Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


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Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.

 

 

 

Tim Brady’s Happiness Handbook, massed guitars, massed invention


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Starkland ST-232

This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland.  The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases.  You can find a listing on his web page here.  Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs.  Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham.  That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists.  Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.

In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016.  Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound.  It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here.  One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall.  All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet.  The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.

The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar.  If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well.  The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.

Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars.  This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.

And now the music.  The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic.  Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work.  This is practically a miniature symphony.  It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.

Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album.  It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work.  I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds.  Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.

Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope.  (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.)  Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example.  This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.

Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage.  This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy.  Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.

Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision.  The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are.  So much for happiness.

Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall.  Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again.  As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern.  There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony.  It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.

 

Luke Cissell’s Thinking/Feeling,Gently Defying Genre


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Silver Squid Music

I believe the composer himself sent me this disc.  I was not familiar with this composer/musician prior to receiving this but, a quick search on Amazon revealed several albums by this artist.  Cissell‘s web page validates my initial impression of an artist who will not easily fit in a category.  That is to say that this music wears several hats.

There is nothing experimental or difficult about this CD nor is it exactly pop or easy listening.  It is a rather personal recording.  Indeed the composer plays most of the parts and the concept is entirely his own.  Not having heard Cissell’s other recordings it is difficult to say whether this most recent one is a continuation of a style or a departure.  What is clear is that this music is easy to listen to but difficult to market efficiently.

This entirely self composed and produced album consists of 13 tracks ranging from 2 to 5 minutes or so in length.  The instrumentation consists of mandolin, electric bass, strings, and electronics and all are performed by the composer.  He identifies the track, “Follies” as being most appropriate for classical radio and the track, “Serf Shop” for pop/alternative radio.  It is lovely material with some folk leanings as well as classical leanings.  Cissell has classical training and that comes across in his writing but suffice it to say that his influences are eclectic and wide ranging.  He clearly is well trained in his ability to write effectively for these instruments and hearing this work makes one wonder what his more classically oriented work sounds like.

If this disc has languished for longer than it should have in my “to be reviewed” queue then blame it in part on the reviewer’s organizational strategy but also on the difficulty pigeon holing such a release.  There is little doubt that most who hear this album will find it entertaining but it is not clear how easy it will be for fans to find such a release unless they are searching for this specific composer.

In reviewing “classical” recordings one can rely on the “sounds like” strategy to provide listeners with some idea of what to expect.  That does not seem to work here.  The music is very listenable but it is not strictly classical and not exactly pop so while it is a very good disc I’m not sure how easily it will find an appreciative audience.

This reviewer will pay attention to this composer and looks forward to hearing his more classically oriented work as well.  Kudos, Mr. Cissell.

Linda Twine, A Musician You Should Know


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Linda Twine

I have found it strange that the few articles I have written (and, full disclosure, I’m a white guy) on black musicians seem to have placed me in the position of being one of apparently a limited number of writers/bloggers who pay attention to the topic.  Happily these articles have gained an audience.  The rather simple piece I wrote on black conductors, a little essay composed in honor of Black History Month, remains by far one of my most read articles.

The vicissitudes of race and racism are such that we need to say, “black lives matter” because even the most cursory examination of statistics shows that they seem to matter far less than lives with other racial identities.  The same is true with music and musicians..  There are organizations dedicated to the promotion of black musicians because they remain far less well represented.

It is in this spirit that I am writing this little sketch to highlight a black musician who does not have a Wikipedia page or even a personal web page that I have been able to find.  You can find her easily with a Google search but you will find some of the same segregation of which I spoke.  One finds her on the “Broadway Black” website which does a fine job of promoting her and her work.  And what fine work it is.

