A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb


Dear Mr. Crumb,

When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.

The 1971 premiere recording

At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.

Makrokosmos I with score excerpt on cover

It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.

Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.

Voice of the Whale on the premiere recording on Columbia Records, 1974

When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.

Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.

Lorca Madrigals 1965-69

I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.

Makrokosmos III

The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.

Robert Miller’s premiere recording of Makrokosmos II

Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.

In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).

After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.

To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.

The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergün


New Focus FCR 238

Who? Cenk Ergün (1978- ) is a Turkish born, New York based composer and improvisor. His distinctly ethnic Turkish sounding name will trigger fond memories in “listeners of a certain age” of the profoundly significant work of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, the Turkish/American brothers whose Atlantic Records label helped define jazz, pop, and rock throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Lesser known is one of Atlantic’s spinoff labels, Finnadar helmed by fellow Turkish/American Ilhan Mimaroglu, himself a composer as well as producer. It was here that one saw the producers’ radar turned to the classical avant garde. And Ergün fits rather comfortably in this category.

Cenk Ergün

A quick Google search reveals Mr. Ergün to have released at least six albums both solo projects and collaborations with composer Alvin Curran, cellist Mariel Roberts, and unclassifiable iconoclastic guitarist Fred Frith. His bio does not document his education but those collaborations show him to be in sympathy with what one might consider the current leading edge of the avant garde.

This disc consisting of two works for string quartet entitled, respectively, “Sonare” and “Celare”. Whether these are separate works or, as this listener perceived them, two parts of a whole, they are engaging works utilizing a variety of extended techniques and tunings. The album lacks liner notes but the works, though complex and unconventional, are rather transparent (at least to ears accustomed to some of the innovations of the last 50 years or so of new classical music).

Sonare is far more rhythmically active than its partner on this disc. Its use of unusual tunings and spectra as well as its apparent micropolyphonies suggest a variety of predecessors including George Crumb (think Black Angels) and some hard to delineate minimalist ideas. Celare, which follows it brings the listener to more of a drone minimalism aesthetic which also suggested Luigi Nono’s “Stille An Diotima” at times. These two pieces (or movements?) collectively clock in at just over 30 minutes which I guess makes this a sort of “CD single”. There is no apparent program other than the music itself and the music suffers from neither understatement nor overstatement and is ultimately a very satisfying experience in the very capable hands of the venerable Jack Quartet.

Put Mr. Ergün on your radar alerts. This is a voice that this listener hopes to hear more from in the near future.

Poul Ruders’ Fifth Opera is Another Gem from Bridge Records


Bridge 9257

Bridge records is an outstanding company which has taken on the production of several “complete works” sets of some of the finest 20th and 21st century composers (Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Harry Partch et al).  A combination of excellent scholarship, top notch musicians, and state of the art recording techniques virtually assures that these will be definitive productions.  Any Bridge release is a cause for celebration and this is a fine example of why that is so.

Poul  Ruders  (1949- ) is the subject of one of those complete works projects.  If you like modern classical and haven’t yet encountered this composer you are in for a treat. Ruders is a highly skilled composer with positively lucid orchestration skills. I first encountered his work on the 1988 album Manhattan Abstraction which led my hungry ears to the 1992 Bridge release Psalmodies, then Gong/Tundra on Chandos and now anything with Ruders’ name on it compels my attention.

This release contains Ruders’ fifth opera. It is a relatively brief (all on one disc) but very charming piece in which producers David Starobin and Becky Starobin play multiple roles including as librettists, conductor (David Starobin shares conducting duties with Benjamin Shwartz), and production design all done with loving attention to detail.

13th child

The opera is a charming little fairy tale which showcases Ruders’ facility with drama. Speaking of the composer’s style (this reviewer hears him, especially in his earlier works, as a sort of noisy modernist but one who has not abandoned lyricism) is ultimately a minor detail because his music engages (as opposed to challenges) the listener in the natural flow of the narrative.  This is a very listenable and entertaining little opera whose two acts fit on a single CD.  Included is a set of notes and the libretto in a beautifully designed slipcase.

