Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”, Gorgeous Postminimalism


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I must confess that Ireland is hardly near the top of my list for countries that are producing interesting contemporary music but this new release will soon have me checking out their Contemporary Music Center to see what else is happening.  Let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Ireland, just lamenting the fact that, like many countries, their contemporary classical music rarely gets to U.S. ears.

As if to magically remedy my wish for a more democratic distribution of said music producer Eamonn Quinn kindly sent me this single track CD containing a work influenced by (among others) the Godfather of minimalism, La Monte Young. He commented to me about the ultimate marketability of a one track CD but his instincts are well placed in this CD recorded February 2019, hot off the presses.   This is my first encounter with the composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz (1953- ) whose name is now programmed into my surveillance engines as a voice to be followed.  Definitely want to hear more from him.  Born in Hamburg, he now teaches at Cal Arts.  A list of his works can be found here.  (While there you will want to avail yourself of the rest of this great site about just intonation composer at Plainsound)

While I share Mr. Quinn’s concern about the marketability of a single track CD (it is about 45 min), this is an ideal presentation for a work in just intonation by a string trio and the uninterrupted 45 minute interval is integral to the experience of the music.  This work is like the grandchild of La Monte Young’s String Trio (1958).  I am now having fantasies about curating a program of this work paired with its spiritual grandfather.  The single track, just intonation hits at my geeky minimalist heart and I know I’m not alone in that.

The brief but lucid and useful program notes are by the wonderful Paul Griffiths and the recording by Peter Furmanczyk captures the rich overtones well.  The Goeyvaerts String Trio has earned a place in my media alerts now as well.  They perform this work with insight and passion.

Now, past the name dropping and background stuff to the music itself.  If you know the long tones of La Monte Young’s String Trio, which is of similar length, you might hear it as a more melodic version of that.  That is not to say that this work is derivative, it is evolved its predecessor’s DNA, so to speak.  It is postminimalism (or file under “ambient” if you prefer) from that branch of the family tree.

The full title of KLANG” is given as ” PLAINSOUND STRING TRIO KLANG AUF SCHÖN BERG LA MONTE YOUNG…” Op. 39 (1999, rev 2013),  and while the musical references to Schoenberg and Berg are there, the experience is that of an almost romantic tableau of long tones and rich harmonics descended from the Urtext of minimalism that is La Monte Young. The spirit of Morton Feldman appears to reside here as well, maybe even a wisp of Brian Eno.  The kaleidoscopic effect of the just intonation with all the rich harmonic overtones evoke a great deal and probably will provoke different memories for different listeners. It is a maybe even a sort of Verklärte Nacht for the millennium though what is ultimately transformed is the listener themselves.  You can choose your own metaphor, but first you’ll be charmed by the music.

And dontcha have to love that cover graphic?

Donut Robot! Post-Haste Duo


OK, so I go to the post-office, to my little PO Box and I find one of those nice flat envelopes with the bubble wrap inside. Nothing unusual so far. When I pull out the disc I see post-apocalyptic cover art that could have come from the pen of Matt Groening (that is a compliment). And looking at the inside I recognize none of the musicians and none of the composers (also not unusual). Bassoon and Saxophone? Sounds iffy at best. And these folks hail from Idaho. Idaho? The last time I heard the name of this state in relation to classical music La Monte Young was being discussed (he was born in Idaho). They now hail from Portland.

Sean Fredenburg

But when I put this disc in my CD player while on one of my longish drives (we drive a lot in California) I was delighted and mesmerized. These two musicians, both professors at Idaho university, seem to have cast their net into minimalist waters. The variety within that definition of a musical style demonstrates the apparently boundless creative ways of working within that style and the limitations of the term in helping listeners know what to expect.

Well, expect virtuosity, expect clever invention, and expect to be entertained. Despite the pop art cover (the entire production will be my exhibit A when I propose a law requiring a minimum 12 x 12 packaging for all music and video releases) the music consists of some really solid compositions which send quite a challenge to the artists while leaving the listener enthralled (no easy task). The only mistake is putting the liner notes one line. Die hards like yours truly will seek out and read these (actually very useful notes) but I think most listeners will not make the effort. Ah, well.

