and do so silently if the performance adheres to the score, lol. And both are accomplished here in what sounds like a single take. This is a pretty great listen.
Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI (b. 1956), a native Chicagoan poet and composer is given the last word with her, “Piano Poems” (2020). Last but not least by any means is a testament to Cahill’s singular but relevant choices as well as her advocacy of young composers as their stars begin to rise. This artist is new on my radar but one that will remain there. As both poet and composer, this young artist, commissioned by Cahill with a request that the music be about poetry, specifically by fellow (adopted) Chicagoans Gwendoline Brooks (one of this formerly Chicagoan reviewer’s personal faves) and Richard Wright.
The response was these 4 meditations on Brooks, Wright, and on the composer’s own poetical musings. The language here seemingly derives, appropriately, from 30s to 40s jazz of Ellington and Basie and a seemingly latter day version of that in the last two pieces describing the composer’s own literary utterances. Both virtuosic and apparently written by a composer very familiar with the instrument, a fitting and hopeful glimpse to the future.
Each of these discs contains at least one piece that reflects a deeper than average commitment by the performer. Cahill’s collaborative wok (with Dr. John DesMarteau) in the Agi Jambor sonata in volume I, her advocacy of Teresa Wong premiering the first performance of (She dances Naked…),the justly celebrated bay area artist’s selection on volume II. And her reaching out to Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI for a commission (in volume III) all reflect another valued aspect of this performer.
The recording by Matt Carr is very listener friendly demonstrating serious skills at times in dealing with the many sonic challenges. This album and its two predecessors belong in any serious collector’s library. If the future is indeed female, then this is a fine soundtrack. Listeners, performers, Brava!!
This is the most recent recording by Italian pianist Agnese Toniutti. (her third release by my research). It is also the most recent recording of John Cage’s masterful Sonatas and Interludes (1946-8) for prepared piano, a defining work for that unusual instrument. It has been recorded at least 30 times but is rather rarely heard in live performance.
John Cage is perhaps best known for his challenges to the philosophy and the very definition of music itself epitomized in his infamous silent piece titled 4’33” premiered in 1952. The composer eschewed the notion of a “masterpiece” but irony loving “fate” would hand him that title at least for this set of pieces.
Toniutti, a graduate of The Conservatory of Venice, seems to be as much a researcher and activist as she is a widely skilled pianist. While doubtless schooled in the commonly played repertoire for her instrument, she favors new music and music undeservedly neglected in her performances and recordings as well as the commissioning of new works and finding yet unplayed that strike her fancy.
The Sonatas and Interludes, now some 80 years old doesn’t really qualify as “new music” per se nor can it really be called neglected having been recorded 30+ times. In the context of this release this cycle of pieces seems to function much as a new recording of the Goldberg Variations or the late Beethoven Sonatas might function to introduce the skills of a musician whose trajectory was aimed at the conventional recital hall circuit. Toniutti clearly has other plans.
I won’t attempt to compare this most recent interpretation to the other available recordings. I believe this recording does much to validate the music as an essential work in the western canon of art music and to display the estimable understanding and widely skilled competence of the performer whose work is and will continue to embrace new music and advocate for that music to earn an esteemed place in the minds and hearts of listeners and other performers.
This is a very enjoyable recording whether it is to be a collector’s only recording of this music or one that stands most favorably in comparison to previous recordings. If this is to be your first recording of this work or if you simply want to hear another interpretation, you will not be disappointed. This is a wonderful performance.
Pianist Agnese Toniutti previously released a very forward looking recording on Neuma Records. The 2021 release pictured below is a collection of much more recent music. I listened numerous times and didn’t feel I “got it” well enough to say something reasonably intelligent (if not insightful) until this second release. And while I may not fully understand these “subtle matters” I now have a better context.
This collection which I had yet to review represents Toniutti’s understanding and appreciation as well as her apparent mission to expand the experimental repertoire for piano. Here is a fascinating set of composers, each with a unique view of her instrument. Just listen, trust this artist. You’ll be glad you did.
Keep your eyes and ears open for Agnese Toniutti, an advocate for and a master of the avant garde. And to Ms. Toniutti, I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
There were no percussion ensembles in Western music until the early twentieth century, at least not anything close to the size and instrumental diversity we see now, but since then there have been a variety of percussion ensembles which have popped up. some touring, some recording, but all investigating the possibilities of this collection of pitched and unpitched instruments. Notable examples from this writer’s memory include the Paul Price Percussion Ensemble, the Donald Knaack Percussion Ensemble, Amadinda, and the Canadian group, “Nexus”. Each of these ensembles (the list is not comprehensive) has put their own stamp on the flexibly nebulous group subsumed under the title, “Percussion Ensemble”.
All of these groups have chosen which instruments to include in their group, which to exclude, and they have done their own curation of music to expand their respective repertoires and the percussion group repertoire as a whole. And the present recording presents yet another Third Coast Percussion CD on Cedille Records for this busy Chicago based group. The relationship between this energetic ensemble and the equally energetic Cedille Records has been a mutually beneficial one artistically. this release is the fifth release for that label. They have at least nine other albums as a group and have collaborated on many more recordings.
As noted on the album this disc contains all world premiere recordings that reflect varying degrees of collaboration. One of the unifying threads of this CD is the variety of compositional approaches. The Elfman piece being perhaps the most traditionally notated and structured. The others involve different compositional methods which are not exactly traditional in classical music. It is the exploration of such non-traditional methods and the expansion of the definition of composition that is a characteristic of this always interesting classically trained group of musicians.
Let me just start by saying WOW!!!
The first work on the album is by Danny Elfman (1953- ) is best known for his work in movies and television as the composer of “The Simpsons” theme and similarly energetic scores for Tim Burton’s films among others. His roots were in his work with the unusual pop band “Oingo Boingo” whose manic style is still present in much of Elfman’s work. And this is not his first appearance in this new music blog either. His Violin Concerto was reviewed here. He manages to succeed in pop, film, and the concert hall, a feat that few can match.
