San Jose Chamber Orchestra‘s music director and regular conductor Barbara Day Turner. A quick look at the orchestra’s web site or the repertoire of tonight’s conductor will dazzle and intrigue any fan of new music. This modest ensemble of approximately 20 musicians (give or take) consists of professional musicians who clearly take their work seriously. No spoilers here in saying that they turned in some seriously powerful and polished performances.It was a pleasant spring day in San Jose where, in this modest hall, there was to be a concert of mostly contemporary music with one exception. The concert was billed as “A Touch of Tech” due to its use in some pieces of electronics and, in one case, slide projections. However the overall sense of the experience left this writer with a strong sense of the romantic, hence the title of this review. The concert was to be led by the
This writer was initially asked to review this performance on behalf of the management agents of composer Vivian Fung (1975- ), a Canadian-American composer whose star is rising rapidly. In preparation for the evening’s performance it was wonderful to find some of her work on You Tube. It was a rewarding experience to hear some of her range of compositions. The featured composition of hers for this evening was Humanoid (2017) for cello and electronics. It was third in the programming sequence for the evening.First up though was a composition which initially seemed anachronistic in context. It was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (1833) for cello and orchestra in a transcription for cello and strings by Kerry Lewis. This piece of unabashed high romanticism in fact seemed to contextualize what was to follow. The soloist Coleman Itzkoff gave a wonderful display of his romantic chops in his interpretation of this somewhat lesser known bon bon of Dvorak’s. The audience responded most appreciatively to a lush and lovely performance. Second up was Green (2008-16) by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (1928- ). This work was being played in honor of her 90th year. Mr. Musgrave was reportedly unable attend this evening, not due to infirmity but rather to industry. She is reportedly hard at work adding to her already prolific catalog of works. (This version was a string orchestra version prepared by Martyn Brabbins.) Nonetheless her presence was strongly felt in this recent ecologically themed piece for string orchestra (sans electronics). The tonalities in the work seemed to almost be echoes from the first work. Despite a few string effects, pizzicati, glissandi, there was an overall feeling of romantic gestures here in a discursive development that included a disturbing motif from the double basses and rather romantic and lyrical responses from solo violin and viola embedded in the lush orchestral textures (it is astonishing to hear what a master composer can do with a small string orchestra). The conductor and ensemble displayed an intensity of concentration which resulted in a really spectacular performance which was very much appreciated by the audience. (Curious side note: I later learned that an elderly gentleman who sat in front of me and listened with obvious concentration and appreciation throughout the program was in fact a relative of Ms. Musgrave so, at least by that proxy she was there in yet another capacity.) The stage was then set for the west coast premiere of Vivian Fung’s Humanoid for cello and electronics. Here I had the advantage of being able to speak with the evening’s engineer (and electronic co-conspirator) Tom Johnson. This gentleman advised me of his roles in the three pieces which involved technology. Apparently the Fung piece required the most attention and coordination involving a click track. The Shatin piece basically played the electronics in parallel to the orchestra with the coordination largely left (presumably) to the conductor. And the last piece involved projections whose synchronization were not as minutely critical as the other two pieces. Said gentleman was also the recording engineer for this concert.
For this writer the term “electroacoustic” indicates that one should approach such a work with caution. Indeed the success of the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments varies a great deal. Perhaps the best known of such efforts are the pioneering “Synchronisms” of Mario Davidovsky in which various instruments are paired with an electronic track. And these days one must ask if the electronics interacts with or alters the sound of the acoustic instrument or if it exists in parallel. Electroacoustic music has been and remains a huge compositional challenge and no small challenge for the listener.
In the case of Fung’s piece the electronics exist in parallel but carefully synchronized (the soloist does listen to a click track) to the cello score. No alteration of the cello’s sound is done by anyone other than the cellist. So we are then hearing basically a duo between two musical streams, one live, the other on a digital stream of largely concrete sounds and, at one point, a drum kit. Such technical issues can be tiring but the sound of the music was not. According to the composer the piece is in three parts. The cello and the electronics are both equally present in all. In fact the cello seems to be creating sounds that are analogous to the electronic sounds at times and the cellist is given a lot of large romantic sounding gestures which in many ways were not entirely different emotionally than the gestures of the Dvorak. Fung’s work seems, appropriately here in Silicon Valley, to be challenging the human vs. the machine, an increasingly intriguing dichotomy.
