Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


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Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

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Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.

 

 

Other Minds 23: Whereof One Cannot Speak…


“Fragment #3”
speaking is speakingWe repeat
what we speak
and then we are
speaking again and that
speaking is speaking.

TokyoJune sometime, 1976                                                                         Richard Brautigan (1935-1984)

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(Left to right: Clark Coolidge, Karen Stackpole, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, Randall Wong, Aram Saroyan, Sarah Cahill, Charles Amirkhanian, Carol Law, Alvin Curran, Beth Anderson, Jaap Blonk, Tone Åse, Amy X Neuberg, Sheila Davies Sumner, Enzo Minarelli, Ottar Ormstad, Susan Stone, Pamela Z, Taras Mashtalir)

The last statement in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent) is well known among philosophy students and has taken on the quality of an aphorism or truism.  But the six days of this most recent Other Minds Festival was functionally an effective refutation of this concept.  And the controversy over the awarding of the most recent Pulitzer Prize in music to a rap/hip-hop artist (a species of sound poetry?) which was announced on April 16th, 2 days after the end of this festival of sound poetry seems to reflect the prescience and presence of mind of the Other Minds organization.  Apparently words are “in” even if Wittgenstein and the critics of the Pulitzer Foundation say otherwise.

The Wages of Syntax

Other Minds 23 (April 9-14, 2018) in many ways began with the release in 1975, of one of the first (and still arguably the finest and still in print) anthologies of a strange, somewhat nebulous species of what can loosely be termed “sound poetry”.  That anthology was called “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” curated by the man behind this week’s vast expansion on that anthology, Charles Amirkhanian.

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Amirkhanian and his wife, artist and photographer Carol Law took a long strange trip in the early 1970s.  No, they did not follow the Grateful Dead.  Rather they sought a little known group of artists who walked a line seemingly between poetry and music.  From the Nordic countries to northern Europe, France and Italy they encountered artists who used the voice (though not necessarily language per se) to produce a sonic art form which nearly defies categorization.

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Amirkhanian  in his office

Charles Amirkhanian is himself a composer and percussionist in addition to being a producer and promoter of contemporary music.  As a composer, as it was with his long radio career, his voice has been his main instrument.  His resonant, articulate baritone voice has served him well these years and this festival provided a rare opportunity to see/hear Amirkhanian perform his own work live.

This unprecedented 6 day festival marks the longest in the series of the Other Minds annual music festivals.  As relatively obscure as this art form may seem to the casual observer this series managed to provide historical context, current practices, and a tantalizing look/listen at the future of what is in fact a vast body of work.  The ability of Other Minds to find hidden treasures of sonic art continues to amaze.

Day one,subtitled, “The Wages of Syntax”, was the gala opening featuring some of the leading artists in the field.  After the obligatory intros the Italian master Enzo Minarelli presented the world premiere of his tribute to Stephane Mallarmé, “Ptyx”.

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The piece, comprised of phonemes rather than syntactical sounds, was an apt introduction to the weird and wonderful world of sound poetry.  Minarelli was passionate and expressive, a beautiful performance.  Only later in this series would we come to know the depth of scholarship, preparation, and experience that informed this and all his performances.  More on that a bit later.

Next up was one of the elder statesmen of San Francisco poets, the wonderful Michael McClure.  At 85 he sported a walking stick (no not really a cane) needed due to a recent fall.  He also required assistance of one of the stage managers to help him to the little chair and desk set up for him.  But none of that mattered once he opened his little bookmarked book of poetry and began to read “Marilyn Monroe Thou Hast Passed the Dark Barrier” and some of his Ghost Tantras from 1962.  His voice was strong, his delivery both certain and witty.  His combinations of words and non-syntactical sounds were delivered with the same joy, humor, and pathos which appears to have inspired them in the first place.  The audience responded very warmly to his ecstatic delivery.

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After a bit of stage preparation we were treated to one of the most prominent members of the next generation of American poets that followed Mr. McClure (can I be forgiven for saying beat poets?), Anne Waldman.  She was accompanied (as her texts required) by percussionist Karen Stackpole.  Waldman presented from her “New and Selected Poems”, “Pieces of an Hour (for John Cage)”, excerpts from “Voices Daughter of a Heart Yet to Be Born”, and excerpts from “Trickster Feminism”.  Her characteristically forceful and peripatetic performance carried her between the microphone and Stackpole’s percussion instruments and back again.  It was a charged and sincere performance which clearly charmed (some might say stunned) the audience.

Waldman’s ties to the world of sound poetry go back to her New York roots and her involvement in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the Dial-a Poem Poets whose recordings have included her work and that of John Cage, Charles Amirkhanian, Clark Coolidge, and Michael McClure among others.  Small world.

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Next up was the venerable Aram Saroyan.  I suppose Saroyan (yes, the son of Pulitzer Prize winner William Saroyan) can be said to be part of the same post beat generation artists as Waldman.  Perhaps best known for his “minimalist poetry” he is also an accomplished biographer (Genesis Angels deserves to be better known IMHO) and literary innovator.  It was Saroyan’s poem “Crickets” (1965) which ended the first side of that anthology mentioned at the beginning of this article.  It was in an infinite loop in the end groove of side one of the LP playing the one word which comprises the poem, “crickets”.  And it was this little gem that he performed on this night….with a twist.  After a few repetitions he invited the audience (many apparently still trying to figure out what was going on) to join…which we did…,at first hesitantly, in unison…and then, in a touch of group inspiration, just like real crickets, not all in unison.  It was a strange sort of call and response that charmed the audience and brought a smile to the poet as well.  And that only brought us to intermission.

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Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, and Aram Saroyan

The second half introduced the first of the international stars, Jaap Blonk, the Dutch sound poet and performance artist.  He began with one of his own works, Obbele Boep ‘m Pam (a bebop sound poem).  It was a sound poetry homage to that 1950s species of jazz which inspired the beats, Bebop.  It was a sequence of sounds and words in a made up (by the performer) language intended to imitate the sound of his native Dutch language.

His second performance was of a sound poem from 1916 by the man who coined the term, “phonetic poem”, Hugo Ball (1886-1927).  This poem, based on phonemes common to the Swiss and German languages, was called, “Seepferdchen und Flugfische” (in English “Seahorses and Flying Fish”).  Blonk’s delivery of this turn of the century classic was the first of what would be several such revivals of revered early material of this nascent artistic genre.

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Jaap Blonk

Blonk was followed by the grand finale which returned us to the local roots with poet Clark Coolidge and the ever innovative Alvin Curran.  We learned that the two went to high school together and this was a strange and wonderful reunion with Coolidge reading his manic stream of consciousness poetry accompanied (sort of) by Curran’s musical ministering at both a grand piano and a sampling keyboard in a world premiere collaboration.

Though Curran now lives in Rome (and has for many years) he will always be welcome in the Bay Area where he lived, taught, and performed for many years.  Curran is no stranger to Other Minds either having performed at Other Minds 7 in 2001 and, more recently, at the Nature of Music series.  He is a musician, not a poet but his eclecticism has allowed him to collaborate successfully with a wide variety of artists in a long and varied career which continues to command attention.

The nature of the interactions which characterized this world premiere performance of “Just Out of Nowhere” were not obvious though it is a fair assumption that a degree of improvisation was used and, no doubt, some of the successful confluences on this night were first encountered in rehearsals.  Coolidge’s stream of consciousness rhythmic ramblings were ever present but never overwhelming.  In response, Curran moved back and forth between the grand piano and the sampling keyboard working with serious concentration to provide his musical support for the words.

It was an intense performance as inscrutably mind expanding as all that went before.  Curran signaled the end (as has become his performance custom) by blowing the sacred shofar over the undampened piano strings which resonated in kind and faded to silence which, in turn, was held for a moment by the audience as they disengaged from their attention to offer warm and appreciative applause.  It was a striking collaboration and a reunion of two beloved artists.

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The audience seemed to feel the pure emotion of this performance and the two performers embraced warmly before acknowledging the accolades of the charmed audience.

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Sadly this writer had to miss the second night of the festival which consisted of a lecture by Enzo Minarelli on the history of sound poetry followed in the evening by a workshop on how to do sound poetry run by Jaap Blonk.  Both were apparently well received and it is my understanding that they will soon be available for streaming on the Other Minds web site.  Definitely gonna check that out.