Elfman’s rather blandly named, Percussion Quartet (2019) is appropriately described in the liner notes as the most conventional work here in terms of how it was written. It is fully notated in in traditional notation and consists of four movements ranging in length from about 4 minutes to about 6 and a half. The work resembles traditional sonata forms with Elfman’s energetic and sometimes quirky melodies that successfully draw the listener through the composer’s journey. That bland title is almost ironic as it belies the really entertaining qualities of this piece. Third Coast’s realization is definitive as one would hope for a world premiere recording.
The second composition is a transcription by Third Coast of a popular Philip Glass piano work, “Metamorphosis No. 1.” But this is a transcription influenced by another transcription, that of the Brazilian group, “Uakti”. So this can be said to be tantamount to a collaboration with another performing ensemble. Clocking in at nearly ten minutes this track is a familiar interlude that cleanses the aural pallet for what is to come.
And what does come next is a collaboratively composed seven movement work entitled, “Perspective”. This more poetic title is the source of the album’s title. This work by Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton 1987- ) was originally written by first recording multiple tracks or layers and then working with the musicians of Third Coast to transcribe these ideas into traditional notation and into a form playable by the quartet of percussionists. This, of course, resembles the methodology that brought forth the wonderful Devonte Hynes album (also on Cedille) reviewed here.
The music is arguably entirely composed by Jlin with the orchestration creatively realized by Third Coast Percussion (doubtless in direct discussion with Jlin). What results is a dizzying and energetic set of movements whose styles derive in part from minimalism and from the rhythmic complexities of African drumming and contemporary dance music. Jlin, who hails from Gary, Indiana, works from a perspective of a DJ spinning dance music. But this is hardly your typical DJ. This is a fascinating musical mind who just happened to have started with DJ equipment.
Another example of Third Coast Percussion’s creative collaborations has resulted in “Rubix”, a three movement work written (mostly) by Flutronix, a genre busting duo. Flutronix is Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, both classically trained flautists who aren’t afraid to cross dated boundaries to create music that speaks their minds.
This is some high energy music which reflects a variety of styles but always demands much from all players involved. The duo, whose rendition of Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” demonstrates their virtuosity and interpretive rigor. Rubix is essentially a chamber work for flutes and percussion but their defiance of categories seems to be as much a critical element of their music as is their virtuosity. Bottom line is that this is engaging, creative work that leaves the listener wanting more even as they may be unsure what they just heard. Kudos, all!
Make no mistake. This release, a long time in coming, is an essential document of the work of two Bay Area artists whose contributions (frequently behind the scenes) receives some richly deserved attention.
The dyad here consists of Carol Law and Charles Amirkhanian, partners in both life and art, collaborators in sound and image now release this collection of their collaborative works from 1973 to 1985 entitled, “Hypothetical Moments: Collaborative Works (1975-1985)”. This lovingly produced DVD brings together a series of performance art pieces demonstrating an intimate set of collaborations between these two Bay Area artists. Law is a photographer and visual artist whose art works have been displayed internationally in several galleries. Her designs can also be found in some of the striking wearable art she made as promotional/souvenir collectible items sold at concerts and online from the OM store. Amirkhanian is a composer and sound artist as well as a broadcaster and producer who has curated concerts and produced radio programs promoting new and innovative music in the bay area (and beyond) since about 1969.
Their respective artistic outputs include both individual and collaborative works but, until now, the only chance to experience their collaborative efforts has been in the rare occasions in which these works were performed live. The booklet accompanying this DVD gives a partial list of live performances the most recent of which was in 2018 when OM 23 “The Wages of Syntax” presented a 6 day series of concerts which was an international survey of linguistic sonic arts. Visual analogues and deconstructions of vocal sounds as practiced by artists inspired by language and the expansion of the very definition of art, music, and performance.
My tardiness in completing this review afforded me a unanticipated perspective on Amirkhanian’s art. The performance of his new composition, “Ratchet Attach It” (2021) at OM 26, pictured here integrates his roots as a percussionist with his penchant for spoken word and sound sampling.
The collaborations here have roots going back at least to the early twentieth century with the experimental visual innovations of Vassily Kandinsky, Picasso, Miro, and the photographic experiments of Man Ray, etc. Their sonic antecedents include the work of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Antonin Artaud, Luigi Russolo, and a panoply of sound artists that Law and Amirkhanian visited in the late 1960s.
In addition to these early experiments one must understand that these creative meldings of sonic and visual art were flourishing in the Bay Area, most obviously in San Francisco where Allan Kaprow’s “happenings”, Bill Graham’s rock concert productions, and similar sound/light shows dominated the fare at performance venues like the Fillmore and similar spaces where innovation in pop/rock music mixed with innovation in visual light shows combined with bands performing for audiences immersing them in mind manifesting artistic assaults that drew crowds frequently also experimenting with not yet illegal psychedelic drugs (the word “psychedelic” is a neologism which means “mind manifesting”). The emblematic event here was the so called “Trips Festival“, a three day event held in 1966 at the Longshoreman’s Hall. I have elsewhere referred to Mr. Amirkhanian as the “Bill Graham of new music”, a comparison which still seems valid.
speaking is speaking (by Bay Area poet Richard Brautigan)
We repeat what we speak and then we are speaking again and that speaking is speaking. Tokyo June sometime, 1976
Well, drugs are not the issue here but mind expansion is. What is documented here is the multimedia collaboration of two essential Bay Area artists who, via their individual and collective efforts effectively expanded the possibilities of both visual and sonic media. These are innovative on many levels. Amirkhanian’s unique take on sound poetry (his anthology “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces”) is an essential survey of that genre released on vinyl (now available on OM records ). And Law’s photographs, design, deconstruction and collage methods are integrated into her own unique style of visual art. The performances on this DVD constitute another uniquely San Francisco Bay Area chapter in multimedia, collaborative performance art now made available to a larger audience.
This defining anthology of Law and Amirkhanian’s explorations of sound poetry (first released on vinyl in 1975 on the now defunct 1750 Arch Records) has defined the genre for many (this writer included). Aram Saroyan, Clark Coolidge and Beth Anderson would later appear live at Other Minds 23 in 2018 which outdid the aforementioned “Trips Festival” in a week long festival of sound poetry from an international roster of poets and sound artists.
