Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


heroine

Sono Luminus DSL-92235

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.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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Ondine

The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


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This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.

 

 

 

 

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.

 

 

 

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! Lubomyr Melnyk, Fastest Fingers in the West, Makes Major Label Debut


I first encountered the music of this undeservedly obscure but unique composer/pianist in the late 1980s with the purchase of a double vinyl album of his “Lund-St. Petri Symphony” a work for solo piano which is stylistically one of the tributaries of minimalism.  Melnyk was born in Germany of Ukrainian descent and now lives and works in Canada.  I began this article for inclusion in my series about minimalist composers (the designation of “minimalist” is imposed by the author and is not necessarily the identity embraced by the artist).  In addition to providing a sketch of the artist I am pleased to be able to review this major label release.

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Sony

Ilirion marks this composer/pianist’s big label debut and this is a fitting recognition for this long established composer, pianist and teacher.  Lubomyr Melnyk (1948- ) has been performing since the 1970s and has released over 20 albums.  His web site is in need of updating and here’s hoping that this release will help provide the impetus for that and for the greater distribution of this artist’s work.

Below is the description of Melnyk’s music from his web site:

Melnyk’s Continuous Music is based on the principle of a continuous® and unbroken line of sound from the piano — this is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard. To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master — this technique is the very basis of the meditative and metaphysical® aspects within the music and the art of the piano.
Moreover, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, but in his more recent works, Melnyk has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music.
Melnyk’s earlier music was generally classified as Minimalism®, although Melnyk strongly refutes that term, preferring to call his music MAXIMALism®, since the player has to generate so many, many notes to create these Fourth Dimensions of Sound®.
Because his piano music is so difficult and requires a dedicated re-learning® of the instrument, no other pianists in the world (so far) have tackled his larger works — and so, his recordings are truly collector’s items (both as LP-s and CD-s).
He has however recorded extensively for the CBC in Canada, as well as various European stations. He has performed and given lecture-recitals across Canada and in Europe. 

I’m not sure how useful this explanation will be to listeners but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the composer has attempted to establish a system explaining his work. However one does not need to be deeply familiar with the underlying theory to appreciate the music.  One does not need to understand Schoenberg’s twelve tone theories or Anthony Braxton’s far out ideas to appreciate their music.  One doesn’t even need to understand the basics of western classical harmony to appreciate Mozart, for that matter but such knowledge can contribute to appreciation.  I certainly lay no claim to understanding this man’s music and I am not aware of any musicologists or critics who have written anything analyzing Melnyk’s work but I find his music compelling and worth wider attention.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of Melnyk’s output (and risking muddying the field) I am simply going to recommend a couple of discs which I have found particularly interesting and may help put this latest release in useful perspective.  The disc which is intended to provide a sort of exposition of his work is KMH.

kmh

The other disc, and the one which I have admired most, is the Lund St. Petri Symphony.  I bought it as a two disc vinyl album and it does not appear to be easily available now but it is well worth seeking (and maybe Sony will consider re-releasing it).

lund

The present release on Sony contains 5 tracks:

Beyond Romance is the first and longest track on the disc (16:12) and is certainly representative of his work.  The composer’s brief notes describe this work only as a grand romantic piece.  It perhaps has echoes of Liszt but certainly with at least an echo of minimalism.

Solitude No. 1 is a much briefer piece (7:36) and is a live improvisation by the composer recorded in the Netherlands.

Sunset (3:49) is the briefest on the disc and is an impressionistic description of its title.

Cloud No. 81 (16:02) is a far more extended impressionistic essay with more harmonic variety than the other tracks.

The title piece, Ilirion (14:12) is another extended essay more akin to the first track.

These discs range from interesting to enthralling for this reviewer and the limited descriptions contained in this release do little to guide the listener.  So I guess I can only say, “Please listen”.

Tracks 1, 3, and 4 were recorded at Clearlight Studios in Winnipeg, Canada.  Track 2 is a live recording from Tilburg, Netherlands and the last track is described as being an archive recording from also from Tilburg.  All were recorded between 2012 and 2015.

The rather sparse liner notes are by one Charles Bettle who is described as a “long time friend and admirer” of Melnyk’s work.  The even sparser notes on the music are by the composer.  The beautiful photography is by Alexandra Kawka.

It is difficult to say why this artist remains as marginally known but, as I have asserted before, artists from Canada get strangely little notice here and Mr. Melnyk does not appear to be a very good publicist.  I hope that this endorsement by Sony results in more releases and, more importantly, in more good studio recordings of his work.  It is unique and highly recommended to aficionados of piano music and minimalism.

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


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Starkland ST-225

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

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Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

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

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

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Starkland ST-225

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Starkland ST-209

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

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Starkland ST-218

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

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

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

 

Reiko Füting: names Erased


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Reiko Füting (1970- ) is the chair of the music department at the Manhattan School of music.  The present album is actually my introduction to this man and his work.  It consists of a series of 15 works written between 2000 and 2014.

These works tend to emphasize brevity especially the solo vocal pieces (tracks 2, 4, 6, 8,  and 10).  These, originally for baritone and piano are here rendered very effectively as solo vocal pieces.  They are used as a sort of punctuation in this recording of mostly brief pieces which remind this listener of Webern at times.  They are in fact the movements of a collection called, “…gesammeltes Schweigen”  (2004/2011, translated as Collected Silence).  It is worth the trouble to listen to these in order as a complete set.

The first track here is also the longest piece on the album at 15:43.  Kaddish: The Art of Losing (2014) for cello and piano is an elegiac piece inspired by several people and seems to be about both loss and remembrance.  The writing in this powerful and affecting piece is of an almost symphonic quality in which both instruments are completely interdependent as they share notes and phrases.  The cello is called upon to use a variety of extended techniques and the piano part is so fully integrated as to make this seem like a single instrument rather than solo with accompaniment.  It has a nostalgic quality and is a stunning start to this collection of highly original compositions.

tanz, tanz (dance, dance) (2010) is a sort of Bachian exegesis of the Chaconne from the D minor violin partita.  This sort of homage is not uncommon especially in the 20th/21st century and this is a fascinating example of this genre.  The writing is similar to what was heard in the cello writing in the first track.  This piece is challenging and highly demanding of the performer.  It is a delicate though complex piece but those complexities do not make for difficult listening.

leaving without/palimpsest (2006) for clarinet and piano begins with a piano introduction after which the clarinet enters in almost pointillistic fashion as it becomes integrated to the structure initiated by the piano.  Again the composer is fond of delicate sounds and a very close relationship between the musicians.

names erased (Prelude, 2012) is for solo cello and is, similar to the solo violin piece “tanz, tanz”, a Bach homage.  The performer executes the composer’s signature delicate textures which utilize quotes from various sources including the composer himself.  And again the complexities and extended techniques challenge the performer far more than the listener in this lovely piece.

