Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Shida Shahabi, a Fresh New Voice


This EP released by UK label Fatcat Records managed to traverse the World Wide Web to my sympathetic ears last week. This is my first experience reviewing a release solely on the SoundCloud platform. No EPK, sparse liner notes, never heard of the artist or label. I have no idea why I decided to check this one out but I’m glad I did.

These five tracks which can be described as new music, ambient, drone, perhaps even the edges of spectral. The tracks reminded this listener of the late, great, and still under appreciated New York based artist Elodie Lauten. Shahabi, described as a Swedish-Iranian pianist and composer joins with her friend, cellist Linnea Olsson to create some very compelling post minimalist/ambient/drone new music that compels attention in a manner similar to Lauten’s early independent releases on her Cat Collectors label (what is it with this cat theme?

Here are the liner notes:

A wonderfully immersive suite of five stunning new tracks, ‘Shifts’ expands upon Swedish-Iranian pianist / composer Shida Shahabi’s debut album and confirms her as a genuine new force in contemporary piano music.

Without radically departing from the ‘Homes’ blueprint, this time around her pallette is expanded, with the opening three tracks seeing the prominent addition of cello, intertwining with piano to provide a powerfully emotive sweep and drone. These parts were provided by Linnea Olsson, who Shida calls “an old musician friend of mine and without a doubt the best cellist I know in Sweden.”

Recorded by Shida and Elias Krantz, the record was mixed by Hampus Norén and mastered at Calyx by Francesco Donadello (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Modeselektor & Thom Yorke, A winged Victory for the Sullen, Dustin O’Halloran, Lubomyr Melnyk, Hauchka, etc).

In an attempt to get ahead of the inundation of my review requests I’m presenting this curiosity briefly and will leave curious listeners to do their own research into the origins, training, etc of this composer/performer. I will, however, keep an ear/eye out for this composer, these artists, and this delightfully odd little label. You should too. Brava, Ms. Shahabi. Keep up the good work. Continue reading

More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


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Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything).  This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.

This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns.  The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.

Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world.  He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland.  The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing.  He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc.  His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.

The first presentation was perhaps the most striking.  Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording.  He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this).  He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing.  When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished.  What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.

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Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.

One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason.  The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way.  This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.

Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places.  What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually.  The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.

There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers.  But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition.  Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.

It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world.  Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination.  All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.