The second night was given the subtitle, “No Poets Don’t Own Words”.  Even for those who were fortunate enough to have attended this extended Tuesday program it is worth noting that there is a wealth of resources easily available to the interested listener.  The Other Minds website has links to a wealth of archives which include interviews and performances by a variety of artists.  In fact (and this was a creative touch) you get a free CD entitled, “What is sound poetry?”, an archived KPFA radio program when you buy one of the unique t-shirts (designed by none other than Carol Law) from the Other Minds Web Store.  Get this stuff while you can folks.

Also worthy of note (this writer has lost many hours browsing here) is Ubuweb, an online archive of music, texts, films, and sound poetry.  The fact is that these six evenings ultimately could only serve as an introduction to the unusual and entertaining genre.  And those whose appetites have been whetted by this series will want to hear more.

The History Channel

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Day 3, April 11th.  The subtitle for this night’s performance was, appropriately, The History Channel.  It was an opportunity to display some of the origins and early foundational masterworks of sound poetry.  Enzo Minarelli displayed his academic skills and interests as he interpreted several classic “scores” (which were projected on the back wall) as the performer brought them to life in what appears to have been as authentic a performance as could be had with this material from the early twentieth century.

Minarelli did readings of: “Dune (parole in libertå)” (1914) and “Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianopoli, 1912” (1914) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; Fortunato Depero’s “Subway” (1939), “Verbalizzazione astratta di signora” (1927), and “Graticieli” (Skyscrapers, 1929).  He finished with one more by Marinetti, “Savoia” (1917).  In addition to the passion of Minarelli’s performance the look of the score, essentially artistically printed pages of words and phonemes, and the choices made by the performer to interpret those scores itself provided its own sense of drama.  The lighting and projection were simple and effective, supporting the live performance.

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No major stage changes were needed for the next performer, just a little music stand with a microphone and small lights to illuminate the score.  Randall Wong, currently administrative director at Other Minds is an accomplished singer.  He is in fact a male soprano who specializes in baroque vocal scores including opera.  No stranger to new music, Wong has also demonstrated his formidable vocal skills singing with the Meredith Monk Ensemble among others.  It was those extended vocal skills that were called upon this night.

One could hardly have found a more appropriate casting to perform this next item on the program, “Stripsody” (1966) by the deservedly celebrated new music soprano Cathy Berberian.  Similarly to Wong, Berberian’s career took her from baroque opera to a plethora of modern music (Berberian was married for a time to Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio who wrote many a score for her).  What is lesser known is that Berberian wrote some music designed and inspired by her own vocal skills.

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Stripsody is difficult to describe.

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It is, in fact, a combination of sounds, specialized vocal utterances, and visual theater and is a sort of homage to comic strips (hence the title).  Utilizing onomatopoetic sounds, imitations of real world sounds and the sheer range of Berberian’s vocal instrument the performer becomes a sort of live comic character.  This piece is demanding but highly entertaining and contains humor and a variety of references.  Never did the audience lose track of the virtuosity involved or the intensity of the performer’s stage presence.  Wong’s performance was at once accurate, virtuosic, and a touching evocation of the memory of Ms. Berberian.

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It was an immersive experience for both performer and audience witnessing the sounds, the gestures, the facial expressions, the sheer concentration required to convey both the humor and joy of this work.  Wong demonstrated serious stamina and seemed to have enjoyed himself.

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Now what is history without a bit of archaeology added in?  Charles Amirkhanian introduced writer Lawrence Weschler who is (bear with me now) the grandson of the composer Ernst Toch.  Toch is responsible for writing what is perhaps the best known example of the genre represented by OM 23 this year.

In 1930 he wrote a three part composition entitled, “Gesprochene Musik” (Spoken Music).  Two of the three parts of this composition had long been thought lost.  However choreographer Christopher Caines apparently did a reconstruction for his dance piece, Spoken Music (2006).  Tonight’s performance was the American premiere of substantially what Toch had originally intended way back in 1930.

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The last of the three pieces, “Geographical Fugue” is by far the best known of Toch’s spoken music (indeed the probably the best known of all his music despite a truly substantial catalog and a Pulitzer Prize, no less).  In addition to the Gesprochene Musik there was a performance of a much later work by Toch which parodies chatter at cocktail parties, “Valse”(1962).

All of these were performed by The Other Minds Ensemble which consists of Kevin Baum, tenor; Randall Wong, tenor (yes, he can handle both soprano and tenor); Joel Chapman, baritone; Sidney Chen, bass, Amy X Neuberg, and Pamela Z.

Fast forward now to 2014  when grandson, executor, and writer Lawrence Weschler came up, on a whim, with a medical text to fit to the original Geographical Fugue.  Tonight we were treated to the world premiere performance of Medical Fugue with the same ensemble.  Weschler’s facility with language allowed him to choose the phonetics which worked as effectively as Toch did in his original. No doubt grandaddy would have been proud.

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Following intermission Jaap Blonk again took the stage, this time doing a historical performance for which he has become quite well known.  Tonight he performed (from memory, no less) “Ursonate” (1932) by Kurt Schwitters.  This large and complex work in several sections (or movements) utilizes vocal sounds fit together in the manner of classical sonata form in music.  Blonk has been performing this work for many years now and he obviously both knows and loves this piece.  His sincere, kinetic performance brought the audience back to the time frame of those years between the wars most effectively.

Two pieces on tape were next: “La Poinçonneuse, Passe Partot No. 2” (1970) by Bernard Heidsieck (1928-2014) and “If I told him (a completed portrait of Pablo Picasso) (1934) by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).  Both were presented with the theater darkened and a simple card projected on the back wall of the name of the work and the composer.

The Heidsieck piece is a poignant and bittersweet scenario alleged to be at least partly autobiographical.  The Stein was a poetic portrait of her friend, Pablo Picasso.  It was in Stein’s own unique take on language and left one wondering why Stein’s work is not even better known than it is.

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And for the finale the Other Minds Ensemble was joined by a frequent guest artist, the justly renowned pianist Sarah Cahill in a seldom performed work by American Composer (and Gertrude Stein collaborator) Virgil Thomson (1896-1989).  “Capital Capitals” (1917-1927) utilizes a Stein text.  Thomson and Stein enjoyed several successful collaborations (including two operas) with Thomson setting Stein’s words to music.

The text, designed with musical analogies in mind, was presented uncensored with a disclaimer in the program.  The text, a bit dated, would not be considered politically correct by today’s standards.  It is a celebration of the ancient capitals of Provence (Aix, Arles, Avignon, and Les Baux).  The music was written ten years after the text and shows the same collaborative affinity demonstrated in the operas.

The ensemble appeared to have a great deal of fun with the punning language and the music such a good fit. The audience clearly agreed.

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Day 4:  One of the things that has characterized Other Minds concerts over the years is the attempt to include the world outside of the United States.  This year the international artists mostly come from that same territory which Mr. Amirkhanian and Ms. Law traversed on their journey in the early 1970s.  Jaap Blonk, who had already performed in from the Netherlands, Enzo Minarelli, from Italy.  We would on this night also be introduced to Sten Hanson (1936-2013), Ottar Ormstad , Taras Mashtalir , Lily Greenham, Åke Hodell, Sten Sandell, and Tone Åse.

The evening opened with tape presentations of two pieces by Sten Hanson (1936-2013).  Che (1968) and How Are You (1989).  The first was a deconstruction of words of Che Guevara and the second a phonemic deconstruction and electronic manipulation of the three words of the title.

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Then, in a significantly darkened hall, we were introduced to the work of Ottaras, a duo consisting of Russian composer Taras Mashtalir and Norwegian poet/artist Ottar Ormstad.  Standing stage left of the projection screen which covered almost the entire back wall Mashtalir worked on his laptop (producing some heavy rumbling that shook the walls and was felt in the listener’s body).  This writer’s first impression was that of some sort of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) or ambient rave soundtrack.  It accompanied some striking (mostly) black and white images which took center stage on the screen at the back wall.  Slowly, at first imperceptibly, Ormstad wove some vocal sounds into the fabric.  It was the U.S. premiere of a 2018 work entitled, “Concrete”.  It was in four sections (or movements if you will) each separately titled, “Long Rong Song”, “Navn Nome Name”, “Kakaoase”, and “Sol”.