Track 9 contains two pieces: “ist-Mensch-geworden” (was-made-man, 2014) for flute and piano and “land-haus-berg” (land-house-mountain, 2008) for piano.  Both pieces involve quotation from other music in this composer’s compact and unique style. Here he includes references to Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach, Alban Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Schumann, Debussy, Nils Vigeland, Beat Furrer, Jo Kondo and Tristan Murail.

light, asleep (2002/2010) for violin and piano apparently began its life as a piece based on quotation but, as the liner notes say, lost those actual quotes in the process of revision.

finden-suchen (to find-to search, 2003/2011) for alto flute, cello and piano is a lyrical piece with the same interdependent writing that seems to be characteristic of this composer’s style.

…und ich bin Dein Spiegel (…and I am Your Reflection, 2000/2012) is a setting of fragments by a medieval mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg for mezzo soprano and string quartet.  This is deeply introspective music.

All of Fùting’s compositions have a very personal quality with deeply embedded references.  His aesthetic seems to be derived from his roots in the German Democratic Republic having been born into that unique nation state both separate from the West German state and still deeply connected to it.  He is of a generation distant from the historical events that gave birth to that artificially separate German nation but, no doubt, affected by its atmosphere.

The musicians on this recording include David Broome, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Nani Füting (the composer’s wife), mezzo soprano; Luna Cholong Kang, flutes; Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; John Popham, cello; Yegor Shevtsov, piano; Jing Yang, piano; and the Mivos Quartet.  All are dedicated and thoughtful performances executed effortlessly.

The recording is the composer’s production engineered by Ryan Streber.  This is a very original set of compositions which benefit from multiple hearings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Piano is Calling Me: Nicolas Horvath’s New Music Pilgrimages


Nicolas Horvath Lyon

Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces.  That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.

Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions.  He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.

His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass.  He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.

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The artist standing in one of his installations.

We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014.  I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep.  But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”.  What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.”  It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage.  The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.

Nicolas Horvath (c) Jean Thierry Boisseau

Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)

Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning.  He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.

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Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.

Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977.  He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École  Normale de Musique de Paris.  At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.

In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs.  He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine.  Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified.  Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work.  He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.

Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music.  He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005),  some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted  in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold.  Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.

Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds.  Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances.  Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience.  He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score.  It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm.  At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.

His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog.  And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.

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The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra.  His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution.  This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm.  The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.

His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012.  It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer.  This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works.  It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes.  (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.).   He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos.  At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released.  He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.

I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive.  He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects.  And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself.  Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.

A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works.  Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height.  Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents.  His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.

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Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

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Hortus Records 100 (2012)

A very unusual choice for a debut recording.  Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work.  He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions.  One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.

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Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.

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Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall.  These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.

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Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres.  Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.

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Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.

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Demerara Records (2016)

Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

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Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music.  Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..

Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music  while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire.  The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls.  He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B.  Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.

New Cello Music: Michael Nicolas’ Transitions


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Michael Nicolas is the new cellist of Brooklyn Rider as well as member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and numerous other affiliations.  This French Canadian/Taiwanese young man now residing in New York is definitely an emerging artist to watch and his debut album does much to demonstrate why he deserves serious attention.

This selection of mid/late twentieth and twenty first century cello pieces comprises an intelligent survey of this repertoire introducing new music and providing a younger performer’s take on some classics of solo cello with electronics as well some more recent works.  As he says in his liner notes this survey is concerned with the dichotomy between the solo instrument and the attendant electronics in various guises (even the quasi-Max Headroom cover art seems to reflect this).  Erin Baiano did the photography and Caleb Nei did the graphic design.  If I have a criticism of this fine album it is perhaps that the liner notes provide less detail than this listener prefers so I have tried to provide a few details here.

Beginning with Mario Davidovsky‘s classic Synchronisms No. 3 (1964) for cello and electronic sounds (one of twelve such works for solo instrument with electronics) and continuing with Steve Reich‘s Cello Counterpoint (2003) Nicolas begins his survey with two relatively well-known pieces in this genre and he certainly does them justice.  These pieces serve as Nicolas’ sort of homage to the past which he follows with some very current compositions.

He introduces some pieces unfamiliar to this writer.  David Fulmer‘s Speak of the Spring (2015) is a piece for solo cello with electronics.  Fulmer is a composer/performer apparently worth watching from a quick read of his web site.  As I was unable to determine the date of composition I contacted the composer who graciously responded despite his busy travel schedule: “The work was written last year, in 2015 specifically for Michael Nicolas and this particular project (cello and electronics). Michael had asked me for a piece for his recording project, and having known him (we went to school together) for many years, and admiring his playing so much, I was very interested in writing this piece for him. As for perspective…as a string player, I always enjoy writing string works. I’m interested in the beautiful timbres that the strings have. Tuning is also an important concept for me; at the end of the work, the cello electronics (pre-recorded cello) is scordatura.All of the prerecorded lines are recorded by Michael. I see this as a work written for Michael, played by Michael, and many versions of Michael.”

Next are two pieces by Annie Gosfield for cello and sampler.  Four Roses (1997) and “…and a Five Spot” (2015, commissioned by Nicolas as a companion to the former).  Both pieces are basically lyrical with spectral effects, microtonal passages, extended techniques and the samples of course.  The first piece is more assertive and direct while the second seems more introspective.  Both appear to be typical of Gosfield’s fully developed style.

Next up is a piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir whose album length “In the Light of Air” performed by ICE was reviewed here.  Her piece on this disc for solo cello and electronics Transitions (2015) has a similarly ethereal character but one gets the impression that her approachable style belies complexities that underlie her work.

The last piece is flexura (2015) by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, a Peruvian born composer now working in New York.  This piece functions almost like a bookend with the Davidovsky piece that opens this disc (Davidovsky also comes from South America having been born in Argentina).  La Rosa holds a PhD. in computer music from the University of California San Diego and is developing open source software (and hardware) for live performance.  His MANO controller can be seen in the video on his website.  This last piece inhabits a similar sound world to that of the Davidovsky.  It is thorny and modern sounding and works as a showcase for the cellist.  Strictly speaking I suppose this piece is more of a duet in that there are two musicians required to perform it.

As always the impeccable production by Sono Luminus makes for a wonderful listening experience and this is quite an impressive debut for this interesting young musician. Kudos to producer Dan Mercurio recording technician David Angell  and executive producer Collin J. Rae.

Perhaps I am premature in saying this but this release has the earmarks of a being classic survey of the current status of this genre.  One of the joys of such a project is to hear new interpretations of established works and to hear an intelligent selection of new pieces.  Definitely want to hear more from Mr. Nicolas as well as from the composers represented.

 

Pictures at a Post-Minimalist Exhibition: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye


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Eighth Blackbird is Chicago’s more than adequate answer to New York’s Bang on a Can and this album is solid proof of that.  The liner notes tell us that this is “a collection inspired by a collection” and these 9 tracks are sonic impressions by the individual composers of an art exhibit.  The end result is very much like the romantic/impressionistic Mussourgsky gem updated to the post-minimalist era.