Usually these solo instruments are accompanied by a piano or a guitar when they are not a part of a larger ensemble. When these two instruments play together one might choose a strategy of having one instrument accompany the other. The compositions here utilized a variety of strategies, many of which place some serious physical demands on the musicians. What all these compositions manage to do is to sound as though they were intended to come out exactly as you hear them in this recording (also a daunting and frequently unaccomplished task).

These machinations stem from the efforts of the Post-Haste Reed Duo consisting of Sean Fredenburg on saxophone and Javier Rodriguez on bassoon. These works are commissions written for them (who else?) and presented here in their world premiere recordings.

The composers (Ruby Fulton, Drew Baker, Michael Johanson, Edward J Hines, Andrea Reinkemeyer, and Takuma Itoh) presented me with yet another research task (also not uncommon with the unusual music that comes my way), that of finding out who these people are and, frankly, if I should file these names away in my future successes file, keep them on the radar in the hopes that they will continue to produce work of this quality. I’d say odds are good.

Michael Vincent Waller: Trajectories (further explorations of a gentle radicalism)


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Waller’s first release dedicated entirely to his work was the 2 CD The South Shore release on Phill Niblock’s XI label last year.  Two disc sets are a risky venture, especially for relatively new artists.  But Niblock has always chosen to take the interesting path regardless of risk.  Well that risk seems all the less risky now that we see the release of yet another full album (albeit one CD) of more of Waller’s increasingly popular compositions.

This time he is championed by the post-minimalist master pianist R. Andrew Lee and rising star Cellist Seth Parker Woods.  The other risk taker here is the producer and engineer Sean McCann whose experimental label Recital is exploring some exciting territory.  Now one might take issue with an argument for the increasing popularity of this composer given that his albums are being released self-styled “experimental” labels but two releases in two years is hardly a case for obscurity.

In fact Waller’s work seems to be attracting a great many musicians who sense that he is evoking a genre with ties to various well worn traditions but also one which is developing its own lasting voice.  Waller’s background includes studies with La Monte Young, Bunita Marcus, and Elizabeth Hoffman.  His works tend to use modes, a style heard more commonly in the work of composers like Lou Harrison (and before that perhaps the 14th century).  At first listen one hears a basically tonal sound but gradually one is drawn into the more subtle aspects of Waller’s art and therein lies the beauty of his work.

There are six works here spread over 17 tracks and all are from 2015-2016.  With only a couple of exceptions Waller makes his statements in 1-5 minute movements much like Lou Harrison.  His penchant for using modes occasionally suggests the music of Alan Hovhaness but Waller is seemingly an unabashed romantic at times too.

The first work “by itself” is one of the longer pieces here at 5’51” and is pretty much representative of the tone of the entire album.  That’s not to say that the album is not varied in content, it is.

The second work in the 8 movement, “Visages” which, appropriately conjures a more impressionistic notion.  This is not Debussy, rather it is maybe post-impressionistic.  It is strongly reminiscent of the best of Lou Harrison’s work with short varied movements but embraces a far more romantic and virtuosic reach.

Lines for cello and piano give the listener the opportunity to hear the fine cellist Seth Parker Woods in this lyrical and beautiful work.  Woods really makes these almost vocal lines sing and begs the question as to when we might hear some vocal music from Mr. Waller.  This is the most extended piece on this collection at 9’19” in a single movement but one wishes for it to go on much longer.  It also prompts one to want to hear more from Mr. Woods.

The three movement Breathing Trajectories is perhaps the most post-minimal of the works here.  It is also among the most complex harmonically but the point here seems to be the sound rather than the method per se.  It is a three movement meditation on some minimalist-like ideas.

Dreaming Cadenza is one of the more overtly virtuosic works here though it’s mood is not unlike the rest of the pieces here.  It is an opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate his skill and Lee does that admirably.

Last but not least, as they say, is the ironically titled, “Laziness”.  Its three movements have enough development to suggest calling this work a “sonata” but such choices are left to the composer (as they should be).

Two other salient factors come to light here.  One is the rather attractive and intelligently designed slipcase (by label owner Sean McCann) with some lovely photographs by none other than Phill Niblock and room enough for adequate liner notes (thank you).

The other factor, one for which I intentionally truncated by own commentary on the music, is that the liner notes are by none other than “Blue” Gene Tyranny aka Buddy, the world’s greatest piