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.
This release appears to be as much about the musician as it is about the music. Ives’ second piano sonata has had numerous recordings since John Kirkpatrick’s landmark recording of 1948. It is a gargantuan work that requires formidable technical skills simply to play it and interpretive skills at a very high level. Here is a recording by an artist who certainly possesses the skill sets required.
Pianist Philip Bush has spent over twenty years playing, teaching and recording. He is well known in new music circles as a versatile and committed artist very familiar with Charles Ives’ music. Doubtless many have heard his work but his name is far better known among his peers than his listeners. Why? Well despite at least 24 releases his role as accompanist or ensemble member leaves his name recognition to his fellow artists and to fans who read credit listings on those recordings. This writer is reminded of another artist of a previous generation whose skills were unquestioned but his name less known. I’m talking about the wonderful Gerald Moore whose work as an accompanist graced many recordings of the 50s, 60s, and 70s where he worked alongside many different instrumentalists and singers. Moore’s charming album, “The Unashamed Accompanist” (1955) is a good humored tour of the hard work of the accompanist, the unsung hero. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Bush is an exact match for this analogy, but this album certainly puts him more in that soloist spotlight than any other he has done.
Despite many recordings of this masterpiece, ostensibly a landmark of American modernist composition, this work has yet to achieve the prominence it deserves in the recital hall. Bush’s performance along with his very clever inclusion of lesser known Ives contemporary, Marion Bauer’s Six Preludes for Piano, Op. 15 (1922) helps to provide context for the listener. Bauer was later the first American to study with Nadia Boulanger whose pedagogy would shape the careers of many of the great composers of the 20th century in many countries. The preludes are apparently included here as representing American music played more commonly in recitals of that time.
For a thorough summary and perspective on the Concord Sonata I have found Kyle Gann’s recent book on the subject to be illuminating. Ives himself felt the need to “explain himself” when he wrote a little book to be published concurrently with the sonata. Ives’ title for his book “Essays Before a Sonata” provide the inspiration for Gann’s subtitle (Essays After a Sonata). Ives’ near constant revisions add to the difficulties in even determining a final version of the score itself. The composer’s revisions and the partial recordings he did of the work add to the performer’s burden in the performance of the work. There’s even optional parts for flute (included in Bush’s recording played by Jennifer Parker-Harley) and for viola (not in Bush’s recording).
The Bauer preludes are far more conservative musically than the Ives of course but one could argue that nearly everything contemporary with the Concord Sonata sounds conservative by contrast. Bauer’s Op, 15 are relatively early works in her output. She lived and worked another 33 years after these little works which were apparently influenced by French Impressionism. There is no indication that Bauer and Ives ever met or discussed music but her work was the new music more commonly heard than that of the roughly concurrent work of Ives. The use of the stereopticon style slide on the album cover, a current technology of the time, also serves to provide a charming nostalgic reference to an era about to experience many rapid changes historically, technically, and conceptually in which the Concord becomes an American work analogous to The Rite of Spring (1913) as a signpost of the beginning of another era.
Despite the complexities, Bush’s reading of the Concord and the Bauer preludes are eminently listenable. That clarity is ultimately the value of this release. This recording is a wonderful opportunity to hear the artistry of a dedicated artist and academic. It helps make a case for the Concord to be recognized as an important work whose complexities are made clearer with each interpretation. Bravo, Professor Bush!
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.
Attempts to meld pop, jazz, and classical music are abundant but many, like some of the poorly done string quartet transcriptions (there are a few good ones but most are guaranteed to offend pop and classical audiences alike). But this set of chamber group incorporations of essentially “pop” music is among the most engaging and convincing.
Here the truly fabulous Reed player, composer, conductor, and Bang on a Can member Evan Ziporyn takes listeners on a journey which, to this listener, are a modern equivalent of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” and, for that matter, Luciano Berio’s “Folksongs”. It is a personal selection with (sometimes) quirky but ultimately convincing transcriptions which rise to the level of full blown compositions that function as an homage to the chosen songs.
Actually these “chamber transcriptions” are for multiple clarinets, all played by Maestro Ziporyn. Doubtless many will hear echoes of Steve Reich’s multitracked instrument pieces in his “counterpoint” series. In that sense this is also a set of pieces that does homage to Reich’s work as well.
Tracks 01 UNCLE ALBERT/ADMIRAL HALSEY (5:05) (Wings) Paul & Linda McCartney 02 RIDE CAPTAIN RIDE (5:07) (Blues Image) Mike Pinera, Frank Konte 03 WOODSTOCK (5:32) (Joni Mitchell) Joni Mitchell 04 ALONG COMES MARY (3:00) (The Association) Tandyn Almer 05 WOODSTOCK IMPROVISATION/VILLANOVA JUNCTION (6:42) 06 SHINING STAR (2:17) (Earth Wind & Fire) P. Bailey, L. Dunn, V. White, M. White, S. Burke 07 THAT’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD (5:56) (Earth Wind & Fire) C.Stepney, V. White, M. White 08 PORTRAIT OF TRACY (2:23) (Jaco Pastorius) Jaco Pastorius 09 I LIVE ABOVE THE HOBBY SHOP (3:43) (McFabulous) Benjamin McFadden 10 DEADBEAT CLUB (4:12) (B-52s) C. Wilson, F. Schneider, K. Strickland, K. Pierson 11 STRAWBERRY LETTER #23 (5:24) (Brothers Johnson) Shuggie Otis 12 YOUR GOLD TEETH II (4:03) (Steely Dan) Walter Becker & Donald Fagen
Ziporyn, born in 1959, played in Reich’s ensemble and that sound world is a surprisingly effective one for Ziporyn to share the pop music of his era. Certainly this music can benefit from musicological analysis but it speaks clearly and entertainingly as well to the casual listener. It is helpful but not absolutely necessary that listeners know the music upon which these pieces are based but this may have significant nostalgia for those who do.
Mr. Ziporyn’s familiarity with a wide variety of music ranging from avant garde classical to jazz and pop along with his composer’s acumen of form combine to make this one of, at least for this writer, most convincing and satisfying efforts to appropriate (or perhaps more like simply incorporate) some familiar pop standards. This is a marvelously entertaining album.
Igor Levit is a man of vision and of multiple talents. His pianistic skills and his vast knowledge of repertoire are pretty much unquestioned at this point. His vision is evidenced by his very personal choices in choosing what he will play and record. In my first encounter with this artist, his three disc survey of large keyboard variation works spanning three centuries including Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United…” suggested that this piece represent the 20 century with the Beethoven “Diabelli Variations” representing the 19th century, and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” the 18th, and virtually the origin of the form.