It is well worth your time to check out the artwork which inspired this music (here) and this writer imagines that this piece could really work well as a film score, a DVD perhaps of these images.  The music invokes various minimalist and post-minimalist composers and styles.  It is almost a sonic tour of post-minimalism.  And apparently there are plans for a multimedia tour of this piece as well.  Sounds like a wonderful idea.

This album is the work of a composer’s collective called Sleeping Giant and consists of Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Robert Honstein, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne and Jacob Cooper.  Each has chosen a selection of art to which they wrote a piece of music providing their musical impressions.  The result is a remarkably coherent set of pieces which, while each different, seem to flow into a unity.

Casual listeners may be familiar with the names of Timo Andres or Andrew Norman but all these composers are basically new to these ears and it appears to be a talented lot that deserves some serious attention as they may very well be THE ones to watch/listen to in the coming years. They utilize a variety of techniques in their compositions but there is never a feeling of this being experimental or tentative.  These are fully fleshed out works by master composers.

The music is appealing immediately upon first listen.  One hears the influences of Terry Riley here, John Adams there, David Lang, etc.  In short these pieces are informed by the preceding generations of minimalists much as they also address their debt and do honor to their mentors.  It has some of the character of Lang’s “Child” in that this is essentially a suite of pieces of post-minimalist chamber music (though this music has an almost symphonic quality at times).

The recording is superb and up to the high standards of Cedille releases and the musicianship, as always, is superb.  The liner notes by Sleeping Giant along with Tim Munro are lucid and the album design by Karl Jensen is eye-poppingly psychedelic.  This project was funded by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Andrew W. Mellon and the Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


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OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.

Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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This is the first disc devoted entirely to the music of Paula Matthusen who as of July is a newly minted associate professor at Wesleyan University where she walks at least partly in the footsteps of emeritus professor Alvin Lucier whose course Music 109 she inherited from him.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Matthusen at Other Minds 18 where she was one of the featured composers.  In our all too brief conversation she was affable and unpretentious but certainly passionate about music.

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Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’ at Other Minds in 2013

 

She holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and PhD. from New York University.  She announced her recent promotion to associate professor on Facebook as is, I suppose, customary for people of her generation.  It is on Facebook that I contacted her to request a review copy of this CD to which she quickly and graciously agreed.

This CD contains 9 tracks representing 8 works.  They range from solo to small ensemble works, some with electronics as well.  Her musical ideas seem to have much in common with her emeritus colleague Alvin Lucier but her sound world is her own despite some similarities in techniques, especially her attention to sonic spaces and her use of electronics to amplify sonic micro-events which might even include her heartbeat.

 

sparrows in supermarkets (2011) for recorder looks at the sound of birds in the acoustic space of a supermarket and their melodic repetition.  It is for recorder (Terri Hron) and electronics

limerance (2008) is another solo work, this time for banjo (James Moore) with electronics.  She says she is working with the concept of reciprocation here but that seems rather a subjective construct.  Like the previous piece this is a contemplative and spare work with some spectral sounds as well.

the days are nouns (2013) is for soprano and percussion ensemble and electronics.  Here she is concerned with resonances within the vibrators of the instruments as well as the acoustics of the room.  It is a dreamy, impressionistic setting of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye whose poem supplies the title but the text is fragments of a Norwegian table prayer.  A very subtle and effective work.

AEG (2011) is represented by two movements (of four?) all of which were written for the Estonian ballet.  It is similarly concerned with resonances and words at times.  Of course it would be interesting to hear those other movements but perhaps another time.

of architecture and accumulation (2012) is the first of two purely acoustic compositions on this disc.  This one is for organ solo (Will Smith) and explores long tones within the acoustic space.  It is a very satisfying work even if one doesn’t go into the underlying complexities.

corpo/Cage (2009) is  the longest and largest work here and is the second purely acoustic piece on this recording.  It has echoes of Stravinsky at and it is an enticing example of Matthusen’s writing for orchestra.  This reviewer certainly looks forward to hearing more of this composer’s works for larger ensembles.  Very effective writing.

in absentia (2008) is the earliest work here.  It is written for violin, piano, glasses and miniature electronics (not quite sure what that means).  Like many of the works on this disc the concern or focus seems to be on small events and sounds.  This is a rather contemplative piece that nicely rounds out the recording.

Matthusen resembles Lucier in some of her techniques and focus on small sounds otherwise missed and she certainly owes a debt to people like Pauline Oliveros.  But in truth she sounds like no one as much as Paula Matthusen.  The composer presents a strong and intelligent voice and one wishes for more from this interesting artist.  Thank you for the opportunity to review this.

Warning: Gentle Music, Marti Epstein’s Hypnagogia


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When Marti Epstein kindly sent this disc to me for review she “warned” me that it was gentle music.  In her liner notes she elaborates that her Midwestern roots will always inform her work.  As fellow Midwesterner (I hail originally from Chicago) I have an idea what she means.  There is a certain gentle affability which seems to characterize folks from the Midwest and no doubt this affects artist expression as well.

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Marti Epstein

This disc contains four such gentle compositions ranging from Grand Island (1986) to A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013).  As such it is a cross-section of Epstein’s work though it is hard to say, of course, if it is an accurate picture or overview.

The first piece Hothouse (2000) is a piece for two pianos which works on a couple of levels. It is quite listenable as a concert piece and seems to be a very effective way of using short phrases replaced by silences as a valid compositional technique.  Loosely interlocking phrases are replaced by silences gradually which lull the listener to the conclusion.

The second track is Grand Island (1986) which is the composer’s depiction of a drive to the city of Grand Island in Nebraska.  This piece for piano, two harps and two percussionists is complex enough to require a conductor (Jeffrey Means) but the complexity does not make for difficult listening.  Rather this is an impressionistic audio narrative of the composer’s experience driving through the Midwest as a child.  It has a very similar character to the first piece with silence being very important to the texture which fades to silence as the journey ends and perhaps the restless child has fallen asleep.

A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013), the most recent on the disc, comes in at under two minutes and evokes Copland-like harmonies in a “tiny” piece written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Ludovico Ensemble who perform the music on this disc (the composer plays one of the pianos on Hothouse).  The unusual instrumentation here is flute, clarinet and cimbalom.

Hypnagogia (2009) is the most experimental music here and is very much the star of this release.  It exists only in parts with no unified score and asks the performers to perform as if they were alone.  It is an attempt to depict the state of mind between waking and sleeping.  This piece is more concerned with sound than silence and the mobile-like appearances of the sounds does create a dream-like texture which, as warned, is also very gentle but not without a touch of anxiety at times.  It is perhaps the most substantial (over 45 minutes), striking and successful piece on the disc and brings it to very satisfying conclusion.

The recording has a warmth and presence and the musicians seem well-suited to the tasks at hand.  This writer will be pleased to hear more from these artists in the future.