Now keep in mind that the original presentations of these works from the early 80s utilized the technology of its era, analog recording, magnetic tape, and slide projectors (remember those?). So this 21st century rendition takes this work into contemporary technology and makes available for the first time since their premieres the original marriage of sound and image as intended by the artists. Without getting into McLuhan-esque analyses of the differences and subsequent meanings of the original media versus those on this DVD one need only celebrate the fact that listeners/viewers can now see these works with their originally intended melding of sound and image.
There are 12 tracks:
History of Collage (1981) (original audio release on Mental Radio CRI, 1985)
Tremolo Bank (1982)
Dog of Stravinsky (1982) (original audio release on Mental Radio CRI, 1985)
Maroa (1981) (original audio release on Mental Radio CRI, 1985)
Hypothetical Moments (in the intellectual life of southern California) (1981) (original audio release on Mental Radio CRI, 1985)
Dreams Freud Dreamed (1979)
Too True (1982)
The first nine tracks are the digital adaptation of sound and image accomplished by Dave Taylor. These are the pieces originally performed live in an era using equipment as distant from current technology as MP 3 files are now from magnetic tape. The last three bonus tracks are actual live performance videos (restored by Jim Petrillo) of three 1985 performances which give some of the flavor of the original experience of these works.
Several of these pieces have been released as audio only tracks on Amirkhanian’s CD releases (as noted) and, while they certainly work as audio only experiences, the images add a welcome dimension. The equally striking design by OM resident design master Mark Abramson add a deserving touch of class to the videos and the accompanying booklet which features informative texts on the works as well as a nostalgic collection of photographs featuring the dyadic duo.
I am honored to have a quote reprinted there from my blog review of OM 23 where I and a sizable audience were treated to a fabulous week long live experience of sound poetry featuring this duo’s work alongside that of exhilarating selections of other similar minds’ work. Of course nothing can take the place of the live experience but this production comes close.
This is a must have collectible document for anyone interested in sound poetry and Bay Area artists.
This album is satisfying on several levels. It is a return to the label that contained the composer’s his first big release, the three disc set on DG which contained “Drumming” (1971), “Six Pianos”, and “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ” (both from 1973). Of course it was the ECM release of “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-6) that became his signature work incorporating the experimentation heard in the music in that DG box set into the composer’s now familiar mature compositional language. The present release, also available on vinyl, seemingly reflects the post experimental composer’s grappling with the oh, so classical form of the string quartet. It’s a truly fine release and an homage to the composer.
Like many of his peers, Reich eschewed many of the conventions of western art music. His work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center helped him discover “phasing” and use of the speaking voice as a compositional element. His study with master drummers in Ghana taught him about quasi improvisational large ensembles and his subsequent study of Hebrew cantillation further refined his understanding of speech and song in his compositional contexts.
As he is quoted in the accompanying booklet, Reich never thought of attempting to use the string quartet form in his work. But along came the delightfully forward looking and genre breaking Kronos Quartet. That collaboration brought forth his landmark, “Different Trains” (1988). And the rest is, as they say, history. “Triple Quartet” for string quartet and tape (but no voices) came in 1998 and his WTC 9/11 (2010) which used sampled voices much as he did in Different Trains.
To be fair, Reich never appears to have intended to engage with the classical form of the string quartet (or any other classical forms for that matter). He uses the convenient availability of musicians sympathetic and sufficiently skilled to perform his compositions. The fact that they happen to be in string quartets is incidental. Much as the inclusion of a singer (as Schoenberg did) bent the quartet to fit his compositional goals, many have subsequently done similar alterations and additions to that classical ensemble. The difference is that Schoenberg adding a soprano, Kirchner (among others) adding electronics, etc. did so but clearly defined their works as “string quartets”. Reich did not do this but this disengagement with classical forms (string quartet, concerto, symphony, etc.) does not detract from the absolute quality of his music.
It would be unfair and would miss the point to try to judge these works via comparison and contrast with Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok, etc. In fact these works are not a part of that canon. Ultimately they stand on their own as part of Reich’s unique vision as a composer and, as such, they succeed very well.
WTC 9/11 and Different Trains are political statements with specific spoken word samples entered into a musical counterpoint. They succeed very well as protest and memorial for the respective events they frame. Triple Quartet, however, is absolute music concerned solely with Reich’s largely contrapuntal techniques of shifting repeated patterns. All three works succeed very well in their ability to engage audiences. All three are finely wrought compositions by by a major composer true to his maverick, experimental beginnings, true to the artist’s personal vision.
The Mivos Quartet does a fine job of navigating these technically difficult works and produce a fitting homage to a wonderful composer and make a strong case for the deeply substantial nature of this music. This is a great release. Highly recommended.
I had previously reviewed an Innova release by this fine Italian pianist whose compelling musical choices and interpretive skills make him one of the bright lights on the current musical scene. And his European perspective (and affinity for) American composers provide an extremely valuable perspective for both listeners and performers.
It comes as no surprise that that Innova album was produced during Philip Blackburn’s tenure and this release is another illuminating journey guided by Arciuli’s finely tuned curatorial and interpretive skills. The journey here focuses on the late post-minimalist William Duckworth (1943-2012).
The first 12 tracks comprise book I (of two) of Duckworth’s genre defining work, “The Time Curve Preludes” (1977-8). These have been recorded three times, first in 1983 by Neely Bruce (who premiered them in 1979 at Wesleyan). Bruce Brubaker recorded Book I in 2009 and R. Andrew Lee recorded the entire set in 2011.
In addition to Arciuli’s take on this composition (I expect a future release will contain Arciuli’s interpretation of Book II) we get a previously unrecorded set of songs for voice and piano, “Simple Songs About Sex and War” (1983-4) to texts by Hayden Carruth. Here Arciuli is joined by Costanza Savarese, a classical guitarist and vocalist, an artist new to this writer. Here she displays her vocal prowess in these pithy little songs reminiscent in some ways of Barber’s “Hermit Songs”.