I have not heard all of Levit’s albums but those I have seem a similar pattern in his choices of what to record. They seem to serve his vision of choosing works for which he makes the case that they be included in the common concert hall repertoire. His inclusion of Ronald Stevenson’s monumental “Variations on DSCH” alongside the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues effectively issued a challenge to his fellow artists to consider including those masterworks in the canon of music commonly played in concert halls.
The two disc set considered here seems to follow that same pattern. In “Tristan”, Levit makes provocative and unusual but ultimately intelligent choices of what to play.
Here, Levit makes a charming choice of performing the late, great Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Zoltan Kocsis whose transcription of Wagner’s “Tristan Prelude” (1857-9) for piano is basically the seed from which this quasi-concept album grows. And finally, in another brilliant move, he includes Ronald Stevenson’s piano transcription of the gorgeous, angst ridden Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony 1910-11), making at least the suggestion of a connection between the 19th century of Wagner’s landmark opera and, via Mahler’s post romanticism to Henze’s 20th century Tristan whose inspiration was garnered from that same medieval epic poem.
The centerpiece here is obviously Hans Werner Henze’s “Tristan Preludes” (1974) for piano, orchestra, and tape (a rare but effective choice by this composer). He pairs this large work with curiously connected pieces such as Liszt’s very familiar “Liebestraum No. 3“ (1850), and the less familiar Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir” (1851). Liszt, a contemporary and supporter of Wagner, was the virtuosic showman, the “Liberace” of his day. This helps provide the listener a historical context as well as a contrast to the severe intensity and harmonic rebellion of Wagner’s “Tristan”.
Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, this is only the second recording of this major Henze work (wonderfully conducted by the fine Franz Welser-Möst) and likely the first recording of the Kocsis and Stevenson transcriptions. I have no doubt the Liszt selections have received much attention but they are critical here to Levit’s appropriately lofty (and very much romantic) vision, that of garnering a deserved place for all of this music to be kept alive both in recordings and the concert hall.
Levit’s playing is slow paced, full of romantic angst, and full of nuance. His pacing and his use of a wide dynamic range create an atmosphere that is both dark, and meditative. This album has the deep substance of Levit’s personal vision, a glory to behold. The gauntlet has been laid down.
Every Starkland release is an event and this one is no different. This is a composer new to this writer and likely new to most of the new music community. But fear not of the unknown. Advance praise from the likes of John Chowning (one of the reigning bright lights of electronic music) of Stanford certainly add a heady air of anticipation as we are now privileged to hear what is definitely leading edge and the future of electroacoustic composition. And Starkland releases always feature carefully chosen repertoire which is not infrequently a harbinger of success for the chosen artist. This young Japanese composer reveals a distinctive voice that heralds her as a rising star in the field of what is called by some “electroacoustic” music.
The only problem for listeners or reviewers is the fact that this is a new composer. And though she is clearly a rising star we know very little about her and her work so a bit of background is necessary.
Suzuki was born in Japan. She studied at the estimable Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University where she earned a B.A. in music. She followed this with a D.M.A.. from Stanford University where she was mentored by the late great Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012). Another stellar antecedent and influence, John Chowning, the composer and sound engineer whose work has virtually defined electronic music synthesis as we now know it. He provides appreciative and insightful liner notes on this former student.
I do feel the need to express a disclaimer here regarding the musical genre known as “electroacoustic”. This has been, for me personally, an entertainment minefield. Attempts to join electronics with acoustic instruments go back at least to Edgar Variese (1883-1965) who used electronic interpolations (produced on magnetic tape) between the orchestral sections of his work Deserts (1950-54). This parallel construction strategy (electronic segments performed/played separate from acoustic instrument sections) seems to have had an echo in the so called “Third Stream” music promoted by Gunther Schuller. Third Stream compositions sometimes similarly segregated the jazz combo with the orchestral sections of a given work. This strategy, now seldom used, was innovative in its time but sounds very dated in this new millennium, There are, however, shining examples of more successful integration of electronic and acoustic media such as Mario Davidovsky’s (1937-2019) ten “Synchronisms”and some of Milton Babbit’s (1916-2011) works. There are others of course but that discussion is beyond the scope of this review.
Suffice it to say that many attempts at combining electronics with acoustic instruments have failed to tickle this listener’s fancy and made me skeptical of this genre though that is changing the more I listen (so its not clear if my perceptions are due to better composition techniques or my learning curve). But be not afraid.
This album, no doubt due to the many successful antecedents of works by the likes of Mr. Harvey and Mr. Chowning, is successful enough in its construction as to suggest it may be a landmark in the evolution of said genre. It certainly works for this listener and explains my title for this review. In fact this album is a new statement, tantamount to a manifesto on “electroacoustic” music. In addition to clearly having mastered the electronics (including judicious use of technology), Suzuki also writes for acoustic instruments from her native Japan. She even uses paper instruments. And in music that deals with elegy, evanescence, and impermanence her choices are most apt.
This is the first disc devoted entirely to Suzuki’s work and no label, save for Starkland, Innova, and the newly revived Neuma can be said to be more notable in their attention to electronic and electroacoustic work. Works do appear on other labels of course but Starkland Innova, and Neuma seem to have a more efficient curatorial radar with this genre. I certainly feel confident that we will hear much more from this hard working, emerging artist.
There is a theme of darkness, homage, mystery, and sadness that pervades this album. It is about night, darkness, loss, and cherished memories. But darkness does not here translate to sadness, rather it seems to be about what follows sadness and honoring those memories.
There are 7 compositions represented on 7 tracks:
Epiphyllum Oxypetalum (Queen of the Night) (2009) takes its title from the Latin taxonomic name of the above pictured Dutchman’s Pipe or, more elegantly, Queen of the Night cactus. It is a nocturnal blooming species, a perfect choice for this non-narrative tone poem about the composer’s dreams. These aural images stand in for the visuals that only the dreamer can fully recall but can hopefully elicit in the listener.
Inspired by a 1933 essay, “In Praise of Shadows” (2015), is a eulogy about evanescence. It is simultaneously about the visual importance of shadow in eastern visual art and the relative loss or obscuring of those images as they are impacted by modern technology. We lose the shadows when we light them but lose their impact as they succumb to it. In a marvelously clever parallel metaphor the composer makes use of paper instruments as a part of the sonic fabric. Their impermanence is also their value here.
Minyo (1997), the earliest composition here incorporates Japanese folk songs commonly sung by workers and incorporates some of the acoustic instruments which commonly accompany these songs. Here the use of electronics is fairly subtle, sometimes imitative augment the acoustic string quartet. Doubtless the songs used would be more familiar to native Japanese but this hardly detracts from the beauty of this work, an homage of sorts to the Melodie’s and instruments of the composer’s native land.