 

Tim Brady: The Canadian Connection


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Starkland is one of the few American labels that regularly pays attention to Canadian composers.  I previously reviewed their Paul Dolden release here.  This challenge to the curious apartheid we seem to maintain with Canadian culture is most welcome of course and one can obtain a great deal of Canadian music via Canadian labels but retail distribution of their non-pop music is limited to mail order and Internet sales (and I don’t mean Amazon either).  I strongly recommend perusing the web site of the Canadian Music Center for a truly stunning selection of this too little known recorded repertoire.  I should note that most of Brady’s releases are readily available from actuellecd.com.  You can find several of those other symphonies here as well as many other pieces and collaborative releases.  After hearing this disc I couldn’t resist hearing more  by this artist whose work has been known only faintly to me thus far.  That order is now being shipped.

Now to the disc at hand.  The  use of electric guitars as a primary instrument conjures immediate comparisons to Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham as well as to rock and blues but this music is quite different from all of these.  This is one aspect of  the work of a composer whose work includes writing for orchestra, chamber and solo instruments as well.  Brady, largely set taught in music until he attended college (Concordia University 1975-78; New England Conservatory 1978-80) is an interesting composer and performer with a widely varied palette.  Brady’s Wikipedia page is surprisingly informative as well.  You can find that here.

Tim Brady (1956- ) is an artist of many talents and this recording represents his most recent work, a symphony.  It is his fifth essay so titled and his choice of instrumentation for each (of his now 6 symphonies) is unique.  In this case he has chosen to score for four guitars (his Symphony No. 4 is for full orchestra) and also presents a separate solo version backed by electronics.  It is subtitled, “The Same River Twice” (2013) and I struggled a bit initially getting wrapped up in trying to discern the differences between the two versions but realized that is rather beside the point in a way.  What makes this music interesting is the way in which it differs from the likes of Branca and Chatham.  Brady clearly comes from a different perspective.  The myriad ways in which creative musicians find to integrate cross genre elements fascinates me as a listener.  He is 8 years younger than Branca, 4 younger than Chatham but his perspective of the inherently “pop” inflection of the electric guitar differs greatly.  He is writing another vital and welcome chapter in this loosely defined group of guitar based experimental musics of the last 40 years and his work deserves attention.

He seems to have more in common (broadly speaking) with Pat Metheny than Fred Frith and his discography reflects encounters with several ECM artists.  I’m not sure who influences who here but this is a pleasant and intelligent exploration sometimes virtuosic, sometimes drone-like but a consistently engaging piece.

As I said there are two versions of this symphony on the disc.  Along with those are two shorter tracks by Antoine Berthiaume and Rainer Wiens.  Fungi by Berthiaume is another example of the integration of pop motives into a broader quasi-improvisational context and is most successful.  The disc is rounded out with a sort of little summation “remix” by Wiens entitled “What is time?” which reportedly uses breath as a rhythmic determinant.

The playing is competent and intuitive, not flashy or self-consciously experimental.  Rather this is the work of a seasoned composer who uses his materials well .

Recording and mastering, all expertly done, were done in Canada by the artists who also did the useful liner notes (Allan Kozinn writes the gatefold notes).  The cover art and the production of the CD belong to Starkland and it is a very nice production.

ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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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.

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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.

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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.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

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.

 

 

 

 

 

all spring, Music of Emily Doolittle


 

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Emily Doolittle (1972- ) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She earned a B. Mus. from Dalhousie University in 1995 having studied with Dennis Farrell and Steve Tittle.  She went on to earn an M. Mus. in 1999 from Indiana University where she studied with Don Freund.  She completed her Ph.D. at Princeton in 2007 studying with Barbara White, Steve Mackey and Paul Lansky.  In addition she studied with Louis Andriessen from 1997-1999.

Doolittle now lives in Glasgow, UK having just left a faculty position at the Cornish school in Seattle, WA.  where she taught since 2008.  A quick look at her CV reveals a very busy composer and academic with an extensive list of compositions, performances, research, teaching etc. such that this reviewer is amazed to find that the present release is the first CD dedicated exclusively to her music.

I was pleased to be able to get a perspective from the composer that helped me understand the context of this disc in terms of the rest of her work.  She wrote:

“As I was making choices of what to include on this CD, I realized that my music divides itself into several (sometimes overlapping) categories. Over the next few years, I’m hoping to be able to record two or three more CDs. The one that I sent you is the one for fairly standard-ish chamber ensembles, with pieces that would sit fairly comfortably with chamber music of any era. At the moment I’m applying for funding to record a CD of pieces for one or two instruments/voices — these pieces also have a fairly similar musical language to the pieces on “all spring”. After that, I’d like to record a CD of my bird and animal song influenced music, which tends to be more experimental (in terms of sounds used and structure), and often involves some improvisation. And then I have a number of pieces that are harder to figure out how to present to a larger audience — site-specific pieces, pieces for amateurs or children, etc. So I guess I see this CD as both the culmination of one project, and the beginning of a larger project. And I think that getting this sort of overview of my compositions to date will help give me ideas about the directions I’m most interested in going in in the next few years. (I’m at a bit of a transitional time — I just left a full-time teaching position at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle to move to Glasgow. I’m hoping to find part time teaching here, but mostly I want to devote a lot more time to composing than I’ve been able to in the last few years.)”

I was also unaware that there was such a thing as “zoo-musicology” or the study of things musical generated by the members of the animal kingdom.  Who knew?  I was familiar with Olivier Messiaen’s transcriptions and use of bird song but until now I was not aware that work was still being done in this area.  Alas, that will have to be the subject of another review as this disc, while later analysis might reveal zoomusicological influences, is ostensibly more in the category of absolute music or perhaps metaphorical music.  What is quite clear is the picture of an artist with wide-ranging interests who is working to shape her oeuvre and her research interests into a more unified effort which promises potentially fascinating results yet to be heard.

The CD is a very pleasant listening experience.  Nothing here sounds experimental, rather these works are beautifully composed and lovingly played by the Seattle Chamber Players (and friends).  All were composed from 2000 to 2014 and share a sort of romantic and nostalgic flavor and demonstrate the delicate nuances of this composer’s palette.

The first two works, “Four Pieces About Water” (2000) in four short movements and the single movement “falling still” (2000/2009) are purely instrumental as is the fourth piece on the disc “col”(2002/2014).  (Please note that all spellings are as they appear on the disc.)

Tracks 6-10 comprise the album’s title piece, “all spring”(2004) features the poetry of Canadian poet Rae Crossman and the final and longest piece, “Why the parrot repeats human words” (2005) features a text by the composer in which she tells her version of a Thai folk tale (think perhaps of a Canadian Peter and the Wolf maybe).  Both these works feature the beautiful spoken and singing voice of Maria Mannisto.

The ample and lucid notes are by the composer.  The recording was engineered by Doug Haire at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle and mastering was by John D. S. Adams at Stonehouse Sound in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia for this Composer’s Concordance label release.