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The strange swirling images, sometimes with words or parts of words moved across the back screen while the two performers, barely visible, worked with their instruments (computer and voice) to create a soundtrack for the images.  Much like the non-syntactic use of sounds and language, the musical accompaniment was comprised of rather minimalistic utterances orchestrated in a wide range of frequencies with frequent heavy bass sound which provided a tactile component. All in all a rather mystical experience, exactly the cutting edge one looks for when attending an Other Minds production.

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The performers seemed touched, perhaps even a bit surprised by the very warm response from the audience who seemed to connect rather easily to this unusual and very sensual experience.

The first half of this night’s concert concluded with the presentation of two more tape pieces, Lily Greenham’s “Outsider” (1973) and Åke Hodell’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Rhodesia” (1970).  As in previous tape presentations a static photograph with titles was projected on the back wall in the darkened theater.

The Greenham piece is a solo monodrama in which the speaker (Greenham) is accompanied by an electronic chorus of her own voice.  Hodell’s piece is clearly a protest piece about racial oppression by Ian Smith (Rhodesian Prime Minister 1964-1979) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia).  It is like the Greenham piece in that it utilizes a chorus but here the chorus is actual children gathered by the artist to speak/echo the lines of the narrative which contrasts the colonial narrative with both Hodell and the children periodically intoning, “Mr. Smith is a murderer.”  The contrast was chilling and the pause for intermission a welcome respite.

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The second half of the program began with a solo performance by Tone Åse, another world premiere.  She performed her work, Ka? (2018) for voice and electronics.  In this piece she works with the sounds of questions, hesitations, and the sound of dubiousness deconstructing words, phrases, sounds and manipulating them vocally and electronically in a piece whose low volume and sparse sounds certainly evoked the intended emotions.

After a brief acknowledgement of the appreciative applause the next performer, Sten Sandell sat down at the keyboard stage left and began the performance of Voices Inside the Language (2018), another world premiere.  Again this experience had a similar sparse, almost minimalist approach.  It was a collaboration that echoed the first night’s Coolidge and Curran performance and presented an entirely different sound world.

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Almost before the audience realized the collaboration was over Åse discreetly left the stage leaving Sandell to perform his work, “vertikalakustik: med horisontell prosodi” (2017).  Here was a near complete deconstruction of language using simply phonemes, individual sounds.  With voice, piano, and projections on the back screen, Sandell delivered his necessarily minimalistic piece.

Both Sandell and Åse briefly acknowledged the applause bringing to an end this most satisfying international segment of the festival.

Good Luck with/for/on/in/at Friday the 13th

Described as an antidote for triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), this evening’s program featured primarily California based artists including Amy X Neuberg, Mark Applebaum, Charles Amirkhanian, Carol Law, and (the one non-Californian) Enzo Minarelli.

The most famous victim of triskaidekaphobia was the Austrian/American composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).  Curiously for the sake of the present subject matter, Schoenberg invented sprechstimme (speech song), a sort of half sung/half spoken style of performance for many of his vocal scores.  His unfinished opera, Moses und Aron (1932) uses it and ends the second (and last completed) act with Moses singing/speaking the following words: “O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!” (in English: “O word, thou word, that I lack!”)  Indeed the theme in the composer’s libretto is centered in part around Moses’ inability to articulate his ideas.  (Aaron was the man of words, Moses the charismatic leader)  Here, tonight, we were presented with artists who have grappled similarly (as all artists do) with the issue of expression and their unique solutions to the problem.  (By the way the spelling, “Aron” is not a German spelling, it is Schoenberg’s truncation of the name so that the title would not have 13 letters.)  The poor man probably wouldn’t have survived this night.

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Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

The night opened to a darkened stage with the projection of one of those info/program note cards on the back wall.  The presentation was of a tape piece by Stanford professor (and Other Minds alumnus) Mark Applebaum.  Since the darkened stage and the all too brief bow taken by the composer exceeded the limits of this writer’s photographic skills I offer the above photo of Mr. Applebaum from previous Other Minds program.

The piece at hand on this Friday the 13th was, “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships” (2016) which had it’s premiere at Stanford.  The three sections were entitled, “Nestlé”, “General Motors”, and “Haliburton”.  The mocking and humorous content was such that there was no doubt that the three named corporations were not involved in the creation and funding of this work.  Like some of his predecessors this week Applebaum is prone to political commentary in his music whose sound appeared to take place in a stereo sound field with some antiphonal effects.  Words were used, deconstructed, used again and never once were they used in a complementary fashion.  This is, in its way, a protest piece.

As I said, Applebaum came out only briefly (with a smile on his face) to acknowledge the very amused and appreciative audience.  One senses that protest against corporate greed is hardly an unpopular theme with this self selected audience which greeted this work with obvious satisfaction.

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Amy X Neuberg is a well known performer in the Bay Area and is also an alumnus of Other Minds.  Neuberg studied both linguistics and voice (at Oberlin College), and electronic music (at Mills College).  She has a strong well-honed soprano voice and has developed her own unique mix of language and music in compositions that defy easy categorization.

Neuberg graced us with “My Go”, “Christmas Truce: a journal of landlord/tenant situations”, yet another world premiere for this series, “Say it like you mean”, “That’s a great question (A Jerry Hunt Song Drape)”, and, one of her classics, “Life Stepped In”.

Neuberg’s work is a striking and unique combination of linguistic wizardry, cabaret style song writing, probably some rock and pop sensibilities, and the indefinably unique way in which she integrates voice and electronics with a touch of drama at times.  Her work is permeated with humor but also with social critique.  As is always the case (at least in this writer’s experience) her performance was greeted with warmth and appreciation.

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Following intermission we were again treated to the substantial performing skills of Enzo Minarelli who graced us with a generous selection of his own works including, “La grandeur di Ghengis Khan” (The grandeur of Ghengis Khan) comprised of eight vocal tracks and three noise tracks, “Il supere scopo di vita” (Knowledge as the purpose of life) “I nomi delle città come inno nazionale per Sinclair Lewis” (The names of the cities as national anthem to Sinclair Lewis) another multi-track work, and Excerpts from Fama: “Ciò chevoglio dire” (Fame: What I Want to Say): “Affermasi senza chiedere” (To succeed without asking), “Che teme il dolore (use la medicine della religion)” (Those who fear pain fuse the medicine of religion), “Alla ricerca del suono farmacopeo” (Seeking the pharmaceutical sound) and “Poema”.

In addition to their described meanings and verbal content these works were about the beauty of the Italian language and the beauty of the sound of the performer’s voice as well as the accompanying performance.  Minarelli is apparently a performer of high energy.  He performed on five of the six days and attended the last night as well seemingly all in a weeks work.

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Once again the fairly minimalist lighting strategies were remarkably effective.  Projections on the back wall along with Minarelli’s strong stage presence made for a striking performance of these works.

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Minarelli was like a poet from a cabaret in some lost Fellini film fraught with intelligence, drama, passion, and humor.

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Any of the above led the audience in some degree to the notion that what had just transpired would be a tough act to follow.  Certainly this was true for Mr. Minarelli but, rather than a denouement or even a cooling down there was a shift of gears, a transition if you will, to yet another universe of creativity.

We were next presented with a fairly rare experience.  We got to hear Other Minds’ executive and artistic director perform some of his own dalliances with languages and vocal utterances.  Charles Amirkhanian, no longer wearing his jacket but rather a long white shirt, came on stage with this wife and partner, in both life and artistic crimes, Carol Law.  Together they shared some of the inspirations of their (obviously still in progress) long strange trip.

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In addition to being a photographer, Carol Law is a collage artist and has also been involved in the design of a few of pieces of Other Minds collectibles such as the t-shirts created for this year and several from previous years.  What is a bit lesser known are her collaborative efforts with Charles Amirkhanian.  The above image, for example, demonstrates the striking, slightly disturbing images that characterize the first work on tonight’s program, “History of Collage” (1981).  Carol’s images were accompanied by a live recitation by Charles of a text which is actually about collage but is manipulated by a cut up technique.  Here we saw images and heard the spoken text.  For the next two collaborations Amirkhanian took his microphone and did his recitation in front of the projection screen creating effects not unlike the light shows and projections one might have seen in one of Bill Graham’s productions at the Fillmore Theater some 50 years ago.  That is not to say that the intent or effect was nostalgic or historical, just that it seems to exist in a parallel universe.  The long white shirt thus became a part of the projection screen with Amirkhanian moving dynamically along with the speaking of the disjointed texts.