Automata (Mechanical Garden) is an homage to the late Folkmar Hein, former director of the Electronic Music Studio at TU Berlin. The piece uses mechanical sounds of increasing complexity, mechanical devices evolving in complexity to become automatic, perhaps a mechanical analogue of a golem not (at least not yet) out of control as the golem of legend.
Reservoir (2013) is a 24 channel work for voice and electronics. It was inspired by an anonymous post on a “suicide blog” (I didn’t know such things existed). The text of the anonymous poster, the replies, and presumably the poster have all disappeared. This, perhaps the most complex and ambitious piece featured here, is a remarkably powerful work and, appropriately, the texts are provided in English.
Sagisō (2012) is a miniature representing this fringed orchid species native to Japan. It is said by some to represent a White Egret in flight.
Shimmer, Tree (In Memoriam Jonathan Harvey) (2014) is a two movement work in honor of one of Suzuki’s cherished mentors who died in 2012. It is a sort of mini concerto for piano and electronics. This is the longest and, to this listener’s ears, the most forward looking and substantial work on the disc. Harvey would have been proud.
The Spektral Quartet (in Minyo), tenor/countertenor Javier Hagen (in Reservoir), and pianist Cristina Valdes discharge their duties admirably. The album is mixed and produced by the composer and mastered by the inimitable Silas Brown.
This listener looks forward with eager anticipation to more from this fine composer.
DISCLAIMER: Though I received this album well before it’s 2022 release date, I was unable to complete my review in a timely manner. I did, however, include this release in my “best of” for 2022.
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.
On the back of the CD case, in the right upper hand corner, like a warning on the back of a medicine bottle, an entreaty:
“Binaural Recording: Please use headphones.”
Even those of you who think they know this masterpiece of experimental electronics by David Tudor (1926-1996) will find here a unique and important collaboration in this production initiated by Pauline Oliveros, then director of the Center for Music Experiment (CME) at UCSD. She invited a group called CIE (Composers Inside Electronics). And the resulting product of that collaboration documented here advances the understanding of this music and will henceforth be an influence on all future performances.
Unfortunately for this writer’s timing, the wealth of information gathered in the course of researching this review, the sheer volume of possibilities in performance and the wider scope of historical and technical elements embraced by this work required a deeper reading and contemplation on my part. In short, it has taken some time for this reviewer to get a grasp of how to express the significance of the deeply substantive work at hand. I simply didn’t know enough about the history of electronic music and the work of this seminal musician.
So now, after some serious study, is my perspective on this landmark composition and, in particular, the deeper significance of this performance. In short, there will likely be many more performances of this work but this one will always be a standout. Not the ultimate version perhaps, but one of the most memorable.
David Tudor was a pianist who championed contemporary piano music and then began a career as a composer. But he was no ordinary composer. Taking inspiration from the composers whose work he championed, Tudor developed musical ideas with structures that contain indeterminate elements within a larger structure. Such is the case with Rainforest which was first developed in 1968 against a cultural backdrop of the height of the psychedelic sixties and the political “days of rage”, a time of artistic innovation like Allen Kaprow’s “happenings” which expanded the concepts of what constituted art, a time of wild experimentation. His work crossed paths with the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills College New Music Center). Tudor traversed some of the same territory as Donald Buchla, Pauline Oliveros, Maggie Payne, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, as well as many others.
The first iteration of Tudor’s innovative and experimental “Rainforest” was in 1968. It is a testament to Tudor’s creativity to have created a structure that contains the indeterminate sonic events called for in the score (not a formal score but a set of performance instructions) in such a way that the piece evolves with each iteration, each performance. That, rather than the varying sonic content, is the heart of this major work of contemporary sonic art.
First, this is a binaural recording, meaning that it was recorded with a technology intended to deliver the sound directly to headphones of the listener hopefully producing an experience much as would have been experienced by sitting in the audience. Earlier versions of this technology involved, basically, microphones embedded in the ear canals of an anthropomorphic head which is placed in front of the performance as a listener would sit in their seat. However, the present recording recording involved another generation of this technology which is particularly well suited to this music. Here the microphones are worn in the ears of the recordist as they meander through the space in which the piece is being performed. The result is the listener being able to (almost literally) get inside the head of the person wandering within the space and listening to the sounds created, sometimes at a distance, sometimes more closely.
Despite the entreaty that the listener wear headphones when listening to this recording (you really should try that at least once), one can play this recording as one would any other musical recording. It can also be appreciated by playing it on speakers in any space as a sort of sound installation. This piece challenges conventional concepts of music and its audience.
The late, great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (to those who don’t know the technology)”. A similar assertion can be said to be true of music. New music is a large and diverse repertoire that is difficult to navigate without some sort of guide to put those new sounds in context. And Charles Amirkhanian has, via his years as music director of KPFA and his stewardship as Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds (among the many hats he wears) has provided such guidance for interested listeners to new music since at least 1969.
In an unanticipated gesture of magnanimity there was, at the will call table, not the usual “items for sale”, rather there was a lovely free tote bag and a large selection of OM CDs there for the taking. Suffice it to say, I and many others went home heavier than we had arrived.
He and his hard working team (Blaine Todd, Associate Director; Mark Abramson, Creative Director; Liam Herb, Production Director; Adrienne Cardwell, Archivist; Andrew Weathers, Recordings Director; Jenny Maxwell, Business Manager; and Joseph Bohigian, Program Associate) have provided guides for adventurous listeners that have included interviews with musicians and composers, a record label dedicated to new music, and live lectures and performances of creative new music from all over the world. The annual Other Minds Festival (the 26th was presented earlier this year) has brought in a cornucopia of stellar performers with a knack for finding stars at the outset of their careers. Other Minds at 30 is truly one of the great joys of San Francisco and it’s environs.
This evening was one of the lecture recital variety. Kyle Gann, composer, writer, critic, musicologist, OM alum, and vice president of the Charles Ives Society was brought in to provide the lecture portion of the evening. In addition, this event was held at a major temple of new music in the Bay Area, Mills College (actually Amirkhanian’s alma mater). The beautiful Littlefield Concert Hall itself displays the striking work of California architect, Julia Morgan. Artistic spirits past and present were undoubtedly here this night in the history of this place as well as those artistic spirits present in the audience.
The program began with a brief discussion among Mr. Amirkhanian, Professor Gann, and maestro Hamelin. Then Gann took his place at the lectern and Hamelin took a seat at the piano where he had graciously agreed to perform musical excerpts to illustrate Gann’s lecture. Actually Gann has written a definitive and very readable book on the work destined for performance on this night. “Essays After a Sonata” (2017), the title a gentle pun in homage to composer Charles Ives who (in an unprecedented move) wrote a little book titled “Essays Before a Sonata” as a means of introducing his landmark Second Piano Sonata.
In addition to his wonderful book, Gann has had a long interest in the literature of the so called “Transcendentalists” who are the subject (or at least subtext) of this music. He even went as far as to suggest specific literary references implied in the music. The Second Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60, (written 1904 to 1915 with several subsequent revisions) is in four movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”. Gann provided a few concise illustrations in a rather brief talk that provided just enough context to assuage the uninitiated (if there were any in the audience, lol). Hamelin coordinated most amicably and then there was a short intermission.
Marc-Andre Hamelin (http://www.marcandrehamelin.com) was born in Montreal and is now based in Boston. His discography consists of over 80 albums. My own introduction to his artistry was his first release in 1988 of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Twelve New Etudes (1977-1986) and Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” (1943-47). His web site is worth your time and gives an idea of the sheer scope and acumen of his repertory choices. In fact his most recent releases include more from William Bolcom and a disc of his own compositions. In fact he gives fine performances of music from Mozart and Haydn to the present. Hamelin has performed the Concord Sonata numerous times and has recorded it twice. He performed this gargantuan work entirely from memory.
Hamelin gave an extremely focused and convincing performance, an exercise of both intellectual and physical stamina. The audience, due to their reverence for Ives, Hamelin, and the spirits present in the hall, sat in rapt attention with nary a squirm nor a cough (well, maybe one cough) to interrupt the flow of this landmark work of American modernism. Such was Hamelin’s thrall. The piece goes through a wide dynamic range and the soft pianissimo resonances could be heard as clearly as the Beethoven-esque heroic fortes. Hamelin took two curtain calls to a standing ovation of a very appreciative audience. Gann quipped at one point that he uses Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Sonata in his classes. It was easy to see why.
The fanciful subtitle of this release, “The Dance” is a follow up to the first volume titled, “In Nature” (a third volume titled, “At Play” is due out in March, 2023). These vague titles are fanciful and more connotative than specific. They seem to reflect the nature of the project and the nature of Sarah Cahill‘s style of conceptualizing what must be an overwhelming undertaking, Beginning with the simple concept of female composers (the term “neglected” would be redundant here) Cahill has produced a sweeping survey ranging from the baroque era (the earliest piece so far in this anthology is from 1687) to the present and her survey seems to know few geographical boundaries in this representative survey of keyboard music. Of course we are talking about basically the paradigm of western classical music but non-western influences are of course included via the composers’ individual talents. Many of these works were presented in Cahill’s fine YouTube series which can give listeners further clues to the pianist’s varied interests.
The cover art (which I had described as “drab” in the first review) now seems to aptly reflect the struggle for equality and now nicely represents this project in an iconic way with the same monochrome cover photo on each of the three volumes and a primary color panel with the disc title. Green for Volume I, Yellow for Volume II (I’m guessing “red” for Vol III?). This survey is shaping up to be an influential as well as hugely entertaining anthology.
What struck this listener is Cahill’s facility with both technique and interpretation of a mighty diverse set of pieces. Known primarily for her work with music written after 1950, she demonstrates in these recordings an impressive command of baroque, classical, romantic, and modern idioms. I have never heard her play Bach but I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her do the Goldberg Variations.
This was particularly striking in her reading of the keyboard suite that opens this release. This is apparently not the first recording of Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE‘s (1665-1729) Suite no. 1 in d minor (the complete suites for harpsichord were recorded by harpsichordist Carol Cerasi in 1998) but Cahill seems to channel the spirits of the pioneering efforts of Wanda Landowska and Rosalyn Tureck whose abilities to play harpsichord music effectively on the modern piano helped set the standard for this practice in the twentieth century and beyond. This late French baroque suite is a thoroughly engaging way to draw the listener in. With echoes of Bach and Couperin this virtually unknown composer is seriously engaging and substantive. This recording includes five (of nine) movements of the suite. One hopes to hear more of this woman’s music and Cahill is very much up to the task of providing a definitive performance.
With the next track we hear the music of Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896), better known as the wife of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Clara was in fact a highly accomplished virtuoso and composer whose works are only now getting the recognition they deserve. The piece chosen here is her Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op. 20. These seven variations were a gift for her husband on his 43rd birthday in 1853. Sadly it was to be the last birthday he would celebrate with his family. Robert Schumann was infamously institutionalized in 1854 and died in 1856. The work has all the splendor of high romanticism with the virtuosity associated with the great composer/pianists (Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Rubinstein, et al). And, as with the previous piece, Cahill seems very at home in her reading of this wonderful set of variations.
Germaine TAILLEFERE (1892-1983) is next up with her three movement partita of 1957. The title “Partita” suggests a connection with the baroque suite which opens this collection. The connection is one of form, not harmony or melody. The three movements here are “Perpetuum Mobile”, “Notturno”, and “Allegramente”. Taillefere, who is perhaps best known for her lively Harp Concertino of 1927, was the only female member of France’s celebrated “Les Six” (the other members were, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc). This largely neoclassical group of composers developed their styles in the shadow of Debussy and Ravel. Cahill’s first album was a fine reading of Ravel’s piano music and she is very much in her element with this delightful three movement work which echoes Ravel to some degree,
Zenobia POWELL PERRY (1908-2004) is the first composer in this collection to be born in the twentieth century. She was a black composer/conductor/pianist and teacher. Her work appeared before in this blog in coverage of her opera “Tarawa House” which was given a revival in Modesto, CA in 2014. Her “Rhapsody” (1960) is in a sort of Neo-romantic style with some challenging virtuosity required. This is a fine introduction to her work which deserves serious reassessment and more performances. Musicologist Jeannie Gayle Pool continues to publish, preserve, and advocate for this neglected American artist. Pool maintains the website for this composer and is a useful, informative site,
Madeleine DRING (1923-1977), a British composer/pianist, a new name to this writer, is characterized by her use of popular and jazz idioms. Cahill here plays two (of five) movements of her “Color Suite” (1963). This whets the listener’s appetite for more of this interesting composer whose work was well known during her career but whose star has dimmed since her passing. Dring is one of many women composers of that era whose work, though influential, has not been incorporated into the repertory of contemporary classical musicians.