Duckworth deserves more exposure and Arciuli’s work is always revelatory. So what Duckworth will be paired with the Book II recording? Delighted listeners want to know.
I’m guessing that my title has its origins in the Benjamin Britten piece, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. That phrasing has been used by the likes of Phill Niblock and King Crimson to title retrospective compilation discs. While the disc under consideration here is not, strictly speaking, a retrospective it is a fine representation of the chamber music of the late great Ben Johnston (1926-2019).
Johnston, a former associate of Harry Partch (Johnston played in Partch’s ensemble) was a composer in his own right. His ten string quartets are a landmark of the genre. Two of those quartets are featured here played by the Lyris Quartet (Nos. 4 and 9) along with what is apparently his last composition, “Ashokan Farewell” (1999) scored for an octet in which the Lyris is augmented with flute, clarinet, bassoon, and double bass.
Like so many composers before him, Johnston was fond of incorporating folk tunes into his compositions. The composer’s fourth quartet (included here) from 1973, which incorporates “Amazing Grace”, is likely his best known work. Despite its incredible complexity (nicely summarized in Kyle Gann’s lucid liner notes) this set of variations keeps that familiar tune near the surface and effectively make for music that is friendly to the audience, easy on the ears. It’s single movement clocks in at just under 12 minutes, the piece ends long before listeners have time to worry about that complexity.
Not all of the quartets incorporate familiar tunes but they explore various aspects of just intonation tunings. The ninth quartet (1987) is about twice the length of the fourth and is set in the familiar four movements that characterize the majority of the classical string quartet literature. The use of the classical format along with Johnston’s masterful writing also make this slightly odd sounding work just familiar enough that few listeners will find unpleasant. In fact the work is a joy to experience though very difficult to play.
Listeners may want to seek out Mr. Gann’s very readable work on microtonal tuning systems, “The Arithmetic of Listening” available. Your humble reviewer is working through this text and finding it useful in understanding microtonality.
The final work (both the last on the disc and the last in the composer’s ouevre) is a delightful set of variations on a tune called “Ashokan Farewell”, a pretty folk like melody that pervades the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. I say “folk like” because the time was written by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Johnston mistakenly believed it to be a folk song in the public domain and, seeing its possibilities for his compositional aspirations, simply used it. Like the fourth quartet it is a set of variations in a single movement of similar length. This is the world premiere recording.
Musicians include Alyssa Park, violin; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, cello; Sara Andon, flute; James Sullivan, clarinet; Scott Worthington, double bass.
In researching this review I discovered that the tune actually has lyrics (also under copyright) and they are presented below:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan The pines and the willows know soon we will part There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken And a love that will always remain in my heart
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter The magic of moving as one And a time we’ll remember long ever after The moonlight and music and dancing are done
Will we climb the hills once more? Will we walk the woods together? Will I feel you holding me close once again? Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever? Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping Over the lake the stars shine They wonder if you and I will be keeping The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Those lyrics make for a fond farewell to a true musical genius who gave us both magic and music. Grab this lovely disc and honor his memory.
Let me start with a positive image from a brief photography trip which I managed this year. It was one of the highlights of what has been a difficult year for many of us. Weather, politics, COVID, itinerant employment issues, financial, and personal difficulties were an encumbrance but now stand in relief to the many positive aspects of 2022.
First, let me say that nothing musical fell into the category of “worst of” so fear not, what follows is essentially my “best of” from 2022. In my head I blame the aforementioned encumbrances for delays and sheer lack of production on my part. Whether that is the ultimate truth does not matter really so here, for better or worse, is my celebration of the positive experiences enumerated in this music blog in 2022.
My first post for the year struck a sad note. It was my personal tribute to a composer, A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb described George Crumb, who had been one of my “gateway drugs”, so to speak, which helped put me on the exciting roads of new music upon with I continue to travel with great joy. Recordings of his complete works are still being released on the visionary Bridge Records.
Carolyn Shaw’s striking and much performed “In Manus Tuas” (on solo viola as well as solo cello) was originally written for Collins. Her selections on this album, including that Shaw work, suggest to this writer/listener that she has both vision and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially that written for her instrument. She will be among the major shapers of this repertoire via her vision as well as her interpretive talents. And Sono Luminus’ superb sonics certainly helps make this a great release.
I have followed the work of Sarah Cahill since her first solo CD (music of Ravel). Like Collins, she has been an artist who, by her intelligent selection of repertoire, serves as a guide to listeners (and musicians) as well. She has championed many composers as a pianist and as a broadcaster on her weekly KALW broadcasts. Her curation of concerts throughout the Bay Area, such as her solstice concerts at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, have showcased a large variety of creative performers.
As she focuses her lens on women composers (neglected is implied) she embraces a stunning range of styles from the baroque era to the present and it seems as though she can play anything she chooses well. She is also collaborative with an amazing ability to discern the substance in the works she chooses to play. And she has discovered (or rescued?) much music from obscurity via scholarship and intelligent collaboration. Can’t wait for the next release. She is consistently interesting and relevant.
This album was sent to me by a friend. I knew the Ligeti pieces but heard them with new ears in this release and I was amazed by the Kodaly works too. Marcus Creed may not be as well known in the U.S. as he is across the pond but he should be.
This album was kindly sent to me for review by John Schneider of Microfest records. Read the review. Listen to this album. And watch for more from Chris Votek, another rising star in 2022.
Dan Lippel is one of the founders of the fabulous new music label, New Focus Recordings. Here he is acoustic, electric, conventional, and experimental but always interesting. Keep his name on your radar.
This is a gorgeously designed, very collectible art object. It is a beautiful hard cover, full color book which also contains a CD of a recording (from acetate masters) which had languished in the archives of the Eastman/Rochester Music School where Harry Partch gave this lucid lecture/performance in 1942. Mr. Schneider, who sent me the Votek release as well, fronts an ensemble called PARTCH which, in addition to performing Harry Partch ‘s work, is recording Partch’s complete works for David and Becky Starobin’s Bridge label. This one is both eye and ear candy to my ears.