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The visual imagery was both striking and unique and held this writer, if not the entire audience, in thrall to a powerful sensual onslaught.

Hypothetical Moments (in the intellectual life of Southern California) (1981) is another of these cut up texts, this time an intercutting of Edith Wharton’s, “Glimpses of the Moon” and what Amirkhanian describes as “the gruff drugged-out reportage of a Yankee baseball game”, Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff’s, “Yo-Yo’s with Money” (Amirkhanian is an avowed baseball fan).  These were spoken over an improvisation done on an out of tune harpsichord modified by an Eventide Harmonizer.

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The pair stepped on stage together to acknowledge the very appreciative applause.  Indeed this was a rare and precious experience seeing them perform together and, though they did not eclipse the previous artists, they clearly established their parallel universe in the shared multiverse of sound poetry.  These are wonderful performance pieces.

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So…how do you follow that?  Well, apparently with some solo Amirkhanian.  As noted previously, Charles has been writing and performing his brand of vocal gymnastics since at least 1969.  Two of his works, “Just” (1972), and “Heavy Aspirations” (1973) were included on that anthology mentioned at the beginning of this review.

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Amirkhanian has taken the stage at least twice before at Other Minds performing his own text sound works.  Tonight he presented, “Maroa” (1981), a sort of homage to a street in his home town of Fresno, “Ka Himeni Hehena” (The Raving Mad Hymn, 1997), a  celebration/deconstruction of the Hawaiian language, “Marathon” (1997), a two voice poem which is like a nostalgic parody of the fundraising which Charles did so many times for KPFA, and, one of this best known works, the gently humorous “Dutiful Ducks” (1977) which involves rhythmic speaking and deconstruction of words on tape to which he reads live and (mostly) in sync.  As with most of what we all heard on these days, live performance IS the point.

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Day 6 featured beloved Bay Area diva (and Other Minds alumnus) Pamela Z.  While one might note that, like Amy X Neuberg, she has a powerful, trained soprano voice and relies on electronics, her results are an entirely different animal.  Some of Z’s specialized proximity controlled electronics are artistic creations themselves and play a part in the theatrical component of her performances.

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Pamela Z’s performances were enhanced tonight with video and slides such as this projection which supported her performance of Typewriter/Declaratives.

Like Neuberg, Pamela Z does a sort of cabaret style performance.  On this night she graced us with, “Quatre Couches/Flare Stains” (2015), “Typewriter/Declaratives” (2015), “33 Arches” (from a larger work called, Span, 2015), “Pop Titles: You” (1986) and the SF premiere of “Other Rooms” (2018).

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Z’s skills at writing for chamber ensemble were displayed in 33 Arches, a section of a larger work called Span.

Most commonly seen as a soloist with electronics, it was a wonderful opportunity to hear a portion of one of her recent works which involved writing for more conventional instruments in addition to her voice and electronics.  This was done also in conjunction with video.

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Pamela concluded with a performance of one of her classic works, “Pop Titles ‘You'” (1986) enhanced by the back wall projection of the text source for the work, a page of the now defunct Phonolog report which was commonly found in record stores “back in the day” as they say.  Z worked for a time at Tower Records.

Like Amy X Neuberg, Pamela Z was treated to a warm round of appreciation from this adoring home town Bay Area audience.

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Next came another of the artists who appeared on the 10+2 anthology, Beth Anderson-Harold.  She was accompanied by Other Minds intern and percussionist, Michael Jones.  Beth Anderson, originally from Kentucky, exudes a sort of midwest wholesomeness that belies a complex and assertive artist.  She is now based in New York but has strong roots in the Bay Area having worked with Charles Shere, John Cage, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, and Larry Austin.

Her performances of “If I Were a Poet” (1975), I Can’t Stand It” (1976), “Crackers and Checkers” (1977), “Country Time” (1981), “Killdeer and Chicory” (2005), “Ocean, Motion, Mildew, Mind” (1979), and “Yes Sir Ree” (1978) were delivered with a powerful energy and enthusiasm.  She seemed almost surprised at the warm reception her performance received.  It was yet another example of the incredible variety that this genre of music embodies.

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Anderson’s delivery was powerful, ecstatic, and assertive.

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This sixth day of the varieties of sound poetry was brought to a conclusion first with three tape works by fellow KPFA (1990-2005) radio producer Susan Stone.  The works presented were, “Couch” (from House with a View, 1989), “Ruby” (from House with a View, 1993), and “Loose Tongues” (1990).  All are basically Stone’s personal take on radio theater which she describes as, “Cinema in the Head”.  Stone took an all too brief bow to acknowledge the applause.

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Though the audience’s attention seemed not yet to have flagged we were given an infusion of energy from the seemingly always energetic Jaap Blonk.  He presented six of his works to conclude the evening, “Dr. Voxoid’s Next Move”, “Onderland” (Underland, excerpts), “Rhotic (Phonetic Study #1, about the R), “Muzikaret (Music Made of Rubber)”, “Cheek-a-Synth (Solo for Cheek Synthesizer)”, and “Hommage à A.A. (for Antonin Artaud).

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Blonk’s seemingly boundless energy took him around the stage at times.

Blonk did a lovely thing to cap off this mind bending week (almost) of performances.  He engaged the audience in a call and response improvisation.  As these things generally go he began with fairly simple sounds and progressed to longer and more complex sound groupings which challenged the audiences attention and repetition skills, a task they/we performed with great joy and amusement.

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Blonk leading the call and response performance with the audience which concluded the series.

Twenty performers, four of whom had appeared on that wonderful anthology, kept the ODC Theater packed to near capacity on all six nights.  That alone is a feat.  What cannot be satisfactorily communicated in a mere article is the energy and focus of both the performers and the enraptured audience whose attention never seemed to flag as they/we were lead down unfamiliar paths to little heard universes of ideas and sounds.

This expanded festival also included one of the most spectacular program books this writer has ever seen from Other Minds.  Mark Abramson did the eye popping graphic design which featured no fewer than four different covers and very useful texts and photographs documenting the works performed and their history.  The t-shirts were another of Carol Law’s successful designs.  These may be highly collectible and, as of this writing, are still available through the Other Minds website.

In an promotional article entitled, “Other Minds 23: In the Beginning was the Word” I obviously used a biblical quotation (John 1: 1 for those interested).  In fact the only religious thing going on here was the spiritual magic of astoundingly talented performers, and a mighty unusual gathering of Other Minds in terms of the enthusiastic audience.  But I would be remiss if I did not take note of the fact that this fabulous marathon was done in six days.  I’m guessing we all rested on the seventh.

In the Beginning Was the Word: Other Minds 23


 

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Charles Amirkhanian performing one of his spoken word compositions at Other Minds 20 in 2015

Other Minds has been the the darling of composer/producer Charles Amirkhanian since its founding in 1993.  Along with television producer and arts patron Jim Newman he has presided over the 25 years of this renowned festival which has consistently brought the finest new music composers and performers to San Francisco.

There is little doubt that this year’s festival has to be very close to Amirkhanian’s heart.  Words have been central to his career at least since 1969 when he began his work as a producer at KPFA.  In the 23 years he spent there he presented countless hours of musical programming and interviews.  He crossed paths with most of the major stars in contemporary classical music and many stars whose genre may not be captured by the classical label.  A look at his programming choices and interviews from his time there defined new music for the Bay Area and beyond.  After his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992 he continued exploring cutting edge music and musicians bringing them to San Francisco for live performances.

His work as producer and curator has tended to overshadow his work as a composer, sound poet, and spoken word artist.  This year’s OM festival is dedicated to speech, sound poetry, and the spoken word.  It is about both the history and the present state of the art.  In many ways Amirkhanian’s 1975 release “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” on 1750 Arch Records (now on an OM CD 1006-2) can be seen as sort of the starting point for this festival.  This masterful anthology includes works by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (1939- ), John Cage (1912-1992), John Giorno (1936- ), Anthony Gnazzo (1936- ), Charles Dodge (1942- ), Robert Ashley (1930-2014), Beth Anderson (1950- ), Brion Gysin (1916-1986), Liam O’Gallagher (1917-2007), and Aram Saroyan (1943- ).