Betsy JOLAS (1926- ), a French born American composer whose career has included work as a composer, pianist, and teacher. No stranger to the Bay Area, Jolas taught at UC Berkeley and Mills College as well as Harvard and Yale. The listener accessible nature of her music belies the innovation and complexities it contains. Though she has been recognized throughout her career her work is due for a new reckoning. Her brief “Tango Si” (1984) is entertaining and sufficiently compelling to spark interest in her work going forward.
Elena KATS-CHERNIN (1957- ) hails from Uzbekistan and migrated to Australia where she studied at the New South Wales Conservatorium and subsequently with Helmut Lachenmann in Germany. Kats-Chernin has been a prolific composer and is now perhaps mid-career and, happily, pretty well known. “Peggy’s Rag” (1996) is one of a set of several rags written between 1995 and 1999. This work is dedicated to Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), another artist, another female composer deserving of a revival.
Meredith MONK (1942- ) has long been one of this reviewer’s favorite “downtown” composers whose initial musical ventures were first heard in her New York SOHO loft. She, along with other rising stars, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Phill Klein, Rhys Chatham, etc., are now the historically recognized mavericks who’s creative ideas formed in contrast to the power elite of the “uptown” composers heard commonly at Lincoln Center.
Monk was initially trained as a dancer and that has been evident in most of her output. But she is perhaps best known for her exploration of extended vocal techniques (which she also teaches). It is fitting that her “St. Petersburg Waltz” (1997) is included in this dance themed installment of music by women composers. Despite being an “east coast” composer initially, Monk has achieved international recognition and has a particularly large following in the Bay Area. No surprise then that our pianist guide in this journey has a long standing familiarity with Monk’s work. Cahill demonstrates her grasp of Monk’s minimalist inflected style most admirably and, as in the preceding tracks, leaves the listener wanting more.
Gabriela ORTIZ (1964) is a Mexican composer. Born in Mexico, trained in England, and now teaching in Mexico. Her light shines brightly even in the glare of the heavily politicized immigration issues that dominate the media and is another in a long line of world class composers from that underrated country. Ortiz, in addition to her academic appointments, has produced a large number of works in multiple formats from piano and chamber music, to orchestral, dance, and opera. Her work draws in part on the folk music traditions she absorbed in her childhood and she has amassed a significant number of international commissions and recordings.
Ortiz is also an accomplished pianist and the work chosen here is “Preludio y Estudio No. 3″(2011), one of four two part compositions. Cahill’s brief but useful notes provide the listener with her personal insights to the underlying complexities that drive this music. The incorporation of folk and non-classical elements has been embraced by composers for hundreds of years and Ortiz succeeds in incorporating such elements into her personal style,. As with all of these works, Cahill produces interpretations that, if not absolutely definitive (there are always detractors) stand as a challenge to subsequent interpreters, a necessary element in such a grand project.
This volume ends with the most recently composed work by the youngest composer of the lot, Theresa WONG (1976- ). Wong, a graduate of Mills College, is cherished performer in the Bay Area and beyond, As both composer and performer she has maintained an active schedule and has produced a great deal of music documented in a large and growing discography. Her collaborations have included many of the established Bay Area artistic royalty (including Ms. Cahill, of course).
“She Dances Naked Under the Palm Trees” (2019) is a composition for which the backstory (provided in Cahill’s notes) is particularly useful for the listener. It is the incorporation of extramusical ideas and musical. quotation that drive the drama here to some extent.. The music certainly stands on its own but the addition of the technical insights will send the listener back for repeated hearings and the music will guide the listener to seek more of the work of this wonderful artist whose star continues to rise.
The last disc in this landmark anthology (due next year) will ultimately contain only a portion of the approximately 70 pieces which Cahill has chosen. Like her previous anthology (of politically influenced music) “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013, the limitations of time and money prevent a more complete vision of said anthologist but there is more than enough to provoke further interest by listeners and artists and isn’t that the point?
I have attended nearly every OM annual concert series since 2012. But pesky adult responsibilities intervened for the last few years. Having had to miss OM 25 due to my out of town work I resolved to make it to OM 26 now that I am back in California. However circumstances conspired such that I was only able to make one night of this essential new music festival.
I do plan to listen to the archived audio and video streams which Other Minds now provides. but nothing can truly take the place of live performances. And, in addition to providing some wonderful sonic ear candy, there is the spectacle of the performances themselves. On top of that, these performances have showcased many wonderful performance spaces such as the The Jewish Community Center, The SF Jazz Center to name a few of them. OM 26 was held at the historic Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, a venue known for presenting traditional Chinese Opera (in fact Chinese Opera continues to be on the bill for this charming little performance space).
A heavy fog enveloped the northern end of the city as I approached the venue but the sun greeted me when I reached my destination. According to their website this theater is “Located in San Francisco’s renowned Chinatown, the historic Great Star Theater is a one-of-a-kind venue. Built in 1925, this traditional proscenium stage live theater was originally home to Cantonese Opera and Hong Kong kung-fu movies. Recently under new management and newly renovated and revitalized, it now features a variety of theatrical, musical, circus, and motion pictures for a new generation.”
The 438 seat theater was more than adequate to accommodate the small but fervent crowd of Other Minds fans. There were seats to be had but the small audience was a highly appreciative one willing to open themselves to the adventure of new music curated by Charles Amirkhanian who has presided over the new music scene of the Bay Area ever since his tenure as classical music director of radio station KPFA which began in 1969. The Fresno native studied at Mills College, earning an MFA in 1980. While his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992, his involvement in new music productions continued. During that time he recorded interviews with nearly every area composer and musician as well as a panoply of international artists. His gentle, friendly manner along with his mellifluous resonant baritone voice (one that looms large in his sound poetry) has served him well in radio and in his large catalog of interviews. He founded Other Minds in 1992 with television producer (now president emeritus of Other Minds) Jim Newman.
What I Missed
In this 26th incarnation of this iconic series of new music concerts the following were presented on the first concert:
Missing this fabulous first night was a painful experience. Theresa Wong is a fine musician/performer from the Bay Area. Her name, of course, occurs elsewhere in the pages of this blog, She is not to be missed as composer, as cellist, as performer.
Mari Kimura, no stranger to Other Minds fans, is one whose work I do not know. But it is by introduction of stunningly intelligent and skilled artists such as this one that the OM fan can safely put on their collective and individual radar, sure that their/our attention is not misspent.
Pulitzer Prize Winner Raven Chacon is one of those fine artists about whom Other Minds (aka Mr. Amirkhanian) can say “I told you so,” If you studied your emails you will find a link to an OM interview with maestro Chacon. He is a Native American (Navajo Nation) musician whose experiments caught the eye/ear of OM and resulted in an appearance and interview. How wonderful for him to return in his post Pulitzer appearance.