Certainly this writer will be looking forward to hearing more from this fascinating artist as she reveals more of her work on recordings and goes on to who knows what new and interesting areas in this (now) post-Boulez world.  Brava!

 

My 2014, a Summation and (sort of) “Best of…” List


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

As New Music Buff heads on into its fourth year in the online realm I find that I have a steadily increasing readership averaging 18 hits per day with an international reach of about 88 countries. I say readers, not followers because the stats provided have no way to track returning visitors but you know who you are.  And I thank WordPress for their entertaining summary published earlier here.

 

Last year I provided a list of my greatest hits (i.e. my most read articles in 2013) so here is a list of 2014’s top ten:

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)
This is a 2013 article which continues to be popular. I did an addendum called: Black Conductors, A Belated Addendum  and received a note from Tania Leon who remarked quite correctly that she is indeed a black American conductor.  Clearly I will need to expand this survey once again.

Maybe Music Remains Forever
This review of the excellent newly released Martin Bresnick CD went the equivalent of viral for my blog and I was pleased to have discovered the work of this wonderful American composer.

Primous Fountain World Tour Begins in Moldova
This relatively little known living black American composer was a child prodigy whose second symphony was commissioned by Quincy Jones had his sixth symphony premiered in Moldova in 2014.

Tawawa House in Modesto?
I was granted a comp ticket to see this really great performance of a little known 20th century opera by a black female American composer, Zenobia Powell Perry.  It was a great experience, a passionate, entertaining performance and put Modesto on the musical map for me.

Other Minds 18, Three Nights on the Leading Edge
Curiously this review was read more than the one about the 2014 Other Minds 19. More to come about the upcoming Other Minds 20.  For anyone who doesn’t know this is my favorite new music festival.

Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings
This article about a 2013 performance by this very talented multi-instrumentalist, singer and scholar/historian continues to be popular. I’m hoping to catch another of his performances in 2015.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Primous Fountain
I started in 2013 writing an occasional series of articles for Black History Month. I had no idea how popular this would become. The theme for the 2014 series is given in the title and you can rest assured that I will continue the series in 2015.

Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen, Great New Recording
A review of a crowd sourced recording project and one of my favorites of 2014.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act
This is the introductory article for the 2014 series. Many thanks for the comments and support on this article and its successors.  I plan to give my summation of the various responses on this received both on and off the books.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde
This is one of an ongoing series of articles on political expression in music. It was after I friended Dorothy Martirano on Facebook and mentioned this piece that the article got a few new readers. Perhaps I should have mentioned the composer in my title.  Kudos to the late great Salvatore Martirano, gone too soon and too little known even now some twenty years after his passing.

 

SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM 2014

Now regarding my personal favorite recordings of 2014 I have to insert a disclaimer to the effect that I make no claim whatsoever to this list being comprehensive or representing anything more than a few of my personal favorite recordings encountered in this past year. My apologies in advance to those I missed. I hope to catch up some day. So, in no particular order:

Mysterienspiel 2012

Game of the Antichrist by Robert Moran (Innova 251)
I promise a more comprehensive review soon but this is a great CD by a too little known American composer.  Mr. Moran recommended the disc to me after I wrote to him praising his wonderful “Trinity Requiem”.  I plan a more comprehensive article soon.  Meanwhile here is a link to a performance on Vimeo.

AZ spread

Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston  (Starkland S-2019)

This DVD is essentially the completion of a collaboration of photographer Jim Bengston and composer Ingram Marshall.  As such it is the most complete artistic statement superseding the audio only release (still worth having by the way) from some years ago.

 

Who Has the Biggest Sound? by Paul Dolden. (Starkland ST-220)
A difficult to categorize recording that brings two major works by this (previously unknown to me) Canadian composer to the listening audience. I reviewed this disc here.  I am still working on absorbing its subtleties.

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Prayers Remain Forever by Martin Bresnick (Starkland ST-221)
In addition to providing me with quite a few readers the opportunity to review this recording introduced me to the work of this too little known living American composer.  My review garnered quite an amazing amount of readers as well as an appreciative response from Mr. Bresnick himself.  And now I find myself buying his other recordings.  Really great music.

 

Album cover

Album cover

Notes from the Underground by Anthony Davis. (BMOP sound 1036)

I have been a fan on Anthony Davis and his music for some years now and I was pleased to be able to review this disc.   I  was later able to obtain an interview with Professor Davis which will be forthcoming later this year.

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Tom Johnson/Samuel Vriezen Chord Catalog/Within Fourths, Within Fifths. (Edition Vandelweiser)

I eagerly reviewed this crowd sourced CD in which I was proud to be one of the contributors to its production.  It is only the second recording of Johnson’s landmark of minimalism and an opportunity to hear the work of the fine composer/performer Samuel Vriezen.

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Basket Rondo/Jukebox in the Tavern of Love by Meredith Monk/Eric Salzman. (Labor LAB 7094)

This Labor Records release would have escaped my attention were it not for my having run across it while researching another new music article.  New music aficionados might remember Eric Salzman for earlier works such as “Civilization and It’s Discontents” and his involvement with Nonesuch records or one of his many other significant involvements in the new music scene over the last 40 years or so.  This disc is the première recording of Meredith Monk’s “Basket Rondo”, one of her best realized new works as well as the première of a great new sound/music drama by Salzman.  A more thorough review is in the works.

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Something by Howard Hersh ( Snow Leopard Music 888295062350)

Mr. Hersh kindly sent me this CD for review which will be forthcoming but it easily makes it to my favorites list for 2014.

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I also have to mention another crowd sourced project, “We Break Strings” by Thom Andrews and Dimitri Djuric, a book about the “alternative classical scene in London”.  The book which includes a CD sampler languishes in my “to be read” stack but my initial perusal left me with the impression of a beautifully conceived and executed volume which has much to offer the musically curious.  More about this book in a future blog.

 

 

 

A Piece of the Action, or How Other Minds Brought Out My Inner Trekkie


 

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I have been a fan of Other Minds for many years.  While I lived in Chicago I read the reports on the concert series with great interest and was fascinated with the choices of composers since they tended to mirror my own interests in new music as well as introduce me to tantalizing new artists.  I am not a professional musician but I have a long-standing passion for new music and attended many concerts of new music while I lived in Chicago reading liner notes and music history texts eager for more of the exhilarating experience of great new music as it was happening and wanting to know what was just around the corner.

I recall vividly New Music America 1982 which was held in Chicago and was hosted by Charles Amirkhanian, the executive and artistic director of Other Minds.  He spoke with authority and seemed to know just about every musician whose work I admired and countless whose work I hadn’t yet heard.  He conversed knowledgeably with the likes of John Cage, Robert Ashley, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk, Tom Johnson, Robert Moran and the list goes on.