 

“Word! Thou word that I cannot speak!

At the end of the second (and last completed) act of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful opera “Moses und Aron” (1932) Moses sings, or actually half speaks and half sings this text lamenting his expressive deficits.  Speech song or, in German, sprechgesang is an invention by Schoenberg in which the singers are asked to find a point between speech and music.  Perhaps this is a good example of some of the artistic thinking going on at about the time when speech music/sound poetry began to take shape.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Some of the history of sound poetry is featured in this unprecedented 6 day festival (April 9-14).  Some of the earliest practitioners of this unusual genre include the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose composition Ursonate (1922-32) will be performed in its entirety, a rare event by itself.

Another early gem will be the Spoken Music (1930) by German-American composer Ernst Toch.  This three movement suite has been known for its last movement, the Geographical Fugue.  The other two movements, once thought lost, were discovered in sketches in 2006 and reconstructed by Christopher Caines.  The now complete version will be presented I believe on day 3.

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Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

 

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to tell the history of text sound so I will refer readers to the Other Minds website for further details.  Or you could come to the festival too I suppose.

With due respect given to the past the festival will move on to the present.  San Francisco Beat Poet Michael McClure (1932- ) will make an appearance as will post beat colleagues Anne Waldman (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (yeah the guy from that cool anthology), Aram Saroyan (another guy from the classic text sound disc).

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Alvin Curran in conversation last year in Berkeley.

Other Minds alumnus Alvin Curran (1938- ) will be premiering his collaboration with Clark Coolidge entitled, Came Through in the Call Hold.  Curran’s eclectic sensibilities will doubtless result in an interesting composition.  This event alone, at least for this writer, is worth the price of admission.  And this is just the first day!

Other events include workshops, discussions of the history of the art, and even some curious variations on a theme.  Apparently the writer Lawrence Weschler is the grandson of Ernst Toch and has written a variation on the Geographical Fugue called, The Medical Fugue which will be premiered at this festival.

The increasingly ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill will be present to perform Virgil Thomson’s unusual but entertaining setting of a Gertrude Stein (a one time Oakland resident) text called Capital, Capitals.  She will accompany the men of the Other Minds Ensemble.  Jaap Blonk will be tasked with performing Schwitters’ Ursonate and, along with Enzo Miranelli will also perform other historical works including some by a couple of Italian Futurists.

Other Minds Administrative Director Randall Wong will end the evening by undertaking a performance of the late great Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody.  That promises to be a wild evening I think.

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Jaap Blonk (1953- )

Northern Europe, including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries will literally have their day.  As it turns out they are doing a great deal of creative work in this increasingly diverse genre of speech music.  Other Minds is at its best in introducing the new and the innovative from wherever Charles’ radar has tracked it down.  Indeed Mr. Amirkhanian and his wife, artist/photographer Carol Law traveled throughout these regions in the early 70s talking with and learning from these diverse artists.  (Amirkhanian’s work, Just was recorded in a Scandinavian studio during one of those trips).

As usual homage will be paid to the past with some recorded classics by Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell, and Lily Greenham.  Some new voices will be introduced including Tone Åse and Sten Sandell.  The Norwegian/Russian-American duo OTTARAS (consisting of visual poet Ottar Ormstad and composer Taras Mashtalir will also perform.   One can fully expect a mind expanding experience which will redefine the possibilities of the art form.

Auspiciously or perhaps dangerously Friday the 13th has been reserved for Bay Area talents.  First up will be the man of the hour, Charles Amirkhanian.  Hearing him do his work live is an uncommon but entirely enjoyable experience.  If that alone weren’t enough we will get to hear the even rarer public collaboration between him and his life partner Carol Law whose photography and collage work deserves wider recognition and will happily get that here.

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Amy X Neuberg.

Trained in both linguistics and music, Amy X Neuberg will be on hand to perform her indescribable electronic cabaret including the world premiere of “Say it like you mean” and other genre bending work.  She is another valued Other Minds alumnus having given numerous performances at the festivals.

Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, another alumnus will present “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsors” which premiered at Stanford in 2016.  Enzo Miranelli will conclude the evening with his theatrical combination of movement and text in “Fame: What I Want to Say”.

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Pamela Z

The festival concludes on Saturday April 14th with Jaap Blonk followed by the wonderful San Francisco based Pamela Z who, like Neuberg uses electronics, but creates her own unique sound world.  She too is an alumnus of Other Minds.

Another composer from that great anthology, Beth Anderson, will make an appearance to perform “If I Were a Poet”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Ocean Mildew Minds”.

The finale will feature Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner performing excerpts from two works, “House with a View” and “Loose Tongues” both dealing with the lives of working class southern women.

This will be both a feast and a marathon but it promises to be one of the finest Other Minds productions maybe ever.  Come to be entertained, come to be challenged, come to expand your mind.  You’ll never be the same.  See you there.

More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


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Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything).  This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.

This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns.  The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.

Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world.  He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland.  The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing.  He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc.  His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.

The first presentation was perhaps the most striking.  Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording.  He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this).  He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing.  When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished.  What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.

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Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.

One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason.  The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way.  This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.

Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places.  What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually.  The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.

There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers.  But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition.  Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.

It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world.  Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination.  All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.

Longleash: Incorporating the Modern


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The strikingly beautiful cover art reminiscent of Magritte is eye catching and make this reviewer nostalgic for the days of the 12×12 format of LP covers.  (Album Artwork: Pink Lady (2015), Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Album Design: Laura Grey).  It is, perhaps by virtue of its nod to modernism, a metaphor for the content of this album as well as being its title.

Longleash is apparently the oh so clever operations name of a CIA project whose goal was to help proliferate American modern art in the cold war era.  These days I guess that would be “weaponizing” art.  And this modern piano trio has (curiously) elected this for their stage name.

Well the content of this album is nowhere near your traditional piano trio and may even seem subversive to some listeners.  Longleash are modernist throughout.  Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano self-identify as a group with “traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity.”  Indeed they have chosen a rather young and pretty much unknown group of composers: Francesco Filidei (1973- ) is the oldest of the group followed by Clara Iannotta (1983- ), Juan De Dios Magdaleno (1984- ), Christopher Trapani, and Yukiko Watanabe.

Despite the varied backgrounds these composers seem to share a particular segment of a modern aesthetic.  They seem fond of judicious use of extended instrumental techniques and quasi-minimalist cells but their styles are quite listenable.  They seem to have aspects of pointillism, the occasional terseness of Webern, some rhythmic intricacies and the occasional nod to a melody.  In short they seem schooled in the variety of techniques which rose largely out of the twentieth century but seem beholden to none of them seeking instead to judiciously use their skills to create their own unique sound worlds.

There are five works on eight tracks and none of them can be easily described except to say the the combination of listening with the aid of the liner notes can be helpful.  That is not to say the works cannot stand on their own.  That is a useful experience in itself.

I suppose it might be best to say that these works will likely evoke a variety of reactions from various listeners.  This is the sort of album, at least for this listener, that benefits from a direct concentrated listen without distraction but it is also worth experiencing as background music, letting the experience creep in where it might while you do other things.  And then a read through the liner notes to try to divine the composers’ intents.

I’m not being facetious here.  I think this is a very intriguing album but one which is difficult to characterize in words and one which is beyond this writer’s expertise in terms of any useful analysis.  Also the newness of these voices does not allow one to place these works even within the contextual canon of each individual composer’s work.  We have free floating modernism which, as was thought in the cold war days, may invade one’s intellect in subversive ways.

The review immediately preceding this one, Soft Aberration, features this piano trio on it’s first track.  Now Scott Wollschleger is very closely associated with the Manhattan School of Music.  What is curious here is that Longleash has managed to find the present disparate group of emerging composers with no directly discernible connections to the Manhattan School but with a clear affinity for the same sound world.  It is the luck of the draw that these reviews have appeared in this sequence but the similarities are striking.  So if you like the spare sounds of the New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff) and their successors in people like Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Futing, and Nils Vigeland (who, along with Pala Garcia provides the useful liner notes) then this will be your cup of tea.  But even if you don’t know these folks you are still in for a fascinating journey of cutting edge ideas by emerging composers.  And even if it is not “weaponized art” subverting your mind to western ideology you can be assured that it is genuine and uplifting work done by some wonderful performers of composers you will likely hear from again very soon.