The opera was a joint commission from the Odense Symphony and the wonderfully adventurous Santa Fe Opera.  It is a fairy tale opera with a happy ending.  I won’t go into detail as to the story except to say that it follows some of the more charming conventions of fantasy including kings, queens, princes, successors, family conflicts, and magical occurrences which move the story along.  The recording is wonderful as per the standards of the Bridge brand and the performances are heartfelt.  Any opera lover will likely love this release and anyone interested in contemporary composition, particularly of the wonderful Poul Ruders must have this record.

 

World Premieres and a Resurrection: Partch Vol. 3 on Bridge Records


Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.

Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them.  And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression.  He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.

I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music.  Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked.  That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.  And so it continues.  But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.

With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music.  Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right?  Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats?  Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.

schneiderUtube

John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture

Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider.  As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these.  They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording.  The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience.  Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research.  Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH.   These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates.  This release is solidly built from the ground up.

partchredcat

PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat

PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)

The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions.  It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962).  This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it.  It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”.  The piece has been recorded twice before.  For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom.  Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.

Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning.  These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these.  They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.

Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will).  Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons.  Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name.  It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967).  Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.

Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950).  It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected.  There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial.  This deserves to be heard again and again.

Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history.  First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music.  It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.

partchguit

Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web

The second bonus is a real gem.  Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942.  This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009.  But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording.  Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.

It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work.  Bravo!!

 

 

 

Douglas Boyce New and Exciting Chamber Music


boyce

The rather plain cover belies the contents of this album of exciting and powerful chamber music.  This is billed as a “sampler” album and it contains three works by Douglas Boyce (1970- ).  He is a founding member, curator, and composer-in-residence of counter)induction, a composer/performer collective active in the New York region.  He also has experience playing in various punk bands.

Boyce holds a B.A. in Physics and Music from Williams College, an M.M. from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1999).  He has studied with George Crumb, James Primosch, Kathryn Alexander, Robert Kyr, Judith Weir, Ladislav Kubik and Robert Suderburg.  He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

All this gives only the faintest hint of what his music sounds like.  In the three works represented here the listener will notice some influence of Bartok and mid-century modernism.  The first work “102nd and Amsterdam” (2005)  reflects a composer well schooled in writing for string instruments.  This piece is a string trio played by members of the Aeolus Quartet (Rachel Shapiro, violin; Greg Luce, viola; Alan Richardson, cello) and they are given a great deal to do.  This is an energetic piece which engages the listener immediately and doesn’t really let go until the end some 14 plus minutes later.

The writing is virtuosic and the variety of techniques employed in his string writing are engaging and never seem gratuitous (i.e. extended techniques because I can).  Despite multiple glissandi and other string effects the work, like the others on the album, are basically using the tonal language common to most western music.  This is seriously engaging and masterfully developed music.  It hooked this listener immediately.

The second work is Piano Quartet No. 1 (2009).  This is an even more visceral work true to Bartokian esthetics.  In its relatively brief 8 plus minutes the listener is taken on a virtuosic journey by the musicians of counter)induction (Jessica Meyer, viola; Sumire Kudo, cello; Steve Beck, piano)  They are joined by the wonderful Miranda Cuckson who steps out of her soloist role and moves deftly into this chamber group as the finest musicians can do.  Boyce cites influences as diverse as Robert Fripp and King Crimson but the details of that are not necessarily clear to this writer nor is it necessary to the appreciation of the work.  It is a powerful and exciting piece of chamber music.  This work left this listener a bit tired by the end (it is quite a workout) but the same ability to sustain interest and attention which applied to the first work is also present here.

Finally the Trio Cavatina (Harumi Rhodes, violin; Priscilla Lee, cello; leva Jokubaviciute, piano) presents a reading of the four movement “Fortuitous Variations” (2014).  This most recent composition is the big work on this disc.  The underpinnings, if you will, involve philosophical ideas and are elaborated well by the composer on his web site but, like the influences of the previous work, the music stands very well on it’s own.

There are four movements which seem to correspond (at least roughly) to the sonata form commonly used in such works.  Each maintains it’s character as said variations are rolled out and, as in the previous works, sustains interest easily.  This is perhaps a more ponderous work which is less direct than the previous two pieces but this most recent composition no doubt reflects the composer’s development and time will tell what direction his work will take.  There is, however, a sense that the composer has developed a personal style and is cultivating it.  Give a listen.

Most will want to hear these works multiple times.  This reviewer managed to find three separate drives which allowed uninterrupted listening to the entire disc and I know those three won’t be the last.

300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


stepanova

Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!