It was clearly a challenging piece for the cellist requiring a plethora of techniques and a great deal of virtuosity. Itzkoff handled his role with stern concentration and demonstrated a strong command of both his instrument and the score. He was rewarded with a standing ovation and two curtain calls for his efforts which he gratefully accepted. The program notes indicated that this was Fung’s first major foray into the use of electronics and one hopes not the last.Following intermission was the premiere performance of the work of another established citizen of American music. It was Judith Shatin‘s Ice Becomes Water (2018) commissioned by Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to them. Shatin is a sound artist as well as a composer meaning that she has mastered the incorporation of a variety of sounds into her compositional palette. In this case she utilized sound samples gathered by glaciologist Oscar Glowacki.
This piece continued the basically pastoral/ecological themes suggested by the earlier works. Again too there was lyricism though the sound images here were, appropriately, colder and more stark than those in some of the other compositions. In fact this composition seemed to have some affinities to the sound world of Musgrave’s work at times but perhaps a bit harsher. What sustained interest here, in addition to the sonic inventiveness of the string writing, was the seamless integration of the sounds into the overall texture. Here the electronics seemed to augment Penderecki like sound mass effects and gave way to gentler clicking sounds (or were they pizzicati?). It was another very intense but very satisfying musical experience for this writer and, by the sound of the applause, the rest of the audience as well. Happily Shatin was there to enjoy the success of this performance and the appreciation of her artistry.To end the program there was a multimedia work by William Susman (1960- ) The work of this composer is new to this reviewer’s ears but not apparently to the music world at large. A quick perusal of Susman’s web page reveals a prolific composer who maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing (including a performance of his recent opera, Fordlandia at the Forth Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase) coming up in May.
The work was a piece entitled, In a State of Patterns (2018) which received its premiere on this night. The work is a series of six movements which are designed to respond (or maybe create musical analogs) to 6 art works created by Santa Clara University mathematician Frank Farris (1955- ).The movements (performed without pause) are: 1. California, the Golden State, 2. The Sierra Nevada, 3. At Home in San Jose, 4. Sierra Tree Death, 5. Spiral Vortex, and 6. The Stars Come Out to Comfort Us.
The photos and mathematical abstractions were projected stage left and more or less synced to the music. This writer is not well schooled in mathematics but the appearance of the images were reminiscent of those never ending fractal drawings which eternally reproduce themselves. Farris apparently extracts the images and colors from photographs. Now whether the music creates successful analogies is probably more relevant to the level of satisfaction that each of the artists feels with their work but the effect in performance was quite satisfying. One can safely say (I think) that the music and the art work both have sufficient merit to stand successfully on their own but the combination was at least intriguing.
Susman’s music draws on some very pleasant minimalist type structures that nonetheless managed to take on almost Wagnerian grandiosity at times. Again the combination of ecology and a sort of high romanticism combined to create a very successful and enjoyable work. The abrupt ending reminiscent of the ensemble performances of Philip Glass provided a stunning coda waking the audience from the beautiful dreams evoked by the six movements. Again we witnessed a powerful and dedicated premiere performance of a wonderful piece of music which appeared to leave the audience quite satisfied. Susman was there to take a much deserved bow.
This was some brilliant programming and excellent musicianship. What an evening!!!
Steve Reich’s masterful Electric Counterpoint (1987) opens this disc. That work originally written for Pat Metheny and has become pretty much a classic as well as a fine way to demonstrate a musician’s facility with multi-tracked guitar music.
Trevor Babb is a doctoral student at Yale and this appears to be his first album. And what an album it is. The choice of the opening work serves to demonstrate Babb’s ability to interpret, in his own individual manner, a work that has been recorded many times. It remains a classic and very listenable work which belies the difficulties inherent in its performance. Babb seems to take a bit more of a legato approach than previous interpretations but is definitely highly effective and this is a wonderful recording of the work.
It also serves to set the tone for the rest of this truly fine solo guitar and electronics debut album. Electric Counterpoint is the first of 6 total works represented on this disc. The remaining five selections fit the rubric of this collection in the overall sense but are definitely unique and challenging in their ways.