 

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration


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The cover and the booklet that come with this CD contain art that is a remarkably fitting metaphor for the music contained herein.  The almost monochromatic images with sometimes barely visible lines defining a space which requires serious concentration to discern effectively at times is very much like the music we hear on the disc.

Scott Wollschleger (1980- ) is an American composer who studied with Nils Vigeland at the Manhattan School of Music.  His work has been compared to that of Morton Feldman and, more generally, to the other members of the so-called New York School.  Vigeland has been active throughout his career performing and recording definitive versions of some of the best of Morton Feldman, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.  It would appear that these voices and stylistic leanings are very much favored at the Manhattan School of Music.  A previous disc reviewed here with music by head of the composition department Reiko Futing, evokes a similar sound world.

This disc of chamber music contains five works on eight tracks ranging from 1’43” to 14’27” and all require almost as much concentration on the part of the listener as the extended techniques and performance requirements demand of the performers.  The dynamic range is from (generous) silences to forte.

The first track is by the seriously entertaining and odd piano trio called Longleash.  They demonstrate their expertise and concentration as well as their love for this musical genre in their performance of Brontal Symmetry (2015).  Unlike the other pieces here, Brontal Symmetry makes use of ostinati and there is a consistent sound field punctuated with silences.  It is an unusual but ultimately engaging piece.  Longleash consists of Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano.

It is followed by the titular and sparse Soft Aberration (2013) for viola and piano played by Anne Lanzilotti, viola and Karl Larson, piano.  Though approximately the same length as the opening work the silences nearly suspend the perception of time and create a sense of sounds suspended in space in a sort of sculptural way.

Bring Something Incomprehensible into this World (2015) is for trumpet and soprano.  The three parts of this work are spread across the disc (tracks 3, 5, and 8) creating an even more spare sense.  It is interesting to play the three movements manually without the interruption of the intended track sequence to get a sense of the piece.  Again we have silences predominating with extended techniques demanded of the performers.  Andy Kozar plays trumpet and the soprano is Corrine Byrne.  The first movement at 6’39” is the longest followed by the second at 3’25” and the last at 1’43”.

America (2013) is a solo cello piece here played by John Popham (of Longleash).  It is a pointillistic mix of silence and extended instrumental techniques which makes reference to an art work by Glenn Ligon.

White Wall (2013) is for string quartet and is played by the Mivos Quartet consisting of Olivia De Prato, violin; Josh Modney, violin; Victor Lowrie, viola; and Mariel Roberts, cello.  This is an amalgam of unfolding processes which seem to be indiosyncratic to the composer.  It is very intimate music in that sense.  The piece is in two substantial movements.

The album concludes with the brief last part of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World.  Suffice it to say that there are attempts here to tie in philosophical as well as visual metaphors.  Wollschleger is apparently enamored of the writings of Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Brecht.  Her lies another tie in to the New York School with their love of visual metaphors and philosophy.  This is not an easy listen but it is a serious effort deserving of some attention.  The listener can decide whether the artists have indeed brought something comprehensible into this world…or not.

 

 

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


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Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

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

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

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

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The artist standing in one of his installations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

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

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

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

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

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Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

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Hortus Records 100 (2012)

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

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Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

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

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Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

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

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Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

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

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Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

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

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Demerara Records (2016)

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

 

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Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

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

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

Between the Lines, New Percussion Music by Neil Thornock


Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Other than the information on this CD and the composer’s faculty page (here) information seems limited on this composer,.  He earned a BM, Organ Performance, Brigham Young University, 2001, an MM, Music Composition, Brigham Young University, 2003 and a DM, Music Composition, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 2006.  Currently he is associate professor of music at BYU where he teaches theory and composition as well as electronic music.

Thornock is that rare breed of percussionist (or is it keyboardist?), a carriloneur  and he takes the opportunity to display those skills on this all percussion release, apparently the first recording of this composer’s music.

It is very difficult to assess a composer based solely on their percussion music and sometimes that genre can take on the insider feel of, say, band music or some more rarefied and sequestered niche of music.  As popular as percussion music has become in the 20-21st century it seems sometimes to be an orphan genre.  This is also, no doubt, due to the all-inclusive nature of the term “percussion” which leaves a huge list of potential instruments to consider.  So an album of tympani music or bongo music or marimba music (conceivably even piano and harp can be included under the percussion rubric).might all be spoken of generically as percussion music.  This recording uses a wide variety of instruments.

Having said that this disc appears to show a composer with a wide palette and knowledge of the medium and it is an opportunity to hear carillon music which is itself a relatively rare experience in recordings.  His writing is accessible and, no doubt, well-tailored to the skills of the musicians.

There is nothing familiar here.  All are new works written, presumably, in the last few years.  It would be interesting to hear more of this composer’s output in the areas of chamber, orchestral and electronic music.  But this little tease will have to do for now.

Matthew Coley, the percussionist, seems to be the real star here.   He plays on all tracks and seems to be a highly skilled player.  His website was the most useful to this reviewer as well.  Along with him are the Iowa Percussion Group, the Iowa State University Percussion Ensemble and, as mentioned earlier, the composer on carillon on tracks 7-10 with Gerard Norris conducting.

This New Focus recording FCR 156 is beautifully recorded and I think that is no simple task given the variety of instruments involved.

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.

NathanDavis_Obraz9

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Gelb’s Gourmet Vegan with Joelle Leandre in the East Bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

On Sunday February 15th I had the pleasure of attending one of my favorite underground restaurant/performance venues in West Oakland.  In a nondescript neighborhood of light industry, warehouses and loft spaces Philip Gelb has been running “In the Mood for Food” (a take of the title of one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love”) his occasional dinner/concert series since 2005.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre

Philip is an amazing vegan chef as well as a shakuhachi player/teacher whose cuisine is known to a fortunate group of people which includes this writer.  Combining incredibly creative dishes sometimes at the behest of a given artist (Amy X Neuberg requested a “purple” theme and got it when she appeared ) with his wide network of artist friends, many of whom he has performed with.  Phil has been doing these occasional events with a maximum audience of about 20 people (including the featured performer) at a rate of at least once every month or two.

Potato Sorrel Soup

Potato Sorrel Soup

First let me say that I am not a vegan but if vegan fare always tasted this good I could easily make the transition (OK, I would have a hard time giving up pizza) to vegan fare.  Phil’s fresh locally shopped ingredients are transformed by his gustatory alchemy into a variety of delectable dishes in a wide range of cuisines.  His network in gourmet vegan food practitioners is rivaled only by his musical network.  Japanese is one of his specialties but I have personally partaken of various middle eastern and Caribbean cuisines with equal satisfaction.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn't get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate and Rosemary Bread, didn’t get a picture of the fresh salad greens.

This night’s selection featured a creamy Potato Sorrel Soup followed by a salad plate consisting of rich Mushroom Pate, Carrot Walnut Pate, a freshly baked Homemade Rosemary Bread with Salad Greens and a tart Citrus Dressing. The main course consisted of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards, all very tasty and very filling.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards.  It tastes even better than it looks in Phil's characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

The main course of Cassoulet, Oat Pilaf and Herbed Collards. It tastes even better than it looks in Phil’s characteristically beautiful presentations, trust me.

A feast such as this could not easily be upstaged but, in the little break before the dessert course, we were treated to a wonderful performance by Joëlle Léandre, the French Double Bass virtuoso, singer and composer whose work traverses a wide range of musical genre from John Cage to free jazz and categories that defy easy classification.  She has amassed a discography of over 100 albums to date and has performed with artists including Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey, Barre Phillips (who appeared at this series a couple of years ago), Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, India Cooke (also one of Phil’s previous guest artists), Evan Parker, Irene Schweizer, Steve Lacy, Maggie Nicols, Fred Frith, Carlos Zingaro, John Zorn, Susie Ibarra, J.D. Parran, Kevin Norton, Sylvie Courvoisier and Pauline Oliveros (another recently appearing artist at this series).  Oh, and she has also performed and recorded with Mr. Gelb.

Leandre is a friendly and engaging person both in her playing and in conversation and we all had opportunities to speak with her and experience her charming personality as she related various observations and anecdotes.  These dinner/concerts are a uniquely intimate experience which you cannot get in the average concert setting.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Leandre embraced and nearly danced with her instrument.