Guillermo Galindo is a respected Bay Area musician, sound designer, conceptual artist, and teacher. He is one you want to keep your ear/eye on. His unique instincts visually and sonically are a good bet in his performances. Paired with Chacon? How can you go wrong?
The Harmonic Canon
LARS PETTER HAGEN 10 Svendsen Romances, Seven Studies in Sadness, Diabelli Cadenza, Coda
And the grand finale, always the one you go to if you can’t make them all, the third night:
Dominic Murcott (who appears as percussionist/conductor on evening two) is one who, by a glimpse of his online CV, immediately was placed on high listening/reading priority in my links list. It will forever be a “one that got away” story for this absent fan. The bell and the backstory are alone worth the price of the ticket,
Lars Petter Hagen is a new name to this writer, a warning shot across my bow from OM. The Sternberg/Cahill duo here performing this composer’s work are also a guarantee of fine performance,
Kui Dong is another esteemed Bay Area artist whose work has long had a productive affiliation with OM. Any new work or recording of her work is a cause for attention. Her work for the Prism Percussion Duo was doubtless a substantive experience.
There is a link provided for each of the artists for the reader’s convenience. Please do click those links and explore further. I know I certainly will,
What I Did See and Hear
The concert began with the stylings of Hanna Hartman, a Berlin based Swedish composer who favors old and lower tech electronics. In this digital age with access to incredibly complex synthesizers and other sound technology, Hartman (at least here) worked with a Buchla 200 synthesizer and a selection of recorded and live sounds which were processed and created what sounded to my ears like a live performance of a tape composition. Quite a feat.
Standing at a table stage left covered with electronic and non-electronic devices she looked like the host of a cooking show live mixing sounds into a logical flow which were projected in stereo to the audience.
The performance had her draped in multicolored tubes which she used to blow into and create sounds in miked containers of water. She stood actuating materials on her table that might have come from an erector construction set and/or a “Mouse Trap” game (familiar to listeners of a certain age) and which resulted in a veritable barrage of sound which moved from one speaker to another but created an immersive and room dominating flow of sounds.
It might best be called a sound collage. It seemed to be guided by a program or sequence much as any musical composition. The sounds, sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes more drone like and serene, were engaging. And the curious image of her working with these various materials sometimes seemed indirectly connected to the sounds heard. It was as if the chef’s culinary efforts had taken on a sonic life of their own.
Though baffling at times the audience and this writer were very appreciative as the music revealed its internal logic. We had been introduced to yet another interesting artist by the Other Minds experience.
Then after just a bit of stage arranging Joëlle Léandre and Lauren Newton took the stage for a set of improvisations on double bass and voice. Going from the retro electronics and electroacoustic to good old live analog sound was a contrast.
These two brought an intense energy to the stage in a sort of cosmic cabaret. Newton is a classically trained singer who now performs (at least on this night) a sort of glossolalia of non linguistic sounds in league with co-improviser Léandre.
Joëlle Léandre is a double bass player with skills sufficient to have had her included in the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez’ “Ensemble Intercontemporaine”. Boulez was a very demanding and exacting man. Léandre was also influenced by hearing the work of the AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians), a Chicago based group which introduced African musical ideas into modern western performances.
Call it “free jazz”, “new classical”, or whatever you choose. These new sounds and performance styles launched the double bass player to another world and another career as an improvising musician.
Well, these two women brought a wild shared creative energy to the stage. In a set of (if I counted correctly) five separate improvisations they traded with Léandre beginning, then Newton beginning, and clearly demonstrated a comfortable relationship between themselves as performers. The set went from moments of angst to moments of gentle humor to virtually indescribable moments which all shared an intimate connection between the performers as well as the audience.
Léandre compelled a variety of sounds ranging from standard bowed string sounds to ethereal harmonics, percussive sounds, and even her own vocalizations. Newton’s instrument (her voice) seemed to channel a mysterious range of sounds from whispers to glossolalia, to almost words. She and Léandre seemed possessed by dance like movements and hand gestures resembling those of raga singers all of which were a part of a truly engaging performance.
After that intense experience the audience was allowed a brief intermission to recover and be able to focus on the final performance of the evening. From the electric to the acoustic we moved, perhaps inevitably, to the electroacoustic.
Yes, THAT Charles Amirkhanian, the voice of OM. In addition to his leadership work with the various aspects of OM, he is a much respected composer/sound artist, His astute advocacy of the up and coming voices presented via OM are an enduring legacy. Here is an exciting local premiere performance of a major opus.
Amirkhanian noted his earliest compositional inspirations to have been a result of his experience with being a drummer in the high school marching band. So that kind of gives you a clue as to this unusual orchestration.
Add to that his unique take on sound poetry, his skills with tape manipulation, sound samples, etc. and this multi movement work takes on an epic proportion. I reprint the liner notes below but my personal experience is as follows:
“Ratchet Attach It” (2021)by Charles Amirkhanian is a large multi movement work for eight percussionists and sound samples. It is a piece which succeeds on many levels. The composer’s background (and clearly cherished) experience as a percussionist is the most obvious driving force and framework but the inclusion of his sound art, use of language as both sound and syntax interpolated between and sometimes with the live musicians performance. The electronic interpolations are, whether intended or not, a sort of nod to Edgar Varese’ “Deserts”. Their function within the composition however, are quite different.
There is a characteristic humor which runs through much of Amirkhanian’s work. His gentle defiance of drum cadence structures and doubtless other performance conventions in this work become transformed via caricature, a sort of personal nod to fellow percussionists. They are punctuated with a variety of audio intrusions between and sometimes within movements. These intrusions are autobiographical and nostalgic as they refer or connote respectful homages of fellow artists as noted in the very useful program notes. These are not actually intrusions as much as connecting audio cadences as a sort of mortar for the deconstructing drum cadences that dominate the music’s structure. It takes on a character of ringing changes in bell ringing but that is deconstructed as well,
There are a panoply of examples of the concept of humor in music at work here but as I am not a musicologist I will restrict my examples to the most obvious. In what may also be gentle parody, the conductor, Mr, Murcott, traveled between podium and fellow drummer leading the orchestra as did Mozart and Beethoven, with their instrument close by. Other players did their share of marching around in a visual ballet as they carried various bells that they played before returning to their assigned snare stations. A large bass drum asserted itself from back center in the ensemble, This was a disciplined performance making a strong case for the music. Quite a spectacle and maybe an “audicle” (sound spectacle) as well.