Paul Kerekes is not a familiar name to this writer and perhaps a new name to many. His inclusion here introduces many to this composer and places him in the context of this interesting collection. This young composer is apparently well known in the New York scene and seems to travel in the circles that include some of the most interesting artists currently working. Trail is a very different piece than the Reich but demonstrates the range of the solo guitar and electronics genre. This is a gentler, more meditative piece overall and one which piques interest in hearing more.
David Lang is a well known and very welcome name in new music and is here represented by Warmth, a classic Langian post-minimalist work which delights the listener while challenging the performer.
Septet by the late great James Tenney is one of those masterful compositions that is respected as a masterpiece but not often programmed. This is due at least in part to it’s critical use of alternate tuning. The effects intended by the composer can only be heard if the performer can play accurately the tuning involved. It is a wonderful and listener friendly experience typical of the finest of Tenney’s grasp of how to use such tunings in the compositional process. Babb executes this piece lovingly and this performance will likely help to nudge this work to a more frequent experience in the concert hall.
Babb introduces himself as a composer in Grimace, an impressionistic exercise in which he attempts to imitate both the style of Ligeti and evoke the image of a mask seen in an art exhibit. Long tones and extended techniques predominate in this meditative drone-like work that demonstrates fine technique in both composition and instrumental facility.
The album concludes with Slope 2 by the emerging bass player and composer Carl Testa. Again Babb introduces a new voice for the listener to explore. This extended composition, more drone than pattern based, is one that deserves multiple hearings to discern its substance and to demonstrate its position in the larger rubric of this collection.
Babb produces a great debut here and makes a strong case for the genre of electric guitar with supporting electronics as being a viable format for a live concert. He also seems to be defining that genre much the way that many solo artists are doing these days. He seems to be constructing a repertoire establishing the classics (Reich, Tenney) and promoting the viability of works that he feels deserve a place in that repertoire.
This is a really delightful album and that extends, at least in this writer’s eye, to the cover design as well. Again I will bemoan the loss of the 12 inch square format of LPs which could have made more prominent this lovely design by Colin Meyer and Trevor Babb. Perhaps a 12 inch vinyl release may happen. But until then the listener can settle most comfortably in the warmth of this truly fine release even in the smaller CD format or even as a digital download.
This 2 CD set virtually defines a genre. Following in the traditions of such notable compilations as Robert Helps’ “New Music for the Piano”, Alan Feinberg’s wonderful series of discs on Argo records among many others we see Arciuli displaying his grasp of music in the tradition of the gentle musical anthropology found in the music and scholarship of Peter Garland. The album’s title comes from Garland’s lovely multiple movement Walk in Beauty (1992) released on New World records in the 1990s. The present collection is both nostalgic and forward looking reminding us of great past efforts and introducing us to new work. It is a look at a loosely defined style of mostly late 20th century American piano music through the lens of a non-American artist.
Garland’s interest in Native American myths and music inform his post minimalist ethic and the additional pieces chosen for this two disc set reflect similar artistic sensibilities. Emanuele Arciuli is an Italian pianist whose interests range from the Second Viennese School to the unique compositions of Thelonius Monk. He also has a strong interest in classical music from Native American traditions which puts him very much in sync with Garland’s work as well. Here he has chosen music which he clearly understands and which appear to have deep meaning for him.
There are 28 tracks on 2 discs representing 13 composers. Five of these composers are explicitly affiliated with their respective Native American traditions and the remaining eight composers take their inspiration at least in part from the rich music and/or mythology of those cultures. The bottom line here is that these are carefully and lovingly chosen works which open a window on one fine musician’s perception of a certain Western/Native American/New American style which, at worst, holds up a mirror and, whether we like it or not, it tells us something about who we are and from whence we came.
Connor Chee‘s “Navajo Vocable No. 9” opens the album and sets the tone. This is one of a series of piano pieces by this fascinating composer/pianist whose star is deservedly rising. His work celebrates Navajo culture and is informed as well by his training in traditional western art music.
This is followed by Peter Garland‘s “Walk in Beauty”. This piece is representative of Garland’s post-minimalist, impressionistic style. It was previously recorded so wonderfully by Aki Takahashi on the eponymously titled New World Records album from the early 1990s.
