Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


klucevsek

Starkland ST-225

As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do.  The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century.  It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.

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Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

Guy Klucevsek  (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s.  He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh.  He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts.  His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat.  He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities.  The accordion will never be the same.

Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label).  He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule.  He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.

transoft

Starkland ST-225

freerange

Starkland ST-209

Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.

polkfringe

Starkland ST-218

The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga.  His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world.  Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.

On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface.  What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed.  To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann.  You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.

Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording.  Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians.  Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.

The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds.  Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music.  There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.

Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano.  No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.

The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels.  William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer.  Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.

Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit.  The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums.  Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks.   Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.

The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end.  Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.

As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones.  Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia.  This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved.  Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.

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Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein.  Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin.  Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown.  All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.

Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.

 

The Varieties of E#, a new Elliott Sharp Release on Starkland


Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp

I think the first time I heard of Elliott Sharp was when a friend played a vinyl copy of 1988s Larynx. I later got hooked on the delightfully noisy string quartets of 1987s Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup. With 89 albums to his credit (according to discogs.com) Sharp writes and plays music in a range of styles and for a range of ensembles.

Only two years older than John Zorn their musical paths are similar in that they both learned multiple instruments as children. While they are both incredibly creative, intelligent and productive artists, Sharp initially took a more traditionally academic path while Zorn is largely self taught (an amazing feat in itself).

Sharp studied music, anthropology, improvisation and electronic music with teachers like Benjamin Boretz, Roswell Rudd, Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller. His music frequently uses Fibonacci numbers, fractals, chaos theory and genetic metaphors. His collaborators have included blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Qawalli singer Nusret Fateh Ali Khan (and many others) and practically a who’s who of the Downtown New York scene.

He produced the Nonesuch album of Ornette Coleman covers by John Zorn (Spy vs. Spy, 1988) which is definitely worth a listen. It is one of a series of such recordings of covers of various artists which have also included Ennio Morricone among others.

The present recording comprises works written between 2004-2008 and, like the previous release of music by Martin Bresnick (reviewed previously in this blog here), comprises a sort of snapshot of the composer’s recent work. Like the Bresnick disc this recording samples Sharp’s writing for a variety of ensembles and is an effective portrait of his mature style.

As a long-standing performer in the New York downtown scene Sharp experimented with a variety of compositional and  instrumental techniques consistent with his scientific interests.  Now such experimentation by itself is of little interest except on a theoretical level but what we hear in the works in this recording is a composer who has integrated these techniques into a sound that is pretty uniquely identifiable as Elliott Sharp much as J.S. Bach’s techniques are easily recognizable in identifying that composer.

The first work (and the one that lends its title to the album) is The Boreal (2008).  It is the most recent of the compositions and is another chapter in Sharp’s reinvention of string quartet writing.  Written for the noted JACK quartet, it involves the use of different types of non-traditional bows fashioned by the composer and creates sounds full of harmonics. It is probably unlike any string quartet music you have ever heard and it expands the notion of what that traditional classical ensemble can do.  The recording, though recorded live at the Ostrava Festival, is remarkably free of ambient noise which allows the listener to hear the subtleties of the rather wide dynamic range to be heard without the interference.  The work resides in more or less the same sound world as his other quartets and its four movements seem to follow logically creating a conceptual whole as with any of the more conventional quartets in the repertory.

Jenny Lin

Jenny Lin

The second work, Oligosono (2004) is for solo piano.  As the liner notes tell us it is Sharp’s application of extended instrumental techniques which he developed on his guitars to the piano (a pretty interesting accomplishment).  It is written for and played by the wonderful Jenny Lin who navigates the inside of the piano as well as the keyboard in some rhythmically complex and virtuosic playing.  She executes the three movements with seeming ease.

Paul Erdös "Erdos head budapest fall 1992" by Topsy Kretts - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg#/media/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg

Paul Erdös

Now we come to the composer’s work for larger ensembles.  Proof of Erdös (2006) is named for the mathematician Paul Erdös (1913-1996) perhaps most famous for the Erdös Number which is an indicator of the degree of separation a given person has with another (Erdös’ number would be a zero and his direct collaborators would be a one.  I’m guessing my Erdös Number with regard to Mr. Sharp would probably be at best a three for having reviewed this album).

Proof of Erdös is a four movement work written for Orchestra Carbon (one of Sharp’s various ensembles) and it is ably conducted by the American composer/conductor David Bloom.  It is a studio recording.  The work shares some of the sound world of the last piece on the album but the ensemble is more of a chamber group than the full orchestra but produces a similarly large and complex sonic image.

On Corlear’s Hook (2007) is a work for full orchestra and, for this reviewer, it is a great opportunity to hear Sharp’s ability to write for large orchestra.  It’s title is taken from a the lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan where Sharp resided with his family.  As the composer says in the notes there is no attempt to be programmatic or pictorial that the music is, “a reflection of the spectra of my existence (there) from one frequency band to another”.

The performance by the fine Janacek Philharmonic is conducted by the German conductor Peter Rundel (1958- ). Rundel, whose credits include a Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the works of Jean Barraque (1928-1973), delivers a convincing performance of this tour de force.  The four movements, reflecting Sharp’s “spectra” coalesce to a unity which suggests that this piece could easily be called “symphony” if one wanted to use that apparently dated term.  The audience seems attentive or at least respectfully quiet which makes for a pretty definitive recording.

A great debt is acknowledged here to the fine work of the Ostrava Days festival under the guidance of Petr Kotik (1942- ) for curating this amazing annual new music event.  There are very useful liner notes by legendary boundary defying cellist (and sometime Sharp collaborator) Frances-Marie Uitti.   Sharp himself provides notes in the accompanying booklet. As usual with Starkland the recording is of very high quality and Tom Steenland’s gift for graphic design (using an 1888 photo of electrical “effluvia” from the surface of a coin) is well suited to represent the contents of the recording.

The Boreal Starkland ST-222

The Boreal
Starkland ST-222

Like many of Starkland’s releases this album challenges the listener but meeting that challenge and giving this a serious listen is ultimately very rewarding.  This is a fine example of a composer whose work deserves to be better known and this is a good sampling of some of his most refined work.  Hopefully this release will help to position Sharp as a composer with roots in the downtown improv scene who has taken his experimentation successfully into the larger world of the contemporary classical scene.