Ms. Léandre treated us with three separate improvisations in which she demonstrated her facility with a wide range of double bass techniques including various bowing techniques, pizzicati, percussive techniques and wordless vocals that mixed seamlessly with her very intense and passionate performances.  Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to really describe with any accuracy the music we experienced this night.  But suffice it to say that it was played in a manner that communicated very effectively with the very appreciative audience.  I asked her if she always plays with such passion and she rather matter of factly simply said, “yes”.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound  tapestry driven by Joelle's passionate playing.

Her command of a wide variety of playing techniques blended together with her voice in an almost orchestral sound tapestry driven by Joelle’s passionate playing.

I was so taken with the performances that I failed to get a photo of the delicious dessert course which consisted of a Waffle Sundae comprised of a very fresh chocolate-buckwheat waffle covered with chocolate pistachio ice cream, maple walnuts and chocolate port sauce.  An amazing vegan sweet treat enjoyed by all.

The clearly happy audience lingered to talk with each other, with Phil and sous chef Cori as well as with Ms. Leandre who had a great selection of recent CDs and a couple of books available for purchase which she graciously signed.  Overall this was an extremely satisfying evening, certainly for this blogger and clearly for the other guests but also for our wonderful performer who left to get some sleep before her scheduled performances tomorrow at the Berkeley Arts Festival.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

The performer pauses looking wistfully as the muse descends upon her.

 

 

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


 

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

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

10+2 Anthology

10+2 Anthology

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

Charles Amirkhanian with Rex Lawson

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

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

Dohee Lee at OM 18

Dohee Lee at OM 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, here is where Star Trek comes in:

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

Star_Trek_William_Shatner

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions


This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.

L'ivresse

 

This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

 

 

 

 

He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.

 

 

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


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

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

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

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

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

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

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

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

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

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

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

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

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

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

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

Music 109, Alvin Lucier’s personal view of the post 50s avant garde


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This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.

In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).

What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.

This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.

Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?

Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.

Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.

The Future Was Noise


Luciano Chessa’s book, ‘Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult is as of this writing the only book available about the Italian futurist composer other than the composer’s writings themselves.   I purchased this book with a sense of excitement having read about Russolo (1885-1947) in various references in books on 20th century music and being puzzled as to why this subject had not been dealt with in any real detail.

Well that is now no longer the case.  Chessa’s book, published in March of this year fills this scholarly musicological gap quite well.  The book provides a comprehensive picture of the cultural milieu of the Italian Futurist movement embracing visual as well as musical arts as it developed in the early twentieth century prior to, during and after the first world war and into the second.

The cultural milieu was heavily steeped in the Theosophy movement, an exploration of various ecstatic and esoteric spiritual practices which flourished as the practice of Spiritualism was waning in popularity.  Both practices shared an interest in the after life but Theosophy was perhaps more comprehensive as adherents explored various eastern religions and practices in search of answers about consciousness before, during and after life itself as well as the interactions between the material and the spiritual.  Both Spiritualism and Theosophy along with the immediate thought content philosophical theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) informed the futurists as they, along with the rest of society began to explore the impact and implications of the industrial revolution and discoveries like electric light, recording machines, x-rays and radio.

Having only a slight acquaintance with Theosophy and practically no acquaintance with Italian visual arts in the early twentieth century required a bit of time for me to absorb.  But there is no question that these are essential to understanding the genesis and practice of the ‘art of noises’ as Russolo named it in his 1913 manifesto.

Chessa recounts an era in which this philosophy along with fascism were the formative underpinnings of the futurist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century.  In only 230 pages of text (and 64 pages of notes and references)  he provides a wealth of information most of which was new to this writer and will likely be unfamiliar to the average reader as well.  This book opens virtually a whole new world begging to be researched and understood both for the arts the produced in that era as well as its influence on later developments in both art and music.

The futurists attempted to create new art forms that would more directly express or represent ‘thought forms’ as described by the theosophists and the world of the spirits.  The industrial age, mechanization, new media like recordings and radio transmission, x-rays all held a mystique which resulted in the questioning of philosophy and religion as well as politics much as the atomic bomb and, later, computers would shake beliefs and ideas in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Prior to the publication of this book Chessa had recreated the lost ‘Intonarumori’ which were destroyed and/or lost during the second world war.  Only one sound recording exists of this music and even the scores have been lost but Chessa has essentially resurrected the noise machines, performed with them and has had music written for them as well.  This is music which in 1914 and 1921 that provoked riots comparable to the 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and presaged the work with noise by the likes of George Antheil and later John Cage.

There is no explaining the neglect of this area of art and music history but there is joy in this wonderful book which is both an intriguing tale and a fine reference work for further research.  One wonders if Chessa might now embark on further explorations of this era and perhaps even a biography of Russolo but the essential ground work has been laid here for many researches to come on this fascinating era.

The book is available in hard cover, paperback and kindle editions.  This reviewer downloaded the kindle edition which has been produced with the same care as the print editions.

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Complete Works of Carl Ruggles (reissue)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Minds 17 Day 3


The final night of the 17th Other Minds Festival presented music by four composers and included two premieres of music commissioned by Other Minds.

The concert began with music by Finnish composer Lotte Wenakoski. This diminutive Finnish woman, who also sang quite beautifully during the panel discussion, works with barely audible sounds seeking inspiration ” on the borders of silence”. Her 2006-7 work Nosztalgiam (Hungarian for ‘my nostalgia’) was performed by the modular Magik*Magik Orchestra whose size varies according to the need of the pieces to be played. Tonight’s configuration for this piece consisted of 12 players playing woodwinds, brass and strings.

Fellow OM 17 composer John Kennedy, who is the conductor for the Spoleto Festival among others, conducted the chamber ensemble. Nosztalgiam (2007) is apparently a set of variations/deconstructions or meditations on two Hungarian folk songs (one of which she spiritedly sang during the preconcert discussion). The sometimes sparse and always delicate sounds expressed Wennakoski’s personal impressions of her time studying in Budapest in the late 1980s. It is difficult to assess this composer represented in this festival by a single work. But the sweet, delicate personally nostalgic sounds evoked by a variety of extended techniques suggest that seeking to hear more of her work would certainly be worth one’s effort. The sensitive and virtuosic performance was greeted warmly by audience and composer alike.

Next in this first half were two works by John Kennedy, conductor, composer, percussionist and promoter of New Music. Here is a man in a role similar to that of OM Festival director Charles Amirkhanian having a chance to be, so to speak, on the other side of the table. There are apparently no available commercial recordings of this man’s music but according to his web site (which does have some too brief sound samples) he has composed many works in all genres including theater, orchestral, solo and electronic. And he has received many commissions.

This night he was represented by two works, one of them an Other Minds commission. Both are hommages to the late John Cage. As I mentioned in an earlier blog Cage is also the inspiration/impetus behind Other Minds’ esthetic.

The first work, “First Deconstruction in Plastic” (the title a play on Cage’s First Construction in Metal), does double duty as an homage and as an environmental statement. Percussion duo Ryder Shelley and Andrew Myerson sat facing each other each with a collection of ‘found objects’ consisting of plastic buckets, bottles, shopping bags, etc. This well rehearsed duo gave an energetic and engaging performance which the audience clearly appreciated. But for this reviewer was left with the impression that this accomplished work, though no doubt intricate in it’s conception and satisfying to the musicians, failed to fully engage it’s audience. I was entertained but I did not particularly want to hear it again.

The second work, “Island in Time” (2012), was a world premiere. This, also dedicated to Cage, was a different matter. Scored for the unusual combination of bass clarinet, flute, cello and percussion (all members of Magik*Magik Orchestra) was an engaging though not derivative tribute to the influence of John Cage. The composer describes a process involving different types of temporal processes to structure the work. But the specifics of the processes are secondary here to the overall impact of the work. A meandering flow of sounds and tempi flowed beautifully reverently invoking the spirit and influence of Cage’s work. I have no doubt that the riches in this piece would continue to reveal themselves with repeated hearings. And though I have very little knowledge of this composer’s other work I have no doubt that it is likely to be quite compelling.

The musicians, clearly familiar with the work, gave a loving smooth reading of what appears to be a fairly complex work requiring serious concentration and collaboration. The audience, myself included, rewarded their efforts with enthusiastic applause.