Garland’s music is fairly well documented but deserves a wider audience. (Curiously he does not have a dedicated web site.) His scholarship and promotion of new music also serve to place him very highly among this countries finest artists and scholars. In addition to his compositional output he is known for his Soundings Press publications and his papers are now held by the University of Texas at Austin.
Kyle Gann is, similarly, a scholar and a prolific composer. He has for many years demonstrated a keen interest in Native American myths in his diverse and creative output. Gann is here represented by his “Earth Preserving Chant”.
Michael Daugherty is known for his incorporation of pop culture in his work and has been recognized with no fewer than three Grammy Awards. His work is rooted in pop Americana and “Buffalo Dance” is his homage to Native Americana. And if his homage seems a bit P.T. Barnum at times, that too is Americana.
John Luther Adams, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, is a prolific composer who derives much of his inspiration from the mythology of Alaskan natives. Adams spent many of his creative years in Alaska working with ecological projects as well as musical ones. “Tukiliit” is representative of this work and pays homage to Native American/First Nation peoples.
Raven Chacon is an emerging composer who has produced a great deal of work though little appears to be available on recordings. “Nilchi Shada’ji Nalaghali” (Winds that turn on the side from the Sun) is an electroacoustic work serves as a little sample of this artist’s work and its inclusion in this fine collection alone suggests that the remainder of his work deserves to be explored.
Martin Bresnick is an honored member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and his work is fortunately well known. The present piece, “Ishii’s Song” is a reference to an American Indian, the last of his tribe who lived out his life under the protection and scrutiny of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Berkeley. His spirit still seems to linger in the Bay Area and this piece is a sort of homage to him.
This set contains two works by Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007) who was a Native American composer that composed classical concert music. His work is steeped in Native American mythology and deserves to be better known. Leave it to a non-American to point out this deficit. Arciuli makes a strong case for listeners and for other musicians to embrace this neglected artist. Disc Two track 2 contains the “Osage Variation” and Disc two tracks 13-16 contain his “Four American Indian Piano Preludes”.
Jennifer Higdon is a star already very much risen on the musical scene and she is here represented by a substantial piano piece called “Secret and Glass Gardens”. Higdon, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of those composers who manages to be friendly and accessible as well as modern. Arciuli seems to perceive similarities in her vision that make this work fit in convincingly in this collection. Hers is seemingly a similar romanticism and nostalgia and Arciuli has convinced at least this listener of the kinship of this piece in the vision of this collection.
Arciuli introduces another composer unknown to this reviewer, Peter Gilbert. This young composer with an impressive resume is the co-director of the composition program at the University of New Mexico. The offering here is his set of four “Intermezzi” for piano.
The inclusion of Carl Ruggles‘ “Evocations-Four Chants for Piano” seem at first to be a strange choice but following the Gilbert Intermezzi one gets the impression that the Americana that is Ruggles is a part of the provenance of this collection. Ruggles coarse and famously racist attitudes hardly fit with the generally romantic vision of this collection but Americana as perceived by a non-American need not edit the unsavory from the overall picture. The music is what this is about and these are indeed masterful little essays and a part of the American grain.
Another new name is given a brief appearance in the “Testament of Atom” by Brent Michael Davids. This young composer’s clever website lists a plethora of works whose titles resemble many of the pieces on these discs. Again we must trust the artist that his inclusion of this work is representative of his vision of this version of Americana.
For his concluding track Arciuli does a wonderful thing by including the work of Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1988), another too little known American composer. Born Stephen Alexander Chambers, he changed his name in 1973 when he converted to Sufism, a spiritual sect of Islam. The music, “Sound Gone”, is a fitting finale to this beautiful, challenging, and ultimately inclusive collection of Americana. Bravo, Mr. Arciuli and thank you for the gift of showing us some of the best of how we Americans look to you.
Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes. If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.
I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.
ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase. The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release. The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer. Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea. Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling. And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.
About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release. One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.
Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age. Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal. In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.
Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer. His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.
The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.
The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano. This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression. This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options. This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.
The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen. Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.
Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again. Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.
Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing. Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly. Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”. This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either. The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.
Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011). Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape. This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”. Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.
The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis. Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.
The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression. This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work. Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets. The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.
As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail. This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program. You won’t be disappointed.
