Female Artists Matter: Sarah Cahill’s Survey of Piano Music by Neglected Women Composers


First Hand Records FHR 131

Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.

Photo by Christine Alicino from Cahill’s web site

Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).

The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.

Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.

Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.

The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.

The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.

We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.

The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.

This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.

Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.

The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.

This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.

The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.

Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black

At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.

Rising Star Cellist Hannah Collins Defines Her Vision for Her Instrument in “Resonance Lines”


Sono Luminus DSL-92252

Having chosen a debut album featuring solo cello without electronics or accompaniment the Sono Luminus label virtually guarantees that every one of the subtleties of the performer’s skills will be heard in all their glory. And so we have an auspicious solo debut album by a skilled and talented artist with a unique and intelligent vision in her choice of repertoire for her instrument. Hannah Collins has a beautifully designed web page describing her background so I will focus only on the music on this release.

Even a brief glance makes it obvious that Collins’ radar captures a wide range of music which encompasses five centuries of compositional efforts by both a consciously curated selection of composers that reflect both racial and gender diversity and who themselves represent a substantive variety of styles and visions. She begins with a rather obscure baroque composer (I had never heard of him), Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). His Chiacona (1670) is apparently the first identified composition for solo cello (the famous solo cello suites by J.S. Bach wouldn’t come along until 1717-1723).

This arguably foundational work of the solo cello genre is then followed by the very fine Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) whose Dreaming Chaconne (2010) is in fact a variation on the Colombi piece.

The third track, “In manus tuas” (Into your hands) by the equally fine American composer, Carolyn Shaw (1982- ) was written for Ms. Collins, and is an aural peek inside the mind of the composer as she recalls a performance of a motet by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Shaw evokes a sonic memory moment of hearing a performance of “In manus tuas Domine” in Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut which made a strong impression on her. It is a work that appears to be destined to become a modern classic. It creates spectral harmonics that engulf the listener inside Shaw’s memory of the event. The composition’s title also function metaphorically as she offers her music into the hands of the artist and the minds of the listeners. It is a challenge both technically and interpretively and Collins rises to those challenges with seeming ease.

The next seven tracks are given to another Saariaho composition, “Sept Papillons” (2000). This earlier work from her extensive catalog is also given to extended instrumental techniques as she evokes the seven butterflies of the title. This set of pieces was written for the fine Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen. It was at the 2008 Creative Dialogue Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (run by Karttunen) that Collins encountered this music and the extended techniques required for its performance. Saariaho’s sound world is like that of an incarnation of Debussy and his impressionist aesthetic. There is apparently no visual program here but the music recalls, in this listener’s mind, Saariaho’s earlier “Nymphea” (1987) for string quartet and electronics which was inspired by Monet’s famed “Water Lilies” of 1906.

This fine disc includes the first (of three) suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten. All three of these (1964, 1967, 1971) had all been composed for the Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the the Saariaho and Shaw pieces these suites are inspired by earlier works, in this case the Bach suites of the early 18th century. Collins plays the first (Opus 72) of these and her performance makes this listener hope that she will later record the other two.

While modeled on earlier music, the Britten work utilizes techniques that would likely be unfamiliar to cellists before the 20th century. It is homage both to Bach and to Maestro Rostropovich. And Collins’ playing furthers this homage to both of these past masters.

The final track is a work by one Thomas Kotcheff (1988- ). Like the first track, this young composer is unfamiliar to this writer. His work, “Cadenza (with or without Haydn)” of 2020” carries on the theme of homage. In a nod to the late great Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) whose “Cadenza with or without Beethoven” (2003) is an extended cadenza which can be played on its own or as part of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.

Kotcheff’s work is a cadenza for Haydn’s C major cello concerto. Like the Rzewski, it can be performed with the concerto or as a solo work on its own. Also like the Rzewski, the more modern aspects of this “cadenza” might confuse audiences anticipating more conventional music that fits with the context of the concerto for which it was written and the music stands very strongly on its own.

Like a lot of solo artists are doing these days, Collins’ debut solo album is like her personal manifesto of music for her chosen instrument. It is a fine foundation anticipating what will likely be an enlightening as well as entertaining career.

My End of the Year Personal Best Choices and Other Blather That May Interest My Readers


Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.

My home base is in California, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles though I sometimes travel for work

First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.

Since February of 2021 I have worked periodically in Washington State, not in a cabin in Mt. Rainier National Park but in Tacoma, just south of Seattle.

COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.

My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!

So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):

The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.

Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.

As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.

New Music Buff’s Best of 2021

As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.

Me with my listening buddy, Clyde

Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:

Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.

Top Ten Most Read of 2021

The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.

Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.

Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.

Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.

Centaur CRC 3836

Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.

Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.

The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.

Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.

Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.

Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.

“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille is a virtual manifesto/survey of art song by black composers. Liverman is an amazing singer and the recording by my favorite Chicago record company is pure beauty. This 2021 release ranks ninth among my most read blogs from the past 12 months.

As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:

Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.

Primous Fountain arrives in Moldova to oversee the performances of his music.

I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.

My “comeback blog”, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger was written to sort of reintroduce myself to the blogosphere and provide some background (excuses?) for my absence. I guess it was a decent read.

And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.

The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten

I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:

Solo Artist Pamela Z releases “a secret code”. This is another Neuma release, one of a truly original and interesting artist who pretty much defies categories but the territory she explores will amaze you.

Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece is just unabashedly excellent. It is a recording of a 2017 performance (in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday anniversary) in Cleveland by performers who have had a close relationship with this major American composer. I love the music. I love the performers. It’s a digital only release but you can get a download of the album and the fine liner notes from Bandcamp.

Fixing a Hole to Keep the Music Playing: Starkland brings back Guy Klucevsek’s “Citrus, My Love” is also a digital only release, also available on Bandcamp of an album long out of print but essential to the oeuvre of Guy Klucevsek. Like Philip Blackburn, Tom Steenland (who heads Starkland records) is a musical visionary who has released some of my personal favorite albums. If Tom (or Philip) likes it I will at least give it a listen.

Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.

Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.

Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.

Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.

Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.

Only the Lonely, Frank Horvat’s “Music for Self Isolation” is yet another release from this emerging Canadian composer. This is one of my favorite COVID Isolation albums, a unique response to this pandemic from an eminently listenable and endlessly creative composer.

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New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.

The Bewitched in Berlin, Kenneth Gaburo does Harry Partch for your head (phones). This is another “save” by Philip Blackburn. This performance in Berlin of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording of a very fine performance directed by Kenneth Gaburo. If you’re a Partch fan this is a must have.

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Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.

My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.

Solo Artist Pamela Z releases “a secret code”


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Pamela Z first came to this writer’s attention when the fine Starkland label under the very insightful guidance of Tom Steenland released a cutting edge, surround sound 5.1 DVD release in 2000 which featured her along with other similarly interesting musicians in a forward looking recording.

Starkland ST-213

The first CD dedicated entirely to Ms. Z’s work was also a Starkland release (A Delay is Better, 2004) was quickly added to my music collection when I was still a Chicago resident. Since moving to California in 2005 I have had the pleasure of seeing Pamela’s work live on numerous occasions (something which I highly recommend). She is a fascinating performer to watch as well as hear. These releases are the only ones dedicated entirely to her work currently available to the general public though her crowd funded DVD, Baggage Allowance may be obtainable through her web site. Much of her presence on recorded media is as a collaborator so this new disc of largely new work is a truly welcome addition to her catalog and an opportunity to see a unique talent.

Pamela Z performing at Other Minds 23 in 2018

Her visual presence and gestures are an important part of her work but it is the hearing part with which we are concerned here. Philip Blackburn at Neuma records has chosen to release a new disc consisting of performances of more recent compositions. Z maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing world wide and her quirky creativity has not failed her. Let me say that I use the word “quirky” just to indicate that her work is unique, a technological expansion of the tired “one man band” cliché in which she uses a variety of compositional electronics (some made exclusively for her) to facilitate her uniquely recognizable style. It is difficult to describe her work in a way that can easily be understood without actually having heard her work. Suffice it to say that, generally speaking, she works with live recording and subsequent looping of those sounds. She is able to turn loops on and off as the piece progresses. Her texts come from a variety of sources, including found texts. And the presentation of these texts are sometimes sung and sometimes spoken.

She has had great success as a collaborator with spoken word narration, singing (she also has a beautifully trained soprano voice), and performing with other musicians. These collaborations are listed on her web site and are worth your time to explore.

The photo of the back cover of this new album serves both to provide a listing of the tracks but also to display one of the wearable electronic devices mad for her which she uses (to pleasantly theatrical effect) in performance. From her web site: “She uses MAX MSP and Isadora software on a MacBook Pro along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound and image with physical gestures.”