Rescuing those acetate masters from obscurity is a major find that rises in significance (in the musical sense) almost to the level of the archeological discovery of Tut’s Tomb. Schneider is a musician, a composer, a radio broadcaster, and an archivist and now a sonic archeologist I suppose. He also sports a collection of authentic copies of Partch’s curious instruments which were built to play the microtonal scales required. Partch is a major American composer whose work is now gaining its rightful place among the best of American classical music.
I first discovered Mr. Susman’s work when I was asked to review a performance of another composer’s work. I heard one of his works played by the remarkable San Jose Chamber Orchestra on that same concert. Here we have another multi volume release of these lovely and significant piano works. The remarkable pianist (mentioned often in these pages) has contracted to record all 4 books of this sort of “Well Tempered Clavier” type gesture which effectively provides much insight to this composer. Nicolas Horvath, known for marathon concerts performing (and subsequently recording) all of Philip Glass’ piano music, among others. (We’re talking 15 hours or so. There is also a 35 hour live rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” on you tube.) Who better to record these? The remaining three volumes are due some time this year. Who better to take on this post minimalist set of pieces? Can’t wait for the next volume.
Yolanda Kondonassis is about as household a name that you can find among harpists. These five minute (more or less) pieces are a significant addition to the solo harp repertoire. They are forward looking works for her instrument. Very interesting work, excellently performed.
I remain in awe at the curatorial and historically aware work of this truly fine pianist. Greenberg helped me grasp the historical context of the Second Viennese School in a new way with his earlier release “Book of the Hanging Gardens”. In that release he played all the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s pre twelve tone song cycle, Webern’s Variations, and the Berg Sonata which helped this listener to better grasp the historical context of this music. This small collection of works written for him reflects a collaborative and visionary ethic akin to that of Sarah Cahill’s. Keep an ear out for this guy.
I have received some good natured teasing about the fact that this, one of my longer reviews, is of a 15 minute piece of music. But this act of musical archeology by the bay area’s Kate Stenberg (who is a regular collaborator with Sarah Cahill BTW) has made the first recording of this little work. It’s Webernian duration belies a style very much in character with this beloved composer’s other work. My review was as much about the music and the recording as it was about the dedication of Stenberg to new music. This release is from Other Minds, another shining example of advocacy of new music and collaboration among composers and performers. Get it. Listen to it. And don’t miss a chance to hear Stenberg live performances or to hear anything Harrison has written.
The Chicago based Cedille label is one of my favorite classical music labels. Producer James Ginsburg has a golden ear and Cedille is the finest Chicago based classical label since the justly fabled Mercury records. All their releases deserve attention but this two disc set of little known works for String Trio written between the world wars is a feast of substantive, if slightly conservative, voices. This one is a great listen and, trust me, none of this music is in your collection.
While circumstances conspired to limit my attendance to only one of the three days of OM 26, I would be loathe to leave this world class music festival off my “best of” list. My first published blog of 2023 was of the 30th anniversary celebration which showcased Marc-Andre Hamelin’s stunning reading of Charles Ives’ massive Concord Sonata. Anything OM does deserves your attention but the roughly annual festival continues to present composers and performers from around the world. Not to be missed.
Another exciting release of Cahill’s visionary series. Like the previous volume (and the aforementioned Cedille release) the consumer will suffer no unnecessary duplications if the music herein. Fascinating and expertly done. This set (the third volume due this year) is a testament to Cahill’s encyclopedic knowledge of piano music as well as her collaborative nature and, of course, her skills as a pianist.
I’m cheating a bit here since I wasn’t able to complete my review until 2023 but this Starkland disc was released in 2022 and definitely earns its place in my “best of” list. This rising star is another one to watch. Starkland, run by the dynamic Tom Steenland is one of those labels that reliably finds interesting and substantive new music. This one is no exception. It goes a long way to alleviating my skepticism of the electroacoustic genre.
And, in order to be fair I must cheat equitably. Charles Amirkhanian kindly sent me this exciting and excellent DVD of his collaboration with his partner in life and in artistic crimes, Carol Law. My more extensive review will appear shortly but this was a major release in 2022. Amirkhanian spends far less time promoting and performing his own unique compositions so this is an especially welcome release.
Last but not least of my best of 2022 is this wonderful Neuma release which, when I began my research to write a cogent and informed review, left me stunned at how little I actually knew about composer David Tudor and the astounding dimensions of this unusual piece that evolves with every performance. After gathering a whole ton of data I finally decided that I could not write a comprehensive review without more research so I settled on a tasteful (I hope) summary with the expectation that I will write a larger piece on Tudor and his work. The review will be out very shortly. This is an amazing and significant release.
Happy 2023 to all my readers and thanks to those who kept reading my blog during more fallow times. I have many blogs currently in preparation that I look forward to sharing in the months to come. Peace, health, and music to all.
This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir. It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent. She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.
Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice. Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century. Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.
Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career. She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career. The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry. Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.
In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.
This disc was this reviewer’s first hearing of music by the Chinese American composer Du Yun and OMG, as they say. Just WOW on so many levels. The ten tracks contain music written between 1999 and 2015.
It is truly a tour de force on many levels. No surprise that this artist has received so many accolades. This sampling of her work by the always interesting International Contemporary Ensemble released by the increasingly vital New Focus recordings (on their TUNDRA imprint). There are no fewer than ten works on ten tracks.
This has been one of those “How could I have missed this…” experiences. There is a wealth of music here ranging in style from free jazz to modernism (think Darmstadt perhaps) to world music and they blend well the style of this major Chinese-American composer.
She is the recipient of numerous prizes (including a Pulitzer for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017). She is the regular recipient of commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Opera America, and the Asian Cultural Council among others. She is also a Guggenheim fellow.
The poetic, sometimes cryptic titles of her works and the liner notes are brief but succinct. The serious listener will want to know more about the composer and her wide ranging talents. She writes for every genre and ensemble from opera to solo work and from intensely personal music to clever collaborations.