10+2 Anthology

10+2 Anthology

Early on I had purchased and listened with delight to the masterful spoken word anthology: 10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces [OM-1006-2] containing a couple of Amirkhanian’s compositions  alongside other contemporary masters of that genre in the original vinyl release and listened with great interest to the landmark recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies [OM-1012-15-2] both discs largely the work of Mr. Amirkhanian who managed to get these recordings made in Mexico City on Nancarrow’s own player pianos.  So I have been familiar with him as both composer and producer.  He had been for many years the broadcast broker of contemporary music at KPFA in Berkeley where he served as music director from 1969 to 1992.

Charles Amirkhanian with Rex Lawson

Charles Amirkhanian holding the microphone while Rex Lawson sings along with one of his piano rolls.

When I moved to the bay area in late 2008 one of my first priorities was to attend my first Other Minds concerts.  I saw the OM 14 concerts and was not disappointed.  But my recollection was that it was at OM 15 that I checked the little box on one of the audience surveys saying that I would be willing to volunteer for the organization.  I did not know what to expect but shortly after OM 15 I was contacted by the OM office and asked to provide a résumé.  Well I have worked my entire career as a psychiatric nurse so I added to that résumé that I had what I termed “extensive knowledge” (not to mention a near obsession) of new music.  I got a call back and wound up spending 4 hour shifts approximately weekly over much of the following two years doing various tasks but mostly scanning photos and other materials for use in their web page and archives.

Dohee Lee at OM 18

Dohee Lee at OM 18

My first direct interaction at the office was with Adrienne Cardwell, a pleasant, hard-working young woman who I would later learn was (and remains) the longest  tenured employee other than Mr. Amirkhanian and his co-founder (now President Emeritus) Jim Newman.  Adrienne is in charge of the massive archival goings on and would direct my tasks over the next 2 years.

I worked in the same room as Adam Fong, the associate director at the time (now director of the Center for New Music and a composer/musician in his own right).  I also had the pleasure of working with fund-raisers Emma Moon and later Cynthia Mei who are also highly accomplished musicians and arts advocates.  I had  the pleasure of meeting the Other Minds librarian Steven Upjohn and the hard-working OM radio host Richard Friedman as well as the opportunity to meet interns and even some very interesting scholars and musicians who visited the office while I was there.  In short it was a great volunteer experience which garnered me more than I originally bargained for.

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The F...

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The Fluxus Semicentenary he produced in September, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the course of those two years I had many conversations with the OM staff particularly with Adam and later Mr. Amirkhanian about music and programming as I went through scanning, filing and doing whatever tasks were needed at the times I was there.  I recall making some references to some relatively obscure composers which resulted in Charles asking me (somewhat rhetorically), “How do you know that?”.   I just replied that I read a lot but later gave some thought about the nature of my relationship with this fine organization as well as the nature of my interest in new music.

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In the ensuing two years I would have some fascinating experiences meeting some of my heroes in new music and dabbling in the inner workings of Other Minds.  My enthusiasm was responded to by the staff at OM by allowing me to work on some of their other projects.  I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to participate and I was thanked most wonderfully once from the stage of one of the OM concerts by Charles Amirkhanian and at least a few more times by having special thanks acknowledged in various concert programs and, most notably for me, in the liner notes of their CD release of the complete music of Carl Ruggles (OM-1020-21-2).  I knew and loved those recordings when they were released on vinyl and was ecstatic to participate in the work on the CD release.  It was great on vinyl and it’s even better on CD.

OK, here is where Star Trek comes in:

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After some reflection I came up with what I think is an apt metaphor that fairly accurately describes my experience of my relationship with Other Minds.  Some may recall (you can fact check this if you aren’t old enough to have seen the original broadcast) an episode of the original Star Trek series which was titled, “A Piece of the Action”.  The plot involved Captain Kirk and his crew beaming down to a planet where the inhabitants were living out the equivalent of prohibition era gangsters’ lives.  At one  point this little boy (that would be me in this metaphor) offers some information which would allow Kirk and his crew to get over on the bad guys but only at a price.  The price, he says, is, “a piece of the action”.   The resolution of the plot involves the Enterprise crew successfully resolving the conflict and the little boy being able to experience just a taste of the perceived glamour of the experience of the Enterprise crew (dressed as depression era gangsters to fit in), as Captain Kirk says to him in his best cool gangster voice, “There ya go, kid.  A piece of the action.”

Star_Trek_William_Shatner

I came away from my volunteer experience even more impressed and pleased with this organization and I continue to support them in any way I can.  My thanks to Captain Kirk and his crew for bringing out my inner Trekkie and for availing me of more than just one piece of the action.  You guys run a truly great ship.  Live long and prosper.

I look forward to the upcoming 20th Other Minds concerts.  More on that in blogs to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

In the Mood for Food, a unique underground dinner/concert series returns to the east bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

This past Monday October 7th there was a gathering of twelve people at a small loft space in West Oakland.  This is not a neighborhood known for about anything but light industry and cheaper rents.  But there are gems to be found in nasty old Oakland, CA and this is one of them.  It was the return of an irregular (approximately monthly) series of dinners and dinner concerts hosted by local vegan caterer and chef extraordinaire (and shakuhachi teacher as well) Philip Gelb.  These concerts, according to Mr. Gelb, were inspired by the Creative Music Studio which flourished in Woodstock, New York from 1971 to 1984 which featured many of the brightest and most innovative musicians in jazz, free improvisation and experimental music.  But the inclusion of such high quality creative cooking is unique here.

View through a glass, lightly.

View through a glass, lightly.

It has been many months since he last hosted one of these at his loft space.  Phil has chosen to combine his substantial cooking talents with his interest and connections with the music community to create this unique blend of freshly shopped and created vegan dishes with local and visiting musical talent.  This series, dubbed “In The Mood for Food”, is named after one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-Wai.  The series has occurred more or less monthly for the last 8 years. To date I have enjoyed the creative and varied multi-course meals (which are frequently themed to the season or to the performer’s preferences) and have enjoyed both dinner conversation and performances by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Gyan Riley, Tim Rayborn, Michael Manring, Barre Phillips, Mark Dresser, Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z to name just a few.

The meals are always multi-course, locally created, sourced and shopped meticulously by Phil himself.  He serves only farm fresh ingredients, never canned or packaged and the recipes are his personal creations.  Food is served by the chef and one or two assistants depending on the size of the audience (maximum capacity is about 20 people).  Cost ranges from $40 to $60 per person, about what you would pay at a good area restaurant.  The musicians are either people with whom Phil has collaborated or found by word of mouth from other musicians and friends.  He has had many musicians call him to ask if they can play at his venue.  Why would that be?  There is no significant publicity or profit to be had here.  The answer, I believe, is the intimacy which is a combination of the loving creation of both food and music, both raised to an art form by their execution as well as their content.

There is reportedly a cook book in the works which, in addition to many carefully tested vegan recipes, will tell some of the history of this series.  Phil is occasionally soliciting recipe testers via Facebook.  He is also known for his hands on cooking classes.