Z is a vocalist, an operatically trained singer and voice over artist who has pioneered the use of complex delay and looping systems to produce her work. She is apparently enamored of language (she has studied English, French, Italian, and Japanese). Her combination of spoken and sung passages combined with the looping/delay technology, and, increasingly, writing for other instrumentalists is the basic medium(s) with which she works.

In my mind she shares conceptual space with artists like Amy X Neuberg, Meredith Monk, and Diamanda Galas, at least that is the way I have them filed in my collection. In fact, each of these performers has their own distinct style and aesthetic, each a separate origin story. What they have in common in this listener’s mind is the fact that they are women, the fact that their voice is their primary instrument, and the fact that each uses that voice, sometimes with some augmentation, to achieve their compositional and performance goals. (I nurture a personal fantasy of some day hearing one or all of these women doing their cover of a piece like Rzewski’s “Coming Together” or some similar speaking pianist type work but that’s a topic for another blog).

The ten tracks on this release represent Ms. Z’s more recent work. Taken as a whole this album has an almost existential/apocalyptic character at times. There are 10 tracks ranging from about 4 to 10 minutes each and they span the years from 2003 to 2018 with one track from 1995. The overall feel of this is rather darker in tone than the Starkland disc but it also reflects her further artistic development and that alone is worth the purchase price. The album is recorded, edited, and mixed by the artist who also supplies the brief but clear and useful liner notes.

The first track, Quatre Couches/Flare Stains is a studio mix of two pieces (Quatre Couche from 2015 and Flare Stains from 2010), two works she has combined in her live performances. So this is mix is a 2021 artistic mashup reflecting what she has gleaned from her live performances and incorporating that learning into a new compositional experience.

Unknown Person (2010) is an excerpt from the aforementioned “Baggage Allowance” (2010) which uses found texts collected during the composition process as lyrics and is a work with many metaphorical dimensions that touch on existential ideas that touch us all.

Other Rooms (2018) is constructed around vocal samples of an interview with playwright Paul David Young.

A piece of π (2012) utilizes the first 200 digits which express the value of that mathematical constant. Z recounts further details of her process in the liner notes.

Site Four (2017) is a section of music which was composed for a dance work.

He Says Yes (2018) is an excerpt from music for a theater piece.

Typewriter (1995) is the outlier here. It is one of Z’s live performance staples which utilizes the beautifully designed MIDI controllers which she wears and which control the electronics as she moves her body through the performance space. Even without the visuals, one can get an idea of this seminal work and how it influenced her later developments.

The disc ends with a trilogy of works, The Timepiece Triptych, which consists of Declaratives in the First Person (2005), Syrinx (2003), and De-Spangled (2003). This trilogy is a virtual compendium of the techniques which Z has thus far developed. Using sampling, linguistics, spoken voice, singing voice, and her signature electronics this artist presents work which functions on many levels. It is entertaining, it is thought provoking, it is funny, it is sad, it is personal, it is self referential, it refers to us all. Denotation, connotation, musical/electronic alchemy, language (both spoken and sung) all come together to create art which is engaging and, watch out, sometimes subversive.

Though I earlier made reference to my filing preferences for this and (what I consider) similar artists there is, in the end no one quite like Pamela. She is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and, of course, the Z.

Fantasy: Ursula Oppens (et al) Play the World Premieres of Five Major Works by Laura Kaminsky


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Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).

This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.

While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.

Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.

Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.

The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.

The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.

The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.

It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.

Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.

Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.

Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano and Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece


This Lou Harrison (1917-2003) concerto is one of his lesser known works largely due to the unusual instrumentation and the labors needed to tune the piano to the gamelan orchestra. A quick search revealed previous recordings, one by its dedicatee, Belle Bulwinkle with the Bay Area New Gamelan (BANG) recorded at Mills College (and overseen by Jody Diamond) from 1992 (now out of print) and one by pianist Adrienne Varner with Gamelan Pacifica (artists who participated with Harrison during his residency at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) on New World records from 2012.

As a dedicated Harrison fan, I can’t imagine why this work is not better known. It is, in fact, Harrison’s second piano concerto, the first being his 1985 concerto for piano and orchestra. This first concerto has received two recordings by Keith Jarrett (the concerto’s dedicatee) and, more recently by Joanna MacGregor. This concerto also requires tuning the piano but to a just intonation scale, not to the orchestra as in the second concerto. All these recordings were made with significant collaboration with the composer. And here now is a chance to hear this second concerto in a new and defining recording by the next generation of musicians, all of whom have had significant and long term relationships with Mr. Harrison.