To be fair she is also on the “Internet Broadway Database“, “Playbill“, the “Internet Movie Database“, and one can find her most recent work listed on the “Broadway World” site.  Her cantata, “Changed My Name” can be found on You Tube.  And it is there where, curiously enough, one can find the most comprehensive information on her.  I present it here:

From the Muskogee Phoenix, 11/10/2007, we have this information about Linda Twine:

Twine, a native of Muskogee, OK, graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1966, with a bachelor of arts degree in music. There, she studied piano with the esteemed Dr. Clarence Burg and Professor Nancy Apgar. After graduating from OCU, Twine studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she earned a master’s degree, and made New York her home. She began her musical career in New York, teaching music in public school by day and accompanying classical and jazz artists at night. At one of these engagements, she was asked if she would like to substitute for the keyboardist of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Her positive response began a long career in Broadway musicals from keyboard substitute to assistant conductor of Broadway orchestras. In 1981, to conductor when Lena Horne asked her to conduct her one-woman hit, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” This garnered Twine the respect of her peers and as a much sought-after Broadway musical conductor. In addition to “The Wiz” and “Lena Horne,” Twine’s Broadway credits include, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Big River” (the score composed by Oklahoman Roger Miller), “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Frog and Toad,” “Caroline or Change,” “Purlie,” and the current “The Color Purple,” starring Fantasia. Not only a distinguished conductor, Twine is also a composer and arranger. She composed “Changed My Name,” a cantata inspired by slave women Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and written for two actresses, four soloists, and a chorus. Her popular spiritual arrangements are published by Hinshaw. As a producer, instrumental and vocal arranger, her work can be seen and heard in the books and CDs of the Silver Burdett Publishing company, which are used by many public schools in the United States. Community commitment and involvement have also marked Twine’s outstanding career. She has arranged and composed for the renowned Boys Choir of Harlem, and she served for 14 years as minister of music for St. James Presbyterian Church of New York. Among her many awards and honors is the “Personal Best Award for Achievement and the Pursuit of Excellence,” for her role as a writer and arranger for the Boys Choir of Harlem, her artistic achievements in the world of Musical Theatre, and her concern for humanity. Twine, a proud Oklahoman, is the granddaughter of William Henry Twine, a pioneer lawyer who made a homestead claim in the 1891 Sac and Fox Run, and along with G.W.F. Sawner and E.I. Saddler established the first black law partnership in Oklahoma Territory.

So here, in honor of Black History Month, I wish to present this fine musician whose art deserves the world’s attention.  Take note please.

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Dane Rousay’s Blip


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Dane Rousay is a San Antonio based percussionist and this is the first of several planned releases.  This is a solo effort largely with drum kit and perhaps a couple of enhancements or additional percussive hardware.  There are 8 rather brief tracks on this album, all of an experimental nature and all very well recorded.

One small disclaimer:  I generally don’t review download only releases but Mr. Rousay was persistent and kind in his requests for a review.  Another aspect is that there appears to be an increase in this purely digital release format and to ignore that in favor of a demand for a physical product would likely be missing an opportunity to hear some good work.

Despite the brevity there is much for the ear.  The percussion seems to be closely miked and that is apparently the point here.  Each track is like a mini-etude or experiment which will presumably be used as material for other work.  Whether this is jazz, free jazz, new music, classical, etc. is actually beside the point.  The point appears to be the sound itself.

There are no liner notes and little in the way of explanation to be found even on the composer’s web site.  (That’s not necessarily a negative thing either.)  It is not clear if this music is improvised or composed or if there is any predetermined structure and there appears to be no intended connection between each of the tracks.  Most of the work is mallets or sticks of some sort hitting the targeted percussive surface though he does make use of extended techniques such as rubbing the mallets across the surface creating rich harmonics in the manner of the spectralists.

After multiple listens this reviewer is left with the impression of having visited the artist’s studio for a rather personal tour of some of his working ideas.  If you are a percussionist or a fan of percussion music this album will doubtless interest you.  It is not easy listening but it does appear to be a very personal exploration of this artist’s techniques and ideas.

I am looking forward to more from this interesting and seemingly uncompromising artist.

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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