Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


nakedeye

Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

The @realAlvin Curran at the Armory


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Alvin Curran performing from his “Fake Book” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 2014

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is  one of the finest of that maverick band of composers who came of age in the 1960s as expatriates in Italy.  Along with musicians like Frederic Rzewski, Carol Plantamura, Richard Teitelbaum, and Allan Bryant among others they formed the world’s first live electronic improvisation ensemble, “Music Elletronica Viva” in 1966.  In this time electronic synthesizers were not generally available and most of their equipment was hand made.  All the musicians have since all gone their own very creative ways but in many ways this ensemble has been their touchstone which continues to underlie their work.

Curran told this writer that it was around this time that he began working on a huge series of compositions of (at least initially) an improvisational nature which he collected under the general title of “Fake Book”.  Musicians will be familiar with the term which is roughly analogous to a cheat sheet enabling musicians easy access to many chord progressions, songs, and other pieces at their fingertips to please a wide range of tastes in their audiences.

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Curran’s Fake Book is a huge collection of scores, digital samples (no doubt he began with analog samples) and sketches.  He recently published a hefty selection of this material available on Amazon and is well worth both your time and your money for the insight it provides to this unusual composer.  The composer’s web site is an extremely useful reference but nothing can match hearing and seeing this spirited, kinetic shaman of a performer.  His creativity and sheer joy of music making is infectious and the music he makes is akin to reading diary excerpts, a musical analogy of sorts to the likes of Anais Nin, the famed mega-diarist of a previous generation.

Curran is, at 80, an energetic and endlessly creative musician, a humanist with deep convictions and quite simply an experience not to be missed.  Here is the announcement of this concert which, though this writer is unable to attend, is not to be missed.

Alvin Curran
performs
“The Alvin Curran Fakebook”
on shofar, piano, keyboard, and electronics
at the Veterans Room
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (66th-67th St.)
Wednesday March 14, 2018, at 7.00 pm & 9.00 pm
or call the box office (212) 933-5812 Mon-Fri, 10.00 am-6.00 pm

Howard Hersh’s Chamber Music: Dancing at the Pink House


hersh pink

This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer.  His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord.  This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.

This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story.  Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character.  Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014).  The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level.  It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.

Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone.  It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.

I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom.  Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well.  Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.

Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out  in jazzy/bluesy moments.  This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season).  José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.

Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website.  It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano.  Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece.  Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).

Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer.  This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.

Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University.  It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience.  Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.

The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards.  The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.

Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica  Elletronica Viva.  They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible.  He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center.  he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times.  He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds.  When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both.  He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it.  They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.

At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music.  Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.

The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music.  All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds.  The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.

Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment.  From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will.  His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.

The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation.  Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience.  He continues his tour and will return to his adopted  home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

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So the Dead May Speak, a Function of Classical Political Music


English: Photograph of a Female Demonstrator O...

Photograph of a Female Demonstrator Offering a Flower to a Military Police Officer, 10/21/1967 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a voice to the murdered, the martyrs, those who cannot speak for themselves is one of the ways in which sociopolitical music can function.  Witness the case of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934).  He worked as a draftsman for a company which assigned him to work on designing new offices for the Chase Manhattan Bank in the then apartheid Union of South Africa.  He became outraged at the inequality and quit his job there as a result.  He became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party.  He was arrested in 1969 for his involvement in 8 bombings.  He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

sam-melville

He was transferred to Attica prison in upstate New York where he continued to work as an activist attempting to improve prison conditions for him and his fellow inmates.  He is suspected of being involved in organizing the prison riots which erupted there in 1971 which the state’s response resulted in the deaths of 39 people of which Melville was one.  Subsequent lawsuits for violations of civil rights resulted in the payment of $12 million dollars by the state of New York to the families of the victims.

The first recording of both "Coming Together" and "Attica", an iconic record for this writer.

The first recording of both “Coming Together” and “Attica”, an iconic record for this writer.

Later that year Frederic Rzewski wrote his piece for speaker and ensemble (the score is open as to instrumentation) “Coming Together”.  The title and the words the speaker repeats are taken from one of Melville’s letters:

“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate–sometimes even calculating–seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”

The text is repeated usually with dramatic license over a driving minimalist substrate which suggests the chaos that must have imbued that time.  The piece lasting about 20 minutes is a powerful experience, even more so when the listener comes to know the context.  It has been recorded at least four times.

A sort of companion piece, “Attica”, also written in 1971, uses the words of one of the survivors of that riot, Richard X. Clark, as he was being taken away from the prison:  “Attica is in front of me now.”  Mr. Clark, who was released from prison in 1972, wrote a book about his experiences and went on to work in social services as a case manager helping drug addicts recover.

This second piece (lasting about ten minutes) uses the minimalist style to create a calmer atmosphere, that of a man who is saddened but relieved to have this event over and to have survived.  This piece has also had several recordings and is frequently performed as a companion to “Coming Together”.

In future blogs I will include more music that speaks for the dead in this ongoing series of political classical music.

Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries


My earliest listening adventures in new music, the ones that shaped my present interests, included the early Odyssey vinyl which contained Steve Reich’s tape piece of 1966, “Come Out”, Frederic Rzewski’s 1974 recording which contained Attica (1972) and Coming Together (1972) and the RCA budget disc of new music which contained Penderecki’s harrowing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). In addition to satisfying my fascination with new sounds they were also pointedly political in their messages.

In late 2008 or very early in 2009 I read of a recital to be held at Mills College premiering some of the pieces in a set of piano pieces commissioned by Sarah Cahill called, “A Sweeter Music”, a title taken from a speech by Martin Luther King. I was already familiar with Cahill’s fine pianism and her support of new music. Pieces had been commissioned from Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. I think this was a significant set of commissions and I am happy to read on Cahill’s website that a recording will be forthcoming from Other Minds records.

The recital was a very informal affair in a small concert room at Mills. Many of the pieces were in stages of rehearsal and none of them had the later added multi-screen video projections which were created by Cahill’s husband, the fine videographer and filmmaker, John Sanborn. The audience was small and only a few pieces were actually played but Cahill discussed the project plans and afforded the opportunity for the audience to examine the actual scores.

Needless to say I enjoyed the evening. I spoke with Ms. Cahill and asked if she knew of any books on the subject of political classical music. She concentrated seriously for a moment, searching her knowledge of the literature and replied, “No, I don’t know of any, you should write one.”

That idea has continued to intrigue me so I have decided to begin a series of blog posts on what I do know about contemporary classical music written with the intention of stating a political or social issue. It didn’t take much thought or research to know that this would be a big topic.

At some point I will need to construct a sort of taxonomy of the types of political music to more widely define the area. Fo)r now, though, I decided to limit my research to music written after 1950 by non-pop composers (much has been written about folk/pop political music) which was written with the intention of stating and/or influencing a political or social issue.

I found a great article by Kyle Gann (he always seems to know about music I like, including his own) which appeared in 2003. It is a fine starting point for these efforts.

I will begin by trying to construct a list of such music and, in addition to the pieces listed above, I would suggest  Rzewski’s magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1968), Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (1960), Hans Werner Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968), George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

I am open to suggestions in the construction of this list and welcome comments as I attempt this project.