In the second half of the program the next composer, who had performed the previous night in collaboration with Ikue Mori and Ken Ueno, was Tyshawn Sorey. This was to have been a solo performance as a percussionist but in the course of the discussion in last night’s pre-concert panel festival director Charles Amirkhanian mentioned that he had heard Sorey playing the piano earlier in the day. Amirkhanian remarked on the apparently eclectic nature of what he had played. Sorey responded saying that his piano playing is informed by the likes of Art Tatum, David Tudor, Cecil Taylor and Morton Feldman. He also mentioned deconstructing Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata (!) to inspire his compositional process. Eclectic indeed! And he easily consented to playing the piano in his segment of the program saying, “…if you are open to it, sure.”. Sorey exudes a sort of calm, friendly, matter of fact confidence in his skills.

So Sorey walked onto the stage which contained his percussion kit on one side and a concert grand piano on the other. He began with a percussion improvisation starting with a fortissimo strike on the side drum followed by some fevered loud work on tenor and snares as well. This then segued into some more delicate and complex soft sounds elicited from various cymbals and drums making frequent use of special techniques which brought forth some rich vibrant harmonics especially in the quieter moments. I couldn’t help being reminded at times of Han Benink’s performance at last years festival as he released a small sower of sticks onto a drum at one point. Sorey’s sheer energy and good humor were reminiscent (though not imitative). And, unlike Benink, Sorey never left the stage in the course of the performance.

Following the well received percussion set Sorey moved to the grand piano sitting confidently and commandingly at the keyboard and pausing as he focused on the task at hand. He started slowly with a few chords and before long launched into a dizzying and virtuosic flow of music reflecting the influences he mentioned. At first perhaps Morton Feldman, sometimes Pierre Boulez, a little Art Tatum, certainly some Cecil Taylor and then deftly playing sometimes inside the piano then back to the keyboard as part of the same unbroken musical phrase evoking the experimentalism of David Tudor. But the overall impression was not episodic imitation but rather an absorption and integration of all these techniques transcending genre and becoming, simply, inspired music making. The audience was transfixed and absorbed in the flow of the music and responded with cheers of “Bravo” and enthusiastic applause (I think they were pushing for an encore but time did not permit). Had I heard a recording of this without knowing the background I would have guessed this to have been an accomplished composed work by a master composer but this was an improvisation. I am surely going to seek recordings and follow this man’s career in the years to come.

The finale was another Other Minds commission this time from composer, vocalist and Berkeley music professor Ken Ueno. The piece, “Peradam” (2011) takes it’s title from the unfinished spiritual allegorical novel, “Mount Analogue” by the French surrealist writer and poet Rene Daumal (1908-1944). Peradam is a mythical diamond-like stone sought after on the similarly mythical mountain of the title.

Ueno’s work is scored, as is his practice, specifically for the skills of the formidably talented Del Sol Quartet who so ably played the Gloria Coates quartet the previous night. Specifically the specialized skill (in addition of course to their string playing) is the multiphonic throat singing capability of violist Charlton Lee. Ueno demonstrated his vocal skills on the previous night singing with the percussions of Ikue Mori and Tyshawn Sorey. In fact all the players were asked to sing as well as play their instruments for this performance. In addition there was video creatively projected onto the sound baffles at the rear of the stage.

The music was a post modern integrated amalgam of a wide variety of conventional and extended instrumental techniques along with singing at times (the throat singing is a strikingly unique timbre which commands attention when it emerges in the fabric of the piece). The quartet positioned themselves stage right to afford the audience a clear view of the projection across the three sound baffles at the back of the stage. They played with characteristic concentration and skill in what looks like a technically challenging piece of shifting moods and tempi to which the images responded.

The images, manipulated in real time and in coordination with the music with software written by video artist Johnny Dekam, were abstract mostly monochrome images that moved and transmuted hypnotically along with the music. Dekam, who has worked with a variety of pop acts like Eminem and Thomas Dolby, had collaborated with Ueno before. In the darkened theater the images dominated the visual field though the quartet could be seen as well.

It was a complex experience that could only be grasped, if at all, by going with the simultaneous flow of music and image. This piece will benefit from repeated listenings/viewings to more fully appreciate it’s intricacies. But this first performance clearly satisfied the mostly hard core new music fans audience. And while the direct John Cage associations were not as obvious it is clear that Ueno, Dekam and the Del Sols embody the open minded spirit of his work in this, his centennial year. This grand finale was appreciated in kind by the cheering audience successfully bringing to a conclusion the 17th always uncategorizably eclectic Other Minds Festival.

Other Minds 17. Day 2


The second night at Other Minds featured two different generations of composers. As is their practice Other Minds on this night featured two composers already established and fairly well known in new music circles as well as three up and coming artists.

The first performance was by San Francisco’s own champions of new music, the Del Sol Quartet. They performed the American premiere of American expatriate composer Gloria Coates’ String Quartet No. 5 composed in 1988. This and her 8 other quartets have been made available on the brave and progressive Naxos CD label. Coates also holds the record as the most prolific woman symphonist of all time with some 16 symphonies to her credit (many of those are available and well worth seeking on CD as Well).

String Quartet No. 5 is cast in three movements. By the composers description all of the movements are canons, a simple counterpoint form. But the result is hardly simple. Using microtonal glissandi, sometimes having instruments tuned a quarter tone apart and relying on creative ways of synchronizing the players individual tempos Coates achieved a complex sounding but friendly and approachable result. The quartet which lasted about 30 minutes would be a challenge for any ensemble but the Del Sol (which, except for the cellist, perform standing in a break with convention) clearly knew and liked the work and gave an intense and beautiful rendering sounding at times like there were more than four players. The piece has an almost romantic feel at times, cleverly incorporating melodies into a sound world uniquely the composer’s own (I am at a loss to identify a precedent). I sincerely hope that this work and her other works become better known in this, her native country. It is a tribute to the acumen of the Other Minds team that music like this is presented here. The audience greeted the performance very appreciatively.

Next up was Harold Budd on piano playing with Keith Lowe on double bass augmented with electronic effects. The piece, titled “It’s Only a Daydream” from 2011 is, by Budd’s description, entirely improvisational as is most of his music. Lowe began playing first with long sustained tones awash with rich harmonics. Budd’s piano then entered and we were transported to the familiar sound world which is Budd’s musical signature. Those who knew his collaborations with Brian Eno and his later solo works recognized his somber pretty ambient sounds. The two musicians were well matched and played a sort of jazz duet trading solos and accompaniments evoking a curiously nostalgic and hypnotic atmosphere of a strange dream-like lounge. Time seemed suspended and I don’t know exactly how long they played but when they finished the enthusiastic audience reception brought them back for a shorter encore, something I had never seen occur before at this festival.

Following intermission Ikue Mori took the stage sitting at her laptop which controls her various electronic sounds. She played the laptop solo for a few minutes and was then joined by UC Berkeley faculty composer Ken Ueno on vocals. But ah, what unusual vocals. His extended vocal techniques seem to come equally from Tuvan throat singing, Buddhist chanting, David Hykes (of the harmonic choir), Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas, Kenji Suzuki (of the band Can), Tan Dun (on Taoism) and God knows what else. After another few minutes Tyshawn Sorey, a doctoral candidate in composition at Columbia, seated himself quietly at his drum/percussion kit, then with an assertive fortissimo bang on the side drum confidently entered the energetic fray. Mori sat intently gazing at her computer screen and entering the sound changes for her part while Ueno, holding the microphone to his mouth with both hands issued passionate wordless vocalizations of endless variety and Sorey executed a similar endless variety of high energy acoustic percussion sounds.

Mori calmly issued computer commands to perform her Japanese/New York/ punk/free jazz/Stockhausen expanded percussions while the academic Ueno improvised intense growling, multiphonic, wild vocals with few pauses and Sorey got in touch with his AACM ancestors producing a unified three ring circus of wonderful musical mayhem transcending any concept of genre. Three different traditions, separate but working together. Metaphorical? You decide.

Well deserved and enthusiastic applause greeted the intense but calm Mori and the sweaty and apparently exhausted but satisfied Ueno and Sorey.

The relative order of Coates followed by the ethereal calm improvisations of Budd were but a distant memory (albeit a pleasant one) after the ritual emotional exorcism of the second half. This is the rich variety that characterizes these concerts. And now anticipation builds for tomorrow’s finale.