The details and complexities of tuning and notation are beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, beyond the expertise of this writer. But suffice it to say that though the performers must run quite a gauntlet of complexity, the listener will likely find this music very accessible. I have included a link here to a PDF of the original score for those who want that sort of detail but this is simply beautiful music when well executed as it is here in this performance.

This new recording of the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan was performed and recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2017, part of the celebration of Harrison’s centennial. It was one of many such celebrations worldwide of a true American master.

Copy of the title page of the score which also shows the composer’s skillful calligraphy.

This 1986-7 work is from a very productive period in Harrison’s life and demonstrates his deep understanding of writing music for Javanese Gamelan which he studied for many years in Indonesia and later with Jody Diamond. His mixing of western classical music with that of other cultures is one of his claims to fame as is his interest and application of non-traditional tunings and scales. This concerto is one of many pieces he wrote for gamelan and western instruments during the aforementioned residency at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.

One of the most striking things about Lou Harrison for this writer has been his connectedness. He was collaborative and very inclusive. He touched many lives via his composition, his teaching, and his general openness to others. Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon and this recording is a document of one of the many centennial celebrations of his music which occurred world wide. At one of those events, Other Minds 22, held at the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco (a church where Harrison went to learn to sing Gregorian Chants as a young man) the master of ceremonies, Charles Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the large audience. He simply asked how many people there had met Lou Harrison. Indeed about 2/3 of the audience raised their hands (this writer included).

Harrison was very connected and his influence continues, a fact very much in evidence in this release. This is one of those discs I would buy just for the performers. Sarah Cahill, Jody Diamond, and Evan Ziporyn are all highly accomplished performers, all with deep connections to Mr. Harrison. Cahill, a very fine pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge and real feeling for modern repertoire, can always be counted upon to provide definitive, exciting interpretations of music which deserves to be heard. Her facility with west coast composers as well as her collaborative relationship with many of them makes her an ideal choice to play scores by the likes of Terry Riley, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, John Adams, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Ingram Marshall, and Lou Harrison to name just a few.

Cahill writes in the wonderful liner notes:

“One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.”

The Pasadena, CA born Jody Diamond is a composer/performer and scholar who has worked with Gamelan for many years. She was one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, an American Gamelan ensemble which continues to play traditional music and collaborations with western contemporary composers. She studied gamelan in Indonesia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Diamond writes in the liner notes regarding her relationship with Harrison:

“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.

Evan Ziporyn, born in Chicago, Illinois, is the only Midwesterner in the group but his connections and musical proclivities make him a very comfortable fit with Diamond and Cahill. He is a composer, clarinet and saxophone player and, wait for it, a gamelan player. He studied gamelan in Indonesia with the same person who introduced Colin McPhee (1900-1964) to gamelan. McPhee is known for having been the first westerner to do an ethnomusicological study of gamelan. Ziporyn is the founder and director of MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika which counts Jody Diamond as a former member.

The concerto is cast in three movements much as in the classical style. The first movement is entitled “Bull’s Belle” and is the longest of the three movements. The piano takes the lead and the gamelan enters at first almost unnoticed as its gentle tinkling notes seem as if they come from the piano. This is not the classical call and response between soloist and orchestra best displayed in the classical era (think Mozart) but rather an integration much closer in ways to a baroque concerto grosso where the solo instrument is not as clearly differentiated from the other instruments (think Bach). The piano writing is generally rather muscular and Brahmsian but the sound will remind listeners of the music of Alan Hovhaness and even echoes of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisatory efforts.

The second movement is without a title. The gamelan opens with its gentle chime like percussions and the piano enters almost surreptitiously mirroring the entrances which occurred in the first movement. Like a classical concerto this is a slower movement with a more lyrical and overall less virtuosic feel.

The third and final movement is entitled, “Belle’s Bull”, begins with the gamelan entering first and then the piano. This movement has a lighter feel overall than the grand first movement and even introduces some minimalist repetition passages.

All told this is a performance against which all subsequent performances should be measured. It is a fitting tribute to Lou Harrison, his instrument builder and life partner Bill Colvig as well as a landmark in the performing careers of Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn.

Portraits of William Colvig (l) and Lou Harrison (r) displayed at the Lou Harrison centennial celebration at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco in 2017.

Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


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I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


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Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.

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


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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


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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.