Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included).  That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.  

It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series. 

Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.   

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Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)

Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992.  That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year.  In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.  

His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time.  This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.

His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City.  It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking).  Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own.  His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)

The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats.  The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts.  The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982).  A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.  

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Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began  with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond).  Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.  

In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers.  This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members.  One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents.  Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life.  His support of this very blog is another example.  It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office.  And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events.  Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission.  More examples abound.

 

Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).  

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There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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Carol Law

At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian.  The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries.  These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts.  I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.

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Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.

 

Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event.  We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis.  And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy.  Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause.  It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.

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Other Minds OM-1025-2

In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records.  One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano.  It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others).  Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.  

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Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements.  As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause.  This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work.  Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.

 

 

 

And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee.  It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.

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The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian.  Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general.  Salud!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Areon Flutes: Thriiive


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Innova 955

 

Multiple similars seems to be a meme in contemporary music.  The notion of using an ensemble of the same or similar instruments is most frequently encountered in teaching situations where music departments have enough students to form trombone ensembles, cello ensembles, etc.  But such combinations had been far less common in the concert hall until fairly recently.

Henry Brant was certainly an outlier when he wrote his Concerto for Flute and Flute Orchestra (1931) but the notion of a large ensemble of similar instruments developed further in the 20th century.  Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos in his Bachianas Brasilieras Nos. 1 (1930) and 5 (1938) used a cello octet.

It wasn’t until much later in the 20th century that one would encounter Steve Reich’s Counterpoint works beginning with Vermont Counterpoint (1982) for flute solo and multi-tracked flutes, New York Counterpoint (1985) for solo clarinet and multi-tracked clarinets, Electric Counterpoint (1987) for guitar and multi-tracked guitars, and Cello Counterpoint (2003).

Mary Jane Leach, an American composer based in New York also writes for multiples in such works as 4BC (1984) for 4 bass clarinets, Tricky Pan (1999) for solo countertenor and 8 countertenors on tape, Bach’s Set (2007) for solo cello and 8 celli on tape, and Dowland’s Tears (2011) for 10 flutes.

The present disc is another incarnation of the ensemble of similars which is as different in sound as each of the above described sets of music for similar instruments.  Here we have an ensemble of flutes with music written by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert.

Areon Flutes consists of Jill Heinke Moen, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.  This performing, teaching, commissioning ensemble has been in existence since 2004 and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  According to their website: Since 2004, Areon Flutes’ mission has been to make flute chamber music an equal voice in the chamber music world.

This is their third album and their first for Innova Records.  This is a 2016 release so I must acknowledge a bit of a delay in getting this review out but I blame the beauty and complexity of both their mission and the works here represented for a part of that delay.

There are three compositions: Elainie Lillios’ two movement Summer Sketches, Cornelius Boots’ three movement Cthonic Suite, and Mike Sempert’s Uncanny Valley.

This is a stunning disc which redefines the ensemble of similars and helps to carve out a lasting place for the flute ensemble in the classical world.  But even terms like “classical world” might be limiting as a way to describe this album.  It is innovative but not really experimental.  It is beautiful without being simple and it is virtuosic without being pure and empty showmanship.  This is a substantial set of challenging works played with virtuosity and interpretive skill that will leave the listener stunned and unable to write a review (oops, sorry about the excuses again).

But seriously this is entertaining and substantial music making by a wonderful ensemble that serious listeners will want to keep on their radar.

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


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion


Craneway Pavilion

Craneway Pavilion

On Sunday November 17th I attended one of the most unusual concerts in my experience.  The performance of Rhys Chatham‘s ‘A Secret Rose’ at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond was produced by Other Minds and the eclectic bay area new music bloodhound Charles Amirkhanian.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Rhys Chatham is an American musician and composer who has spent much of his career in living in France.  He was a part of the New York post-punk downtown music scene in the 70s working with musicians like Glenn Branca, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine.OMChathfinal0131

English: Rhys Chatham at Islington Mill, Salford

Sunday’s concert was the west coast première of this piece which is scored for 100 electric guitars, bass guitar and drum kit.  It is sufficiently complex as to require at least 3 conductors in addition to the principal conductor (Chatham).  In this respect it brings to mind the work of Charles Ives and Henry Brant.  But this music resembles neither of these composers, at least not precisely so.  Beginning with his work with drones and harmonics Chatham has developed compositional techniques and honed them to a point of mastery.  The multi-movement work was microtonal, polymetric, aleatory/improvisatory, dissonant, melodic and enthralling.  Did I mention that it was loud?  No?  Well loudness may be the most obvious aspect of this music but that loudness is organic to the music.  The volume paired with the very live acoustics of the cavernous performance space elicited a wide range of harmonics which, through Chatham’s skillful techniques evoked a variety of timbres.  (Complementary ear plugs were provided.  I took a pair but did not use them.)  I heard guitars, certainly and drums and bass.  But at times it sounded like there were brass instruments and even vocals.  (I swear I heard words being sung.)