Add to this the fact that the performers are from the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble (also known as “ICE”). Anything they do is worth the adventurous listener’s attention and this album supports that contention most successfully. The irony of that acronym is hard to miss in the composer’s grant from the Carnegie Foundation’s “Great Immigrants” program. Perhaps that can rescue the association of said acronym to art rather than regressive politics.
As usual with New Focus (the parent label of this TUNDRA release) the recording is lucid and does justice to the music. The cover design alone is a striking portrait of the composer (another reason to lament the 12 x 12 format of LPs as a size standard).
It took this listener several listens to begin to grasp this music. It is varied and sometimes complex but it is always compelling and seems to have depth and substance. If you don’t know this composer this is a fine place to start and if you already know her work you will want to add this fine recording to your collection.
Conjuring the spirits of the 1950s/ 60s avant-garde and a few musical references composer Mathew Rosenblum (1954- ) enlists the klezmer spirit of none other than David Krakauer and master conductor Gil Rose with his wonderful Boston Modern Orchestra Project to bring life to this klezmer clarinet concerto.
The concerto, titled, “Lament/Witches Sabbath” (2017) is a tour de force for the soloist and certainly a challenge for the large orchestra. Using elements of klezmer style along with musical references such as Berlioz in suggesting the evil sabbath revels the composer creates an unusual but fascinating canvas. Nothing evil here, just some truly exciting musicianship. In addition we hear various noisy avant-garde effects and even voice overs reminiscent of Robert Ashley. Ultimately it is also a species of classical which has a sociopolitical view and this is both memory and homage to the composer’s past, lamenting the suffering and pondering the evil that fueled it.
Krakauer’s facility with his instrument is simply astonishing. He has the klezmer thing down but he also brings with him a great virtuosity as a classical clarinetist and a working knowledge of free jazz. It’s not clear how much creativity this soloist was allowed within the constraints of the piece but the bottom line is that it works very well. Gil Rose’ expertise in handling all this potential chaos is impressive as always and he delivers ultimately a very enjoyable performance despite those noisy avant-garde moments. Indeed it is Rose’ ability to select repertoire with which he can grasp and from which he can conjure a compelling performance. It is Rosenblum’s family biography taking him from the pogroms of the Ukraine to the United States.
The second track (of 4) is a solo for percussion. Again the avant-garde remains interesting and both performance and recording communicate well with the listener. Northern Flicker (2013) is no filler, it is an interesting, if rather brief, work. Lisa Pegher is the busy soloist.
Falling (2013) is a complex work involving pre-recorded audio as well as a chamber group in a song cycle based on the James Dickey poem of the same name. It is a retelling of an incident in which an airline stewardess who died when she was sucked out of a defective emergency exit in the plane and fell to her death. The cycle recounts an imagined look into her psyche as she fell to her death. It is an affecting, if unusual, presentation but Rosenblum’s judicious use of modern elements while still using recognizable melodies and more traditional techniques make for a listenable, if harrowing, experience.
Here the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble consisting of Lindsey Goodman, flute; Eric Jacobs, clarinet; Nathalie Shaw, violin; Norbert Lewandowski, cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; and Oscar Micaelsson, piano/keyboard join with soprano Lindsey Kesselman with conductor Kevin Noe to produce this rewarding work.
Finally we get another large work, this time for multi-tracked string quartet with percussion titled Last Round (2015) which is also biographical in that the composer is attempting to evoke a time in the 1980s when he frequented an establishment with fellow composers. The composer, in his entertaining and informative liner notes recounts his time with fellow composer Lee Hyla and friends and seeks to evoke elements of the downtown scene of that era. This is a rather large work with its own complexities but one which speaks easily to an audience, even one not experienced in the time and place the composer attempts to evoke.
This is a marvelous recording of a music by a composer unfamiliar to this writer (until now) whose work deserves your attention.
The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.
The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.
He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.
Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.
As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.
The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music. No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either. Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.
Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today. This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here. No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.
And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ). Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres. Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.
The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning. Highly recommended.
The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).
Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.
There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.
Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.
On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;
Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.
2018 marks the 100th birth anniversary of Korea’s best known composer, Isang Yun (1918-1995). His work has received many performances and recordings but he is not exactly a household name and live performances are still not very common.
Yun is well known for his having been kidnapped by the South Korean secret service from his home in Germany in 1967 due to alleged espionage. He remained a prisoner for two years and was subjected to torture and forced interrogations. It took intervention from the artistic community to secure his release and the petition included signatures of Igor Stravinsky, Herbert von Karajan, Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Mauricio Kagel, Joseph Keilberth, Otto Klemperer, György Ligeti, Arne Mellnäs, Per Nørgård, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He was held for the better part of two years and never again returned to South Korea.
This fine 2 CD set is the first release in what this writer hopes will be a series of recordings of Yun’s major works. Dennis Russell Davies has demonstrated both knowledge and mastery of new and unusual repertoire as well as that of established works of the western canon. Despite many recordings of his work in the past those recordings were (and still are) notoriously difficult to find so this set is especially welcome.
Here Davies joins forces with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and the talents of soloists Matt Haimovitz, Yumi Hwang-Williams, and Maki Namekawa to record a sampling of Yun’s works. In addition to the first (of three) Violin concerto (1981), the Cello concerto (1976), and a sampling of chamber works including Interludium in A (1982) for piano, Glisees (1970) for solo cello, Kontraste (1987) for solo violin, Gasa (1965) for violin and piano (probably the composer’s best known piece), and a short orchestral piece, Fanfare and Memorial (1979).
If you don’t know Yun’s work this is a fine place to start. If you already know his work you will want to hear these performances. These are definitive and will set the standard for all that follows.
The concertos are somewhat thorny and dissonant but deeply substantive affairs that challenge both orchestra and soloist. Yun’s style draws more from modernist (think Darmstadt) than romanticism but he is capable of great beauty within that context. In both concertos the soloists must deal with virtuosic challenges but each concerto provides a marvelous showcase for their skills. Hearing them played by musicians of this caliber they are shown to be masterpieces of the genre.
The chamber music is similarly thorny at times but always interesting. This composer deserves to be better known and recordings like this with quality performances and recordings makes a great step in that direction.