OM 18 has been my fifth experience at the Other Minds festival. The most amazing thing about Other Minds is their ability to find new music by casting a wide net in the search for new, unusual and always interesting music. As I said in my preview blog for these concerts this year’s selection of composers was largely unfamiliar to me. Now I am no expert but my own listening interests casts a pretty wide net. Well this year I had the pleasure of being introduced to many of these composers and performers with no introduction save for the little research I did just before writing the preview blog (part of my motivation for doing the preview blog was to learn something about what I was soon to hear).
The first night of the series consisted of what is generally classified as “folk” or “traditional” music. Not surprisingly these terms fail to describe what the audience heard on Thursday night.
First up was the Danish folk trio ‘Gáman’ consisting of violin, accordion and recorder. This is not a typical folk trio but rather one which uses the creative forces of three virtuosic musicians arranging traditional musics for this unusual ensemble. On recorder was Bolette Roed who played various sizes of recorders from sopranino to bass recorder. Andreas Borregaard played accordion. And Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was on violin.
The first piece, ‘Brestiskvædi’ was their rendering of this traditional song from the Faroe Islands (a group of islands which is under the general administration of Denmark but which has its own identity and a significant degree of independence). It struck my ears as similar in sound to the music of Scotland and Ireland, lilting beautiful melodies with a curiously nostalgic quality.
Next was a piece by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. It was the U.S. premiere of his ‘Accvire’ from 2008, a name derived from the two first letters of the instruments for which it was written (as we learned in the always interesting pre-concert panel). It was commissioned by this ensemble. The work reflected the composer’s facility with instrumentation and retained some suggestion of folk roots as well. It employed a rich harmonic language within a tonal framework in what sounded almost like a post-minimalist piece. The trio met the challenges of the music and delivered a lucid reading of this music which seemed to satisfy both the musicians and the audience.
The trio followed this with three more folk arrangements, two more from the Faroe Islands and one from Denmark. Like the first piece they played these had a similar ambience of calm nostalgia.
The Danish folk piece set the stage for the next work, a world premiere by one of Denmark’s best known living composers, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. The piece ‘Together or Not’ from 2013 is an Other Minds commission. The composer, who was not present, wrote to Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian saying, “the title is the program note”. While the statement was rather cryptic the music was not. This was less overtly tonal than the Rasmussen work and was filled with extended instrumental techniques and good humor. Again the instrumentalists demonstrated a comfortable facility with the technical challenges of the music and delivered a fine reading of this entertaining piece.
The nicely framed program continued with two traditional drum songs from Greenland (the violinist, holding his instrument rather like a guitar produced a sort of modified pizzicato technique which played the drum part). These haunting melodies seemed to evoke the desolate landscape of their origin.
The program ended with a Swedish polka and, in response to a very appreciative audience, an encore of another spirited polka. These were upbeat dance music that all but got the audience up and dancing. The audience seemed uplifted by their positive energy.
The second half of the first night’s concert consisted of two traditional Hindustani Ragas. These pieces are structured in aspects of the the music but allow for a great deal of repetition and improvisation in which the musicians bring the music to life. Hindustani music is deeply rooted in culture and spirituality. The ragas are associated with yogic chakras, moods and time of day. Their performance is intended to enhance the audience esthetically and spiritually.
G.S. Sachdev is a bansuri player. The bansuri is a wooden flute common in this type of music (though Sachdev’s level of mastery is hardly common). He was accompanied by the familiar tanpura drone produced by digital drone boxes instead of the actual instruments which produce the familiar drone sound that underlies Hindustani music performances. Swapan Chaudhuri played tabla. It is difficult to see the tabla as an “accompanying” instrument as much as it is a complementary instruments especially when played by a master such as he. Chaudhuri is the head of the percussion department at the Ali Akbar Khan school in San Rafael in the north bay. Sachdev has also taught there. Both men have ties to the bay area.
The musicians performed Raga Shyam Kalyaan followed by Raga Bahar. Originally I had thought of trying to describe these ragas in their technical aspects but my knowledge of Hindustani music cannot do justice to such an analysis. Rather I will focus on the performances.
Raga Shyam Kalyaan was first and received an extended reading. How long? Well I’m not sure but this music does create a sort of suspended sense of timelessness when performed well. Indeed that was the effect on this listener. The whole performance of both ragas could not have exceeded one hour but the performances by these master musicians achieved the height of their art in producing riveting performances of this beautiful music. Sachdev’s mastery certainly has virtuosity but his genius lies in being able to infuse his performance with spirituality from within himself and to impart that spiritual resonance to his audience. He was ably aided in that endeavor by Chaudhuri who, clearly a master of his instrument and connected with Sachdev, channeled his connection with the infinite.
