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.
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,
Isaac Schankler billed on their own website as “composer, etc.” clearly has a sense of humor but that characterization is as good as any to describe this composer, performer, teacher, writer. Suffice it to say it is worth your time to check out that web site.
Schankler’s name and music are new to this writer’s eyes/ears bit it is delightful to make the acquaintance of this artist via the present release. Three electroacoustic works are presented. Schankler does the electronics and an array of musicians play the acoustic instruments.
Isaac Schankler (from the composer’s web site)
The combination of acoustic instruments with electronics (fixed and/or interactive) goes back at least to Edgar Varese and has practitioners which include Mario Davidovsky, David Behrman, Milton Babbitt, and a host of others too numerous to discuss within the scope of this review. The point is that Schankler seems to be a part of these traditions and has developed a personal way to work with this hybrid medium.
One of the problems this writer has experienced while trying to understand and write meaningfully about electronic music (with or without acoustic instruments) is that textbooks on such music seem to end their surveys in about 1990. Add to that the fact that electronic music, once a category banished to a sort of appendix in the days of the Schwann Catalog, has now acquired multiple meanings. Electronic music now apparently includes dance music, dark ambient musings reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, individual experiments typified by artists like David Lee Myers and Kim Cascone, and the original meaning with work by pioneers like Subotnick, Luening, Babbitt, etc.
This disc would have been listed in that little appendix I mentioned earlier if it had been released in the 70s or so. It is, in this listener’s mind, classical electronic music. Perhaps one could dance to it but it seems to be written with the intent of presenting musical ideas and highlighting the musical skills of performers on their acoustic instruments. This one is best heard with headphones and serious attention.
The first track is Because Patterns/Deep State (2019) is a sort of reworking of two earlier pieces Because Patterns (2015) for prepared piano duo (Ray/Kallay Duo) and The Deep State (2017) for double bass and electronics. There is an interview on Schankler’s website that discusses the composer’s processes in each piece and the reasons for combining the two into the present form. The solo parts, such as they are, are performed by Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray on keyboards and Scott Worthington on double bass (curiously the soloists were recorded in different studios).
From a listener’s perspective one of the most striking things was how deeply embedded the solo performers are. This is like a concerto grosso in which the instruments are more embedded in the texture. It is a complex piece which demands the listener’s attention but ultimately rewards said listener in a musically satisfying way. In short, your reviewer has only the faintest grasp of the processes involved but appreciates the end product. At about 25 minutes this is a commitment but one worth tackling.
Mobile I (2009) is written for violin and electronics (interactive) and is described by the composer as an audio analogue of mobile sculpture. Think Calder set to music perhaps. Again regardless of the process the main concern for the listener is whether the result actually entertains. Here, where the soloist (Sakura Tsai) is more at the forefront, it is easier to hear the interactive nature of the music as the gestures of the violin are responded to by the electronics. It is a form of call and response with the soloist in the lead and the electronics answering.
The third and final track is Future Feelings (2018) commissioned and premiered by Nadia Shpachenko and, according to the composer’s website was the result of experiments seeking pleasing sounds for the composer’s first child. This is not a lullaby but rather a working out of ideas. It works as a concert piece as intended but is probably not going to make its way onto a “soothing sounds for babies” CD any time soon.
This digital and vinyl release semis to have precious little in the way of notes to guide the listener but this label aerocade can be forgiven on the strength of their choices in repertoire and quality of recorded sound and the composer’s website is nicely designed and informative. Their release of the Post-Haste Duo was reviewed most favorably in these pages earlier and a quick scan of the label’s website suggests that this label (established by Meerenai Shim , who also did the lovely design of the cover, this is the 11th release of a label that deserves the attention of new music fanciers). Links are provided for the interested listener, all of which will lead to a better understanding and will serve as a guide to find similarly interesting and creative music.
The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year. It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”. It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases. For the record they are:
The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)
Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)
Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)
Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI S 247)
Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)
Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)
Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)
Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)
Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)
John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)
And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician. Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context. But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.
He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd. He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins. Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists. Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas. Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.
His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:
1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
2017 The Birthday Party (New World)
Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents. And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety. Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.
This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland. In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments. This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.
Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.
Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.
John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes. Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists. This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus. As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great. This one was really done right.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release. The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history. Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles. Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books. Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb. It is an amazing disc on many levels.
This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015). Starkland’s first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition. Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing. He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).
As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015. He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more. Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show. He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions. The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created. Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.
Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music. Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.
Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time. Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).
When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.
Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6. Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works. He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015. There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.
For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal, a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate. She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new. Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading. She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.
The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces. They are all dated between 2005 and 2008. The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer. One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future). At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.
The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission. I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.
The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family. The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy. Bravo gentlemen!
Release is scheduled for November 18th. You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.