As it happened, Monday’s event did not include music but it did include some familiar faces who I frequently encounter at these dinners as well as an overall interesting collection of guests who make for great conversation and frequently share their BYOB offerings.  In fact the bartender from the great San Francisco vegan restaurant, ‘Millenium’, asked to attend and to prepare some delicious cocktails specially designed by him and incorporating some of the food ingredients to enhance the experience.  Two of the guests were the operators of a local new tempeh making business called Rhizocali and their superior product was featured in the night’s food offerings.

Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the wonderful dessert course which consisted of pumpkin waffles, spiced pumpkin sorbet and maple tea poached pears.  Characteristically the attentive chef went around offering more scoops of the refreshing pumpkin sorbet which no one appeared to refuse as they engaged each other in pleasant conversations.  It is good to have this series back again and, well, let’s just say no one walked away unsatisfied.

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles
Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.

Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

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).

Gáman

Danish folk trio Gáman

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.

Sachdev

G.S. Sachdev (left) and Swapan Chaudhuri.

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.

D. Lee OM18

Composer, performer, designer, shaman Dohee Lee performing her work, ‘ARA’.

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.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

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.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

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.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds 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.

Taborn

Craig Taborn performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the 2013

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.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

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.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais' 'Work Around the World'.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais’ ‘Work Around the World’.

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.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen's 'Vogelstimmung'.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’.

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.

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

 

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.

 

Ström, part of the video projection

Ström, part of the video projection

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.

Paula Matthusen performing her work, '...and believing in...'

Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’

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.

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

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.

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk's 'Scared Song'

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’

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.

All the composers of Other Minds 18

All the composers of Other Minds 18

Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa, Theresa Wong in Berkeley


Lewandowski piano

A view of the inside of the piano showing Lewandowski’s alterations.

It is easy to miss the nondescript storefront on University Avenue where this performance took place. And the promotion of this concert appeared to be mostly through Facebook and the Bay Area improvisers web site which resulted in a small but appreciative audience interested in hearing the work of Annie Lewandowski, now a music lecturer at Cornell. She is a graduate of Mills College. She has a varied resume ranging from classical piano to progressive rock bands and she presented tonight her work with extended piano techniques much like those of John Cage but with some distinctly personal twists extending Cage’s methods further. Ms. Lewandowski was hosted by Theresa Wong (also a Mills graduate), bay area composer, cellist and singer who organized the event and Luciano Chessa, San Francisco Conservatory professor, composer, musicologist, historian and performer and producer who played a couple of different roles in this evening.

performance of La Barbara's 'Hear What I Feel'

Luciano Chessa performing Joan La Barbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’

The first performance was introduced by Ms. Wong who informed us that Luciano Chessa had been kept in isolation for the last hour while the preparations were done for his performance. The piece being performed was Joan LaBarbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’ from 1974. It consists of a table upon which there are several plates each containing some object or substance. The performer, who is blindfolded, is seated at the table and the performance consists of the performers reactions to the substances and/or objects he examines with his hands alone. It is performance art that would be perfectly at home with other Dada and Fluxus-like scores.

Wong led Chessa carefully from the back of the performance space to the table containing six plates. After seating him she positioned the microphone carefully in front of him. Chessa spent several minutes with each object examining three predominantly with his left hand and three with his right. All the while during his tactile adventure he vocalized a variety of sounds evoking (presumably) his emotional response to each object or creating an audio analog for them.

As with all such scores the result leaves a wide range of possibilities to the performer. And this performance was suitably humorous and engaging. Following his examination of the last of the objects Chessa removed the blindfold and reacted to each of the objects (without vocalizing) as he examined them visually. There was an effective combination of (mockingly?) serious concentration and idiosyncratic responses that left the audience genially amused and entertained.

Lewandowski piano

Annie Lewandowski playing in the piano, on the keyboard and singing.

Wong cello

Theresa Wong playing her carefully altered and electronically enhanced cello and singing.

This was followed by a duet between Lewandowski and Wong. Both performers utilized various ways of altering the sounds of their instruments by adding objects to the strings or by exciting the strings with objects. Wong also made use of a foot pedal controlling some electronics. Lewandowski’s piano was miked and amplified somewhat.

The improvisation was started by Lewandowski with some percussive like sounds elicited at the keyboard. Wong responded sparely at first and the two seemed to trade ideas which became richer as the performance went on. Again the serious concentration was present as the performers carefully heard and responded to each others’ music making. While satisfying it was a sort of introduction or first taste of what was to come in the second half.

A brief intermission saw the performers mingling with audience members, many of whom were acquaintances and other musicians.

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

What concluded this unusual program was a trio for all three performers. Lewandowski with her prepared piano, Wong with her altered cello, Chessa with his signature Vietnamese Dan Bau and guitar. All three also sang. The performance started sparely as each introduced suggestions or themes for the improvisation and reacted to them.

Lewandowski gave a much fuller exposition of the possibilities of her instrument playing the keyboard, inside and all around the piano as well as singing. Wong also seemed to use a wider amount of sound possibilities in her playing. Chessa played the traditional Vietnamese folk instrument in all but traditional ways using devices to excite the strings and focusing on tuning and even some percussive possibilities. At one point he left the table where he was performing to pick up an acoustic guitar. After picking a few notes he walked to the back of the stage area and ascended a stair case leading to a sort of balcony that surrounded the performance space. It was at this point that he began softly singing what sounded like an Italian folk tune as he played the guitar in a most traditional manner. This gave a collage effect to the performance juxtaposing the most traditional kind of music making with the extended and experimental sounds.

Chessa remained on the balcony for a bit, then descended the staircase again and returned to the more unusual playing methods at first on the guitar and then back at the table on the Dan Bau. Following this Lewandowski began vocalizing a melody with sparse accompaniment that would have been perfectly at home in a scene from ‘Eraserhead’ at times. She was echoed by Wong’s extended vocal techniques at first and then Lewandowski and Wong began singing a more traditional sounding melody with beautiful harmonizations interpolating this singing at different points while still traversing their freely improvised instrumental playing supported by Chessa on the Dan Bau.

This made for a rather tranquil mood as they ended the second half of the concert. The audience was appreciative. And this writer was pleased to have found a gem of a concert experience by young, serious (but good-humored) and accomplished musicians in the eclectic world of the east bay.

Experimentalism Otherwise, a significant new book on the New York progressive music scene in thec1960’s


I posted my blog review of the Carl Ruggles CD release on Amazon so I decided it would be reasonable to take an earlier review from Amazon and post it to my blog. So having made this guilty disclaimer, here is my review of a great book I came across in the fall of 2011:

For those interested in contemporary music and the New York avant garde of the early to mid 1960’s this is a book that is hard to put down. Each of the first four chapters is devoted respectively to: The New York Philharmonic’s 1961 performance of John Cage’s ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’; Henry Flynt and his rejection of mainstream avant garde trends (Stockhausen, Boulez, etc.); The (short lived) Jazz Composer’s Guild; and the performances of cellist Charlotte Moorman. A final chapter is devoted to a summary analysis which further connects these performers and events to the work of the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and (surprisingly but most appropriately) to the influence of these avant gardists on the subsequent work of Iggy Pop.