The audience responded with great warmth and appreciation concluding the first day of the festival.
Friday night began with the world premiere of the music theater performance piece, ‘ARA’ by Korean-American artist Dohee Lee. Continuing with the spiritual tone set by yesterday’s Raga performances Lee introduced her multi-disciplinary art derived from her study of Korean music, dance and shamanism as well as costume design and music performance.
She was aided in her efforts by the unique instrument designed for her by sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist Colin Ernst. The Eye Harp (seen in the above photo) is an instrument that is played by bowing and plucking strings and is connected to electronics as well.
The art of lighting designer David Robertson, whose work subtly enhanced all the performances, was clearly in evidence here. This was a feast for the eyes, ears and souls. Dohee Lee’s creative costume design was integrated with the visually striking Eye Harp instrument. And the music with sound design processing her instrument nicely complimented her vocalizations. All were lit so as to enhance the visual design and create a unified whole of this performance.
Her performance began slowly with Lee in her beautiful costume took on the role of a modern shaman conjuring glossolalia in shamanic trance along with choreographed movement and accompanied by her Eye Harp and electronic sounds through the theater’s great sound system. Like the raga performances of the previous night I wasn’t aware of how long this timeless performance lasted (the program said it was 10 minutes) . But I wished it would have gone on longer. Even with photographs the experience here is difficult to articulate. The sound enveloped the audience who viewed the carefully lit stage in the otherwise darkened hall as the sounds communicated a connection with the sacred.
I am still trying to digest what I saw and heard on this Friday night. I don’t know how most of the audience experienced this piece but they seemed to have connected with it and responded with grateful applause. She seemed to connect as both artist and shaman.
Following Dohee Lee were three pieces for an instrument called the Paetzold contrabass recorder (two before intermission and one after). Paetzold is the manufacturer who specializes in the manufacture of recorders, forerunner of the modern flute. The square contrabass recorder is a modern design of this woodwind instrument. However, knowing the sound of the recorder in music of Bach and his contemporaries, gives the listener no useful clues as to what to expect from the unusual looking instrument pictured above.
Anna Petrini is a Swedish recorder virtuoso who specializes in baroque and modern music written for the recorder. At this performance she played her contrabass instrument augmented variously by modifications, additions of microphones, little speakers and electronic processing. These pieces were perhaps the most avant-garde and the most abstract music in this festival.
The creative stage lighting provided a useful visual counterpoint to the music. The first piece, ‘Split Rudder’ (2011) by fellow Swede Malin Bang was here given it’s U.S. premiere. This piece is concerned with the sounds made inside the instrument captured by small microphones inserted into the instrument. The resulting sounds were unlike any recorder sound that this listener has heard. The piece created percussive sounds and wind sounds.
The next piece, ‘Seascape’ (1994) by the late Italian composer Fausto Rominelli (1963-2004) used amplification but no electronic processing. These abstract works were received well by the audience.
‘SinewOod’ (2008) by Mattias Petersson involved introducing sound into the body of the instrument as well as miking it internally and setting up electronic processing with which the performer interacts. Like the two pieces that preceded it this was a complex exercise in the interaction between music and technology which is to my ears more opaque and requires repeated listenings to fully appreciate.
The second concert was brought to its conclusion by the young jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn. Detroit born, Taborn came under the influence of Roscoe Mitchell (of AACM fame) and began developing his unique style. Here the term jazz does little to describe what the audience was about to hear.
Taborn sat at the keyboard with a look of intense concentration and began slowly playing rather sparse and disconnected sounding notes. Gradually his playing became more complex. I listened searching for a context to help me understand what he was doing. Am I hearing influences of Cecil Taylor? Thelonius Monk? Keith Jarrett maybe?
Well comparisons have their limits. As Taborn played on his music became more complex and incredibly virtuosic. He demonstrated a highly acute sense of dynamics and used this to add to his style of playing. I was unprepared for the density and power of this music. Despite the complexity it never became muddy. All the lines were distinct and clear. And despite his powerful and sustained hammering at that keyboard the piano sustained no damage. But the audience clearly picked up on the raw energy of the performance.