Yun was a prolific composer of pretty consistent quality so even a two disc retrospective such as this can only be a brief sampling. The choices of what to record can’t avoid taking on a personal dimension. Intelligent choices of repertoire combined with defining performances such as these will send the listener on a quest to explore more of his work.
Collectif9 based in Montreal bills themselves, aptly, as a “string band”. This is their second album and I haven’t heard the first but this one is a hoot!
Drawing on the age old practice of transcribing music for chamber groups which used to be common in taverns and such back in the 18th and 19th centuries they create delightful riffs on the music they chose. Here they chose Gustav Mahler. If the appellation of my title, “Mahler Lite” seems pejorative fear not. This album is sheer delight.
There are 8 tracks drawing variously from the first, second, and fifth symphonies as well as Das Lied and the Wayfarer Songs. The last track is a fantasy by Philip Hersant on themes of Mahler. Nine musicians, all on bowed string instruments, do a marvelous job of evoking a big sound out of their ensemble.
Transcription is a true art and this is a shining example. Anyone familiar with Mahler’s work will find a comforting familiarity in these pieces. What struck this listener was their ability to evoke the orchestral instruments with some clever extended techniques. Tympani, trumpets, trombones, tympani, etc. are all slyly and successfully implied in their playing.
While the liner notes don’t go into much technical detail they are all the average listener will need. The charming thing here is the reproduction of the painting (apparently common in nurseries in Austria) which inspired the third movement of his first symphony. If you don’t know the painting it depicts a bunch of animals carrying a dead hunter which, perhaps, they have killed. And it is printed on the fold out liner notes. Mahler uses Brother John (in a minor key) as a starting place for a set of variations with the intent of evoking this image.
The design by Kanelloscob.com deserves mention. It deserves a closer look. They manage to integrate a group photo, a track list, credits, commentary, and a large reproduction of that nursery art. And they do it all with paper, no plastic to crack and become unusable. It’s low key but a really beautiful production.
Collectif9 is John Corban, Yubin Kim, Robert Margaryam, and Elizabeth Skinner on violins; Xavier Lepage-Brault and Jennifer Thiessen on violas; Jérémie Cloutier and Andrea Stewart on celli; and Thibault Bertin-Maghit on double bass (who actually did these wonderful transcriptions).
Of course the music is the main point and that is the best reason to buy this disc. Who knows? Maybe we’ll start seeing/hearing chamber groups like this in our coffee shops. Wouldn’t that be cool?
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.
Since her debut in 1969 at the tender age of 11 Danish born recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has been one of the finest masters of the recorder. This ancient instrument, a forerunner of the flute, has existed since the Middle Ages and has amassed a huge repertoire and Petri seems to have demonstrated mastery over all of it and has been an advocate and promoter of new music for her instrument as well. She has inspired composers to write new works for her and she continues to entertain audiences and has assembled an ever growing discography of startling range and diversity. Nearly single handed she has managed to honor past repertoire and firmly ensconce this instrument in the 21st century.
In this release, produced by Lars Hannibal (himself a fine guitarist and frequent Petri collaborator) Petri takes on the music of Brazil and, despite the fact that recorders have seldom found their way into the music of this geographic region, she delivers a convincing and hugely entertaining program on this disc. Along with Marilyn Mazur on percussion and Daniel Murray on guitar the listener is given an entertaining cross section of Brazilian music ranging from the more classically oriented work of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) to the smooth jazz/pop sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1925-1994) and Egberto Gismonti (1947- ). In between are included works by the album’s guitarist Daniel Murray (1981- ) and a few names unfamiliar to this reviewer including Paulo Porto Alegre (1953- ), Paulo Bellinati (1950- ), Hermeto Pascoal (1936- ), and Antonio Ribero (1971- ).
There is a remarkable unity in this Danish production which stems from a meeting between producer Lars Hannibal and Daniel Murray in Vienna in 2014. Hannibal’s ear found a kindred spirit whose musicality is a good match for that of Petri. And like a good chef he added the delicate and necessary spice of the tastefully understated (but extraordinary) percussionist Marilyn Mazur to create a unique trio that sounds as though they’ve played together for years. Here’s hoping that they’ve secretly recorded enough material for a second album.
All the tracks appear to be transcriptions though the transcriber is not named (I’m guessing they’re collaborative). What’s nice is that there is nothing artificial or uncomfortable about these arrangements. The overall impression left is that of a skilled ensemble and listeners encountering the original forms of these works might well assume those to be the transcriptions. So convincing are these performances.
One last thing. The sound. This super audio CD release was engineered by Mikkel Nymand and Preben Iwan and the sound is fabulous. I don’t have a machine that can read the super audio tracks on this hybrid disc but what I can hear is a lucid recording which embraces the subtleties of this unique ensemble. Enjoy!
Kristjan Järvi (1972- ) is the youngest son of justly famed conductor Neeme Järvi. He is also a frequent collaborator with the talented and ubiquitous Gene Pritsker among others. This double CD represents a portion of his concerts in celebration of Reich’s 80th birthday. There are apparently recordings available on the streaming service Medici TV of several other Reich works including the Three Movements for Orchestra (1983) and Desert Music (1986). All these stemmed from a residency (2013-2014) that Reich enjoyed with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Chorus.
This 80th birthday tribute gives us yet another opportunity to hear another generation (other than Reich’s) interpreting this music. For years only Reich and his ensemble had access to his scores but this is not the case with his orchestral and choral works. Some may still consider Reich to be a difficult or experimental composer and this has limited the programming (and no doubt the commissioning) of music for such larger ensembles. It is delightful to hear how other musicians respond to and interpret Reich’s music.
In fact Reich’s music for larger ensembles is definitely worth hearing and hearing in different interpretations. This set gives us the world premieres of beefed up orchestrations of You Are and Daniel Variations. This writer looks forward to the orchestral version of Tehillim (1981) as well.