Nearly every significant figure of the avant garde is mentioned or quoted and the views of the general public as well as more specialized critics (which, of course, includes various members of the avant garde) are included in the course of the discussion and analysis. In addition to John Cage we hear from the likes of Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, David Tudor. The Henry Flynt chapter necessarily involves various figures associated with the Fluxus movement and related projects. The Jazz Composer’s Guild chapter includes Bill Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Michael Mantler, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Amiri Baraka, George Lewis, the AACM. And the chapter on Moorman includes Nam Jun Paik as well as John Cage and various Fluxus artists. The final chapter connects to others not so closely associated with New York such as Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and finally to MC5, John Sinclair and Iggy Pop.

While there is some musical analysis here the author seems primarily concerned with analyzing these events and people and placing them more clearly within the political, social and cultural contexts in which they existed and to which they reacted. And indeed he finds highly relevant connections to civil rights issues and political conflicts and social movements as well as musical and performance movements and practices.

The analysis in terms of the likes of Pierre Bordieu, Franzt Fanon and Michel Foucault may be a bit difficult for those who have no familiarity with their works but his analysis is fascinating and his writing style is very lucid. This is an intelligent book not aimed at a narrow specialist audience. I believe that he succeeds in producing a fresh, important and valuable perspective on the people, the music, the events and the responses to them which will continue to prove useful in present and future analyses of the state of contemporary music and performance.

Finally the book is full of references comprising at least a third of the volume which serve both to support and illustrate Mr. Piekut’s theses and also to provide easy access to further reading and research.

In the time since I published this review Mr. Piekut has come to the United States and is now an Assistant Professor at Cornell University. I will certainly continue to follow the work of this young scholar. And I eagerly anticipate his next project. Perhaps he will see fit to turn his analytical insights to more of America’s too little known avant garde music movements and provide some much needed documentation. And hopefully his students will be motivated to explore these as well.

It is worth noting that the ‘Other Minds’ people in San Francisco have recently chosen to make this book available at a discount on their website. They stock a small but carefully selected cache of books related to new music and their inclusion of this one suggests that they find it a significant volume. In addition they are also stocking local artist/composer/professor Luciano Chessa’s new book on Luigi Russolo, the early twentieth century Italian artist best known for his advocacy of the use of noise as a musical element. In fact I have it cued up in my reading list and plan a future review.

The Complete Works of Carl Ruggles (reissue)


At long last the 1980 CBS recording of The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) has been reissued by Other Minds records (OM 1021/2-2).  I have owned the vinyl two disc set for many years having come across a review of it in a list of suggested recordings of American classical music in, of all places, The Whole Earth Catalog.  And it is definitely a vital part of any serious collection of American classical music.  Ruggles was one of a group collectively labeled, “The American Five”, a title intended to compare the group with the French “Le Six”, the “Russian Five” or the often cited “Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms).  The American group consists of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles and John J. Becker who strove to define an American sound not beholden to the European models which had dominated the previous century.  Ruggles’ students included James Tenney and Merton Brown.

This album is a recording of Ruggles’ complete published works.  A recent recording of newly unearthed ephemera was recently released but the present record is everything that Ruggles acknowledged and approved.  It is a meager output for a man who lived to the age of 95 similar to the output of the equally important Edgard Varese whose complete works also fit on two vinyl records and the music is just as finely crafted.  The music here is likely not as familiar even to those who know the work of Ives and Cowell.  But make no mistake this is powerful and unique music that deserves more than just a casual listen.

It is thanks to the efforts of Michael Tilson Thomas, who first heard his teacher Ingolf Dahl conduct Ruggles’ three movement symphony, ‘Men and Mountains’ that inspired him to add Ruggles’ work to his repertoire.  But the connections do not stop there.  Thomas and producer Syrl Silberman of WGBH went to visit Ruggles in a rest home and introduced themselves by putting headphones on the composer and playing an air check of Thomas’ performance of Ruggles’ best known work, ‘Sun Treader’.  Thomas’  wonderful essay about that auspicious encounter is included in Wayne Smith’s beautifully designed booklet.  Also included are the original liner notes with Thomas’ essay, notes and analysis by pianist and Ives scholar John Kirkpatrick and an additional essay by Lou Harrison reprinted as well.  There is also an introduction written by Other Minds Associate Director Adam Fong, himself a student of James Tenney, which puts Ruggles in a wider historical perspective.

Executive producers Charles Amirkhanian and Adam Fong acquired permission from Sony Music to digitize the original master tapes working with a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund to bring this essential recording into the digital age.  And the performances by the acclaimed new music advocate Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (MTT was then its musical director), a brass ensemble led by Gerard Schwarz and none other than John Kirkpatrick on piano in the Four Evocations.  Michael Tilson Thomas accompanies soprano Judith Blegen in the little song, ‘Toys’ from 1919 which Ruggles wrote for his son.  Speculum Musicae accompany mezzo-soprano Beverly Morgan in ‘Vox Clamans in Deserto’ from 1923.  Trumpeter/conductor Gerard Schwarz leads a brass ensemble in the original 1921 version of ‘Angels’ for six trumpets as well as its 1940 revision for trumpets and trombones.  Even American choral music experts the Gregg Smith Singers come in to perform Ruggles’ last completed composition, ‘Exaltation’ from 1958, composed in memory of his late wife Charlotte.

The Buffalo Philharmonic with its long history of performing contemporary music under Lukas Foss and Michael Tilson Thomas does a wonderful job of handling the six orchestral works.  Best known of these is the tone poem ‘Sun Treader’ which Thomas had recorded earlier with the Boston Symphony in about 1970.  ‘Men’ from 1921, the three movement symphony ‘Men and Mountains’ from 1924, the orchestral version of the four ‘Evocations’ and the 1947 ‘Organum’ also receive very effective readings.  Michael Tilson Thomas is the conductor for all and he clearly knows and loves this music.

The sound is great and the performances are truly definitive coming from artists with varying levels of connection to the composer and  all clearly with a passion for this music.

In fact I can find only a handful of other recordings of Ruggles’ music.  Most are out of print and/or dated in sonic reproduction.  A notable exception is New World Records’, ‘The Uncovered Ruggles’, posthumous reconstructions done by John Kirkpatrick and performed and produced by Kirkpatrick student Donald Berman actually makes a nice companion to the release at hand here for the Ruggles fanatic. (I know they’re out there.)  And there are digital downloads of some out of print recordings as well.

So, as in their previous releases, OM records continues its traversal of sometimes difficult but always relevant music.  So order your copy today through Other Minds, Naxos Distribution or through Amazon.com.  You might be challenged but you won’t be disappointed.  This is a great recording.