This is very difficult music to describe except to say that it had power and presence and the performer is a creative virtuoso whose work I intend to follow.
The final concert on Saturday began with the world premiere of another Other Minds commissioned work, ‘Work Around the World’ (2012) for live voice with looping electronics and percussion ensemble. This, we learned in the pre-concert panel is another iteration in a series of language based works, this one featuring the word ‘work’ in 12 different languages.
Language is an essential part of the work of local vocal/techno diva Amy X Neuberg’s compositions and performance work. With her live looping electronics she was one instrument, if you will, in the orchestra of this rhythmically complex work. William Winant presided over the complexity leading all successfully in the performance which the musicians appeared to enjoy. The audience was also apparently pleased with the great musicianship and the novelty of the work. Its complexities would no doubt reveal more on repeated listenings but the piece definitely spoke to the audience which seemed to have absorbed some of the incredible energy of the performance.
Back to the recorder again but this time to the more familiar instrument if not to more familiar repertoire. Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri whose work was first made known to the record buying public some years ago is familiar to most (this writer as well) for her fine performances of the baroque repertoire.
Tonight she shared her passion for contemporary music. First she played Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’ (2011) which he wrote for her. It was the U.S. premiere of this solo recorder piece. Vogelstimmung is inspired by pictures of birds and is a technically challenging piece that Petri performed with confidence. At 17 minutes it was virtually a solo concerto.
And then back to electronics, this time with Paula Matthusen who now teaches at Wesleyan holding the position once held by the now emeritus professor Alvin Lucier. Her piece for recorder and electronics, ‘sparrows in supermarkets’ (2011) was performed by Ms. Petri with Ms. Matthusen on live electronic processing. This was a multi-channel work with speakers surrounding the audience immersing all in a complex but not unfriendly soundfield.
Some technical difficulties plagued the beginning of the first piece after intermission so the always resourceful emcee, Other Minds executive director Charles Amirkhanian took the opportunity to introduce the new Operations Director Michael Straus. Straus replaces Adam Fong who has gone on to head a new music center elsewhere in San Francisco.
Mr. Amirkhanian also spoke of big plans in the works for the 20th Other Minds concert scheduled for 2015 which will reportedly bring back some of the previous composers in celebration of 20 years of this cutting edge festival. No doubt Mr. Straus has his work cut out for him in the coming months.
With the difficulties sufficiently resolved it was time to see and hear Mattias Petersson’s ‘Ström’ (2011) for live electronics and interactive video in its U.S. premiere. Petersson collaborated with video artist Frederik Olofsson to produce this work in which the video responds to the 5 channels of electronics which are manipulated live by the composer and the five lines on the video respond to the sounds made. The hall was darkened so that just about all the audience could see was the large projected video screen whilst surrounded by the electronic sounds.
The work started at first with silence, then a few scratching sounds, clicks and pops. By the end the sound was loud and driving and all-encompassing. It ended rather abruptly. The audience which was no doubt skeptical at the beginning warmed to the piece and gave an appreciative round of applause.
Next up, again in a darkened hall was a piece for solo performer and electronics. Composer Paula Matthusen came out on stage and assumed the posture in the above photograph all the while holding a stethoscope to her heart. The details of this work were not given in the program but this appears to be related to the work of Alvin Lucier and his biofeedback work on the 1970s. Again the sounds surrounded the audience as the lonely crouching figure remained apparently motionless on stage providing a curious visual to accompany the again complex but not unfriendly sounds. Again the audience was appreciative of this rather meditative piece.
Following that Ms. Mathussen joined another bay area singer and electronics diva, Pamela Z for a joint improvisation. Ms. Z, using her proximity triggered devices and a computer looped her voice creating familiar sounds for those who know her work while the diminutive academic sat at her desk stage right manipulating her electronics. It was an interesting collaboration which the musicians seemed to enjoy and which the audience also clearly appreciated.
For the finale Pamela Z performed her 2009 arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ 1986) which appeared on a crowd sourced CD curated by another Other Minds alum, DJ Spooky. Z effectively imitated Monks complex vocalizations and multi-tracked her voice as accompaniment providing a fitting tribute to yet another vocal diva and Other Minds alumnus. The audience showed their appreciation with long and sustained applause.