This handsome two disc set includes the early Clapping Music (1971), Duet (1993), The Four Sections (1987), You Are Variations (2004), and Daniel Variations (2006). It is not a greatest hits compilation. Rather it is a personal survey by a wonderful young musician. Kristian Järvi is a conductor, composer and new music raconteur who is at the beginnings of a very promising career. This album is a love song if you will. Järvi clearly understands and loves this music and the opportunity to record these works, especially perhaps the intimate Clapping Music with the participation of the composer.
The Four Sections is tantamount to being a concerto for orchestra and is among this reviewer’s favorites among Reich’s works. It has received too few performances and to date only two recordings. This is the first live recording and gives insight into the amazing competence of both conductor and orchestra. The 1993 Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra is Reich’s homage to a musician of a generation preceding his, the wonderful violinist, conductor, and pedagogue, Yehudi Menuhin on his 80th birthday. Soloists Andreas Hartmann and Waltraut Wachter handle this all too brief piece with skill and insight.
The second disc contains studio recordings of the large orchestra versions of two very personal works. These recordings alone are adequate reason to purchase this set. Reich has gained much from tapping his Jewish heritage (musical, linguistic, and literary) in service of his art. Both of these pieces feature texts from a variety of sources including the Bible, Hasidic aphorisms, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein among others. In both works the texts determine to some degree the rhythmic choices of the music.
You Are Variations is a four movement orchestral/choral work which sets a different aphorism in each movement. It is among the composer’s more personal works and includes quotations from Wittgenstein (the subject of Reich’s undergraduate studies) along with Biblical and Talmudic texts in a beautiful existential meditation.
Daniel Variations is a powerful overtly political work written in response to the tragic murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by extremists in Pakistan in 2002. It is a deeply felt and very pained work which expresses the tragedy and creatively makes a link with the Book of Daniel as well as Pearl’s own words. Reich is no stranger to political protest on his music and this is among his finest in that genre.
If you don’t know Reich’s music this is not a bad place to start. If you are already a fan (as I’ve been for years) you will want this set to round out your collection.
The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed. On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District. This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”. It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond. (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)
Yun Isang (1917-1995)
Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching. His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan. He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea. He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea. Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release. After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.
Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)
This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang. Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.
The program is slated to consist of:
Sonata No. 3 for Piano
(1938, Lou Harrison)
Dennis Russell Davies
Kontraste I for Solo Violin
(1987, Isang Yun)
Gasa, for Violin & Piano
(1963, Isang Yun)
Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies
Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)
(1988, Lou Harrison)
Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies
Canticle No. 3
(1941, Lou Harrison)
William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
(1982, Isang Yun)
Maki Namekawa, piano
Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra
(1951, Lou Harrison)
III. First Gamelan
V. Second Gamelan
Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.
If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.
The only name that might not be familiar to fans of early to mid-twentieth century American music feature in this recording is that of Marion Bauer (1882-1955). The rest of these composers are clearly established in both recordings and the performing repertoire. One of the great things about this recording is that the collector runs practically no risk of duplication. While the Rorem, Barber and Bowles have been recorded before I am not aware of any currently available recordings of the Thomson, Copland and Bauer pieces.
I don’t know how profoundly significant all these works are, only time (and more performances/recordings) will tell. But these are attractive pieces that fill historical gaps and that is apparently the goal of this clever ensemble. Even if these are not first order masterpieces they do speak to the historical evolution of the American sound in the twentieth century.
Marion Bauer is herself in need of a reassessment. This woman, 20 years older than Aaron Copland was essential in the establishment of the foundational institutions of American music. Few of her works have been recorded and even fewer given good or great recordings. So this 1944 Trio Sonata No. 1 recording is a very good start. This, like the other works on the album do not stray far from basic romantic tonality but were the “modern” idiom for the works of their day. The sound of mid-century neo-romanticism is clearly in evidence in this lovely and lyrical three movement sonata.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is now better known for his excellent music criticism but he was also one of the finest examples of the American neo-romantic tradition (and the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for a film score) and his work is sadly under-appreciated. The five brief movements are infused with the composer’s folk and hymn references like much of his work. I do not think this lovely little Serenade for Flute and Violin (1941) has been recorded before and, hearing it now, I can’t imagine why not.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is represented here by two late works from 1971 and 1973, both entitled Threnody. The first is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the second to Copland’s friend Beatrice Cunningham.
As far as I know this is the first recording of these two works. They are short and intense pieces whose apparent simplicity most likely belies some complexity but these are very approachable works. It is a great service to have them available for listening.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is probably the foremost representative of American romanticism. The brief Canzone for Flute and Piano (1961) was originally written for a friend. The melody made its way into Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962) and has been given the opus number 38a.
Ned Rorem (1923- ), composer and diarist is also a strong contender for the romantic crown in American music. He is the youngest of the composers represented on this recording (though this reviewer would like to make the case to perhaps include David Del Tredici 1937- for inclusion in this survey of mid-century American romantics). Best known for his songs, Rorem’s orchestral and chamber music have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve.
His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960) is very strong example of the quality of his chamber music. The four movement trio has been recorded before but this performance is about as fine and definitive as one could imagine.
Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is far better known for his literary endeavors and is connected to the beat writers. His novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) secured his literary fame. Bowles spent much less time on composition after 1956 but his music has (though painfully slowly) been going through some reckoning in recent years. And so it should. This contemporary of Aaron Copland has written a fair amount of music, much of that in the form of incidental music for various plays. This Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932) has been recorded before but it is good to see it made available in a competent recent version.
Ned Rorem, the only composer here still living, gets the final word in The Unquestioned Answer (2002). It is essentially a reflection on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1930-5) and provides a fitting conclusion to this wonderful survey.
I very favorably reviewed a previous release by the Walden Chamber Players (Marianne Gedigian, flute; Curtis Macomber, violin; Tatiana Dimitraes, violin; Christof Huebner, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello and Jonathan Bass, piano). And they continue their intelligent and very personal survey of chamber music.
This is a very satisfying album which achieves its goal of displaying music which clearly contributes to the collective voice of American music as it developed in the early to mid- twentieth century. This intelligent selection of music, well-performed, fills gaps in the recorded repertoire and, one hope, will encourage others to bring more of this work to recordings and performances.