Craneway Pavilion is a 45,000 square foot former Ford assembly plant that was remodeled for use as a performance space and conference center.  Its size and waterfront location remind me of Chicago’s ‘Navy Pier’ on  the lakefront.  Craneway is on San Franciso Bay and faces south with a view of the bay bridge eastern span as well as views of San Francisco.  The appearance is that of a large loft space with metal beams and a general industrial appearance.  Its floor, walls and ceiling are surfaces that are highly reflective of sound and therefore ideal for this performance.  As promised in the promotional materials the full moon rose in the east over the bay before the performance began.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Chatham’s music was not about complexity for the sake of complexity.  His compositional strategies required the complex goings on we heard on Sunday.  The room itself became a sounding chamber itself amplifying, canceling and propagating the swirling harmonics that resulted from specialized tunings in addition to the other techniques mentioned.OMChathfinal0101

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The multiple movements ranged from drone-like structures to more rhythmically complex sections and even melody.  Yes, melody. Chatham writes catchy melodies and motives that sound like they’ve been taken from one rock album or another.  Sonic gestures evoked impressions of Ozzie Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and many others depending on your personal listening experiences.  This music was ritual as much as expository.  His techniques were not limited to rock music but extended to free jazz and classical techniques as well.  Taken as a whole the piece was a multi-movement symphony, each movement sustaining its own argument in service of the whole.  For the finale Chatham set aside his conductor’s baton and picked up his guitar, not for a solo as one might expect in an ordinary concert, but to participate in the ecstasy of performance.

Chatham conducting.

Chatham conducting.

It is tempting, if a bit cliché, to suggest that this ritual music stirred the ghosts of the past.  While standing in the ticket line one gentleman said to me, “I walked out of a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967 because it was too loud”.  Almost immediately someone else said, “I was at that concert…”.  Perhaps the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Pretty Things were stirred from their slumbers.  They were certainly evoked.  I don’t know if the aforementioned gentleman ultimately stayed for the performance but I suspect he probably did, maybe in honor of Jimi.

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of 'A Secret Rose'

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of ‘A Secret Rose’

The crowd was several hundred strong ranging in age from about 5 to 85.  Most appeared to be enjoying this loud and driving rhythmic composition.  Some rocked or nodded to the beat.  Some sat entranced and/or perplexed but attentive.  At the end there was a standing ovation and, from Mr. Chatham, a welcome encore featuring seriously de-tuned guitars.

The encore piece was also captivating and inventive though certainly not as long.   Chatham’s music is not easy to categorize or describe.  Even having heard a fair amount of his music on recordings over the years I could not have anticipated what I heard at this concert.  I now understand how some music cannot be adequately represented even by our best recording technology.

I’m not sure of the significance of the title but it does bring to mind William Butler Yeats’ book, ‘The Secret Rose’.  Its stories steeped in Irish mythology are introduced by an opening poem which reads in part:

 

Far of, most secret, and inviolate

Rose,

Enfold me in my hour of hours; where

those

Who sought thee at the Holy Sepulchre,

Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir

And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep

Among pale eyelids heavy with the sleep

Men have named beauty.

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Henry Brant?…never heard of him: A Centennial Sketch


Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California

Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in the Sojourner Cafe, my favorite little restaurant/hangout just off downtown in Santa Barbara, California.  I was having one of many conversations with the great and interesting staff and patrons when I mentioned the name of Henry Brant, saying he lived in Santa Barbara.  “I never heard of him” came the response from Chris, a musician when not serving at the restaurant.  No one else showed any signs of recognition either.  I proceeded to tell him about the Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It was then that flicker of recognition came across his face.  He told me that the frail figure using his walker was a familiar sight in the neighborhood, his eyes widened with interest as I told him about this major American musician.

Henry Brant

Henry Brant (1913-2008) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to American parents.  His father was a professional musician. Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments.   Henry went on to study at McGill University and later in New York at a school later named Julliard.  He was the youngest composer mentioned in Henry Cowell’s anthology, “American Composers on American Music” to which Brant contributed an article on what he called “oblique harmony”.

Brant, who had an early connection and affinity with the American experimental music tradition, would go on to develop “spatial music” in which musicians were scattered around the performance space as an essential part of the composition and performance.  He began writing music in the sort of post modern style of the time as in his Symphony No. 1 (1945 rev. 1950) and pithy little jazz inflected pieces like Whoopee In D (1938, Rev. 1984), Jazz Toccata On A Bach Theme (Toccata On “Wachet Auf”) (1940) and Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933, Rev. 1984).

He would write for unusual combinations of instruments such as Angels And Devils (1931), a concerto for flute and orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles (2002) also for flute and flute orchestra or Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice.  His first spatial composition, Rural Antiphonies (1953) predates Stockhausen’s famed experimental opus, Gruppen (1955-7).  In all he composed over 100 “spatial” works along with chamber music such as Homeless People (1997) for piano and string quartet.  His composition Ice Field (2001) commissioned by Other Minds and performed in Michael Tilson Thomas‘ “American Mavericks” series won him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Brant had worked as an orchestrator and conductor in Hollywood assisting with scores by Alex North and with the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks.  His extensive knowledge of orchestration led him to write his textbook (published posthumously) ‘Textures and Timbres’.  And one of his last musical works was the orchestration of Charles Ives‘ massive and complex Second Piano Sonata which Brant titled the “Concord Symphony”.  This major opus has been performed several times and recorded twice.  A series of recordings on the Innova label have begun to release new recordings, many of them first recordings, of Brant’s huge catalog of compositions.

Brant was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient several prizes and honorary degrees.  He was and continues to be a great force in music as well as a connection the American experimental traditions of Ives, Cowell and their contemporaries.  There is much to do in researching and documenting the work of this now past master who would have been 100 years old on September 15th.  His archive of over 300 scores is now in the venerable archives of the Paul Sacher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.   But I am left with the image of the frail figure walking the streets of Santa Barbara no doubt followed by more of his industrious efforts when he got back home to his studio.  Happy Birthday, Henry!