Replete with multiple references to personal and historical events as well as quasi minimalist manipulations of drum cadences in a live action electroacoustic visual and sonic event. It is a remarkably seamless mix of electric and acoustic, a major achievement. Dead serious but with great joy and humor.
The composer’s notes here add much to the appreciation of this complex work:
I – The U.S. Army Postal Unit at Blandford, Dorset, 1944 When it became apparent during World War II that Hitler’s Germany would take a route through Blandford to attack England, the bar- racks from WWI were re-activated and popu- lated, in large measure, by U.S. Army personnel starting in 1943. The following year, my 29-year- old father Ben, the commander of a unit of men assigned to sort the mail sent from the U.S. to England and Continental Europe, arrived to be- gin work in Dorset. On the weekends, the com- mander had the privilege of driving some of his men around for sightseeing, from Stonehenge, to Piccadilly Square, to Edinburgh. Ben’s enthu- siasm for the people of England, the landscape and its history, is evident in his many letters home to my mother who was about to give birth to me in January 1945.
II – In Praise of the Venerable Piano Roll
The wonders of music made available to many non-performers in the early 20th Century by the invention of the player piano brought an unimag- inable thrill of excitement to so many. Before the days of high-fidelity sound recording, hearing the acoustic sounds of an actual piano, playing note-perfect renditions of classical and popular repertoire in one’s own home, was a profound-
ly mesmerizing experience. Snare drummers everywhere will welcome the chance to honor this signal achievement with a roll of their own. My thanks to Dominic Murcott for suggesting that the percussion repertoire lacked a single piece comprised solely of the sounds of drum rolls.
III – Ticklish Licorice
This movement comprises a quick-time perfor- mance of the novelty piece Flying Moments, by Leo Livens (1896-1990), accompanied by crystalline bell sounds from the percussionists. Livens, in his day, was a renowned British composer of light music. Here the player piano is useful in brightening up the music with a high-speed rendition of this playful music, performed in a studio recording by Rex Lawson with his usu- al nuance and panaache on the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand at Dulwich College in 1994—John Whiting, sound engineer.
IV – Chatteratchet
The sound up close of a concert orchestral ratch- et can be hair-raising. Also, full of bird-chirping- like overtones. I learned this early on by accident while sitting in the enclosed cab of my Volkswa- gen bug and turning the handle of this ear-split- ting instrument. I decided to compose a solo for amplified ratchet, followed by duos, an octet, and other combinations over the years. The act of playing this mechanical instrument somehow relates, for me, to the mechanism of the player piano, with its constant rotating of the paper roll on which music has been encoded. The ratchet came to mind in relation to Spitalfields and the history there of tailoring. My only visit to the neighborhood came some years ago when I visited the offices of my friend Timothy Everest, bespoke tailor. In this quartet for four amplified ratchets, much of the work is devoted to the practice of turning the instrument’s handle con- tinuously, but at the slowest possible speed. The counterpoint between the instruments literally is out of the control of the players due to the nature of the spokes and their response to the turning crank, resulting in an interesting irregularity.
V – Hopper Popper
Numerous different ethnicities produced piano rolls of their own folk and popular music, includ- ing my people, the Armenians. Here is a roll of the love song “Haperpan” (a woman’s name), with its irregular phrase structure, augmented by our percussionists with wire brushes on the snare drum heads. The rhythmic irregularities in the cutting of the roll are especially interesting, if subtle.
VI – Exculpatorium
An excuplatorium (a word I coined) would be a large, highly reverberant room where elder- ly snare drummers (and The Blue Man Group) must go to be absolved of their youthful sins of exhibitionism. As my first original compositions were relatively sedate marching band drum ca- dences, unlike some later more flamboyant and theatrical Fluxus-inspired pieces, I return to my pedestrian roots in this movement.
VII – To the Riled Wrecks
In 1896, the American composer Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) and his wife Marian purchased a lovely rural farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. MacDowell immediately set about writing a series of short piano pieces he titled Woodland Sketches, Op. 51. One of these, “To a Wild Rose,” heard here, was a favorite of my piano teacher mother Eleanor’s. I’d often request it from her as music to go to sleep to when I was seven and just beginning myself
to study piano. Rex Lawson here performs an 88-note roll of the music on a pianola adjust- ed to a setting for rolls that contain only 65 notes across the width of the roll, with crushing results.
VIII – Dominictrix
This solo for snare drum was composed for my invaluable collaborator in the composition and world premiere of Ratchet Attach It, Dominic Murcott. I incorporate some of his favorite licks— thus, Dominic tricks.
IX – Bum of the Flightlebee
This backwards rendition of the Rimsky-Kor- sakov favorite The Flight of the Bumblebee is played by Rex Lawson by reversing the physical roll on the spindle. This piece is the only one I’ve
discovered that is both interesting and recogniz- able in any of the four possible performances of the paper roll—forward, backward, and each of those with treble to bass reversed.
X – Pedestrian
The most memorable drum cadence ever, in my experience, was written for and played at the funeral of the American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 25, 1963. Its somber use of strictly regular rhythm capped by a dotted figure still haunts me, long after I heard it at the age of eighteen during the day-long event televised nationally from Washington, D.C. Using an additive process of extending the roll figure, and doubling it with the grating sounds of ratchets, resulted in this variation on a most memorable walking tune.
XI – Tyrannus Rex
Three piano rolls played by Rex Lawson com- prise the core of this concluding movement: The Tarantella from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos in an arrangement made by the composer, Percy Grainger’s roll of his own Molly on the Shore, and a roll of the popular song from 1933, “Stormy Weather,” by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler, on an 88-note roll played while shifting back and forth between 65- and 88-note settings on the pianola. Percussion em- bellishments orchestrated by Dominic Murcott lend an added spatial dimension.
MEMBERS OF THE OTHER MINDS ENSEMBLE
JEREMY STEINKOLER, DIRECTOR
DOMINIC MURCOTT, CONDUCTOR
ANDREW GRIFFIN ANDREW LEWIS CLAY MELISH ROWAN NYKAMP ERIKA OBA BRIAN RICE DAWN RICHARDSON KEITH TERRY
They played their hearts out. And I’m sure glad I didn’t miss this epic night,
William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.
This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.
The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.
Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.
Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.
While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.
This is another entry in an ongoing series of music for piano trio by the tried and true Lincoln Trio. In this fine release they play a delightful collection of five works (three are world premiere recordings) by living composers. This is their eighth Cedille release by my count. It is the second recording of piano trios from Chicago based composers, a follow up to their previous survey of early to mid-twentieth century piano trios, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders.
The five works presented here are but a sampling of the available repertoire from Chicago based composers. That said it is a fine sampling of the current state of the art and one would do well to explore more of the music of all these composers.
The first selection is the three movement, “city beautiful” (2021) by the American composer of Nigerian/American Heritage, Shawn E. Okpebholo (1981- ), a world premiere recording. The title is taken from that of the 19th century initiative that helped build the now familiar skyline which had been ravaged by the 1871 Chicago Fire.
Okpebholo is no stranger to this blog. His fine album of spiritual arrangements Steal Away (2016), and his contributions to Will Liverman’s album, “Dreams of a New Day” (2021) revealed his interest in and expertise with spirituals and art song. “city beautiful” by contrast is essentially three tone poems inspired by Chicago architecture, perhaps one of the city’s finest distinctions. The three movements, aqua, prairie, and burnham are effectively homages to architects Jeanne Gang (whose Aqua Tower is a most recent major addition to the famous skyline), Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Robie House is a classic example of the “prairie school” design), and Daniel Burnham (whose 19th century designs define the famously beautiful lakefront and the iconic Union Station).
Opkebholo’s idiom is basically tonal and could be characterized as post romantic. But regardless of how you categorize it the music is eminently listener friendly and a fine vehicle for the estimable Lincoln Trio. This is the work of a rapidly emerging composer with both substance and style. Keep his name on your radar. I expect to hear much more from this talented and prolific composer who currently holds a professorship at Wheaton College in that western suburb of Chicago.
Next is a two movement work by Augusta Read Thomas (1964- ) entitled, “…a circle around the sun” (2021). This work was a commission by the Children’s Memorial Foundation for the Amelia Piano Trio in honor of George D. Kennedy. Thomas has long been a fixture in Chicago’s music life where she was a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony from 1997-2006. She is currently professor of music at the University of Chicago and a former professor at Northwestern University. Her work also tends toward the tonal idiom and this rather brief two movement work is a fine example of her writing for chamber ensemble.
“Soliloquy” (2003) by the truly fine, if still too little known, Shulamit Ran (1949- ), an Israeli born American composer. She was a student of the esteemed Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony (1990). The composer states in her liner notes that the origins of this work come from her opera “Dybbuk”. It is a pleasant piece perhaps less complex and more lyrical in sound than some of her larger works. Ran was professor of music at the University of Chicago from 1973 to her retirement in 2015.
Mischa Zupko (1971- ) contributes the briefest work to this collection. Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Fanfare 80” (2010) was written in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago. The brevity here belies the complexities within this ear catching piece.
The album concludes with a substantial two movement work (just over 23 minutes), “Sanctuary” by Stacy Garrop (1969- ) is the work of another prolific composer whose work is, happily, getting much deserved recognition. The 2016 recording of her wonderful orchestral work was reviewed in these pages. Garrop’s work is invariably kinetic and deeply felt with a dramatic flair. Garrop was on the composition faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago from 2000 to 2016 and is now a freelance composer.
The usual audiophile production (Bill Maylone, engineer) which characterizes Cedille releases is evident here. This is a fine sampling of music which is roughly representative of the musical riches producer James Ginsburg has mined from the “city beautiful”.
Who? and Who? American composer Alvin Curran (1938- ) returns to his roots…well, some of his roots, in this streaming composition, a tribute to German dramaturge Achim Freyer (1934- ). Curran’s composition, a tribute to the dramatist/costume designer/stage director, is presented in streaming format via Deutschlandradio. and is available at the following link:
I mention the link to allow my readers to access the program stream so as to be able to hear the work (obviously) but also because Maestro Curran has been at the forefront of adopting social media as both a medium for access and distribution for his compositions but also as a part of the the work (at least in the Mc Luhan-esque sense, “the medium is the message”). More details on Curran’s work can be found on his excellent website.
His Kristallnacht memorial work, “Crystal Psalms”, used multiple radio stations with performers in each location throughout northern Europe which Curran mixed live for the broadcast, the final mix released on CD format is a classic of the genre and a powerful sociopolitical statement. The point is that Curran continues to be at the forefront of integrating current technology in his art. His distinctly personal use of synthesizers, sampling keyboards, and other electronics continues to characterize his creative process.
Achim Freyer became known to me when I saw Michael Blackwood‘s film, “A Composer’s Notes…” (1985) which documented two simultaneous staging of Philip Glass’ opera “Akhnaten” by the geographically distant opera companies who co-commissioned the work. The Houston Opera production was designed by David Freeman, and the Stuttgart production by Achim Freyer. Freeman cast the work in a realistic historical tableau in ancient Egypt whereas Freyer’s designs evoked a sort of hallucinatory, dreamlike, mythical set of images. Both are beautiful and quite viable productions but they are very different visions. It is that very different vision that characterizes Freyer’s work and gets him the accolades that drive the commissioning of Curran’s tribute. This musical tribute now is added to the metaphorical mantle where Freyer’s accolades reside. You can also download an audio MP3 here.
When you listen to the streaming version or the conveniently downloadable MP3 you will be greeted by about 5 minutes of German language narration followed by approximately 35 minutes of Curran’s sound collage work incorporating the composer’s unique approach to the inclusion of digital sampling technologies along with his extensive knowledge of electronic sound production and manipulation.
Like any great work of art this work will have varying impacts and leave a variety of impressions. Beginning with the playful title it is doubtless full of referential quotes that probably rival Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” (1899) or the panoply of quotations in Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968-9). Don’t get me wrong, this streamed work is very different than either of these predecessors. Rather it appears to be a sonic portrait using concrete sounds alongside musical sounds to create an impressionistic tableau of Herr Freyer. The composition is reflective of Curran’s “New Common Practice” concept in which the composer is free to use whatever sounds and techniques he or she chooses to complete a musical piece.
Even a cursory look at Alvin Curran’s oeuvre reveals the incredible diversity of his compositional sound sources. From conversations, to creaking doors, footsteps, musical snippets, and the sound of the ethnic/mythic shofar (the ram’s horn has become a signature sound for the composer). They are all mixed carefully (this sounds like a carefully crafted collage) to create a non-linear narrative or sonic poem in tribute to an artist and a mutually beneficial friendship between Curran and Freyer. Please forgive my admittedly clumsy appropriation of Friedrich Schiller (in turn via Beethoven) when I say, in my limited German, a phrase which can be said to characterize both the composer’s work and that of its subject Achim Freyer: The final embrace, the feeling at the end of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as the chorus sings: “Diese Kunst umfasst die ganze Welt” (This Art embraces the entire World).
This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.
Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.
The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.
The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.
The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.
“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.
The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.
This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.
Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.
The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.
The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.
They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.
The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.
These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.
Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.
With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.
The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.
Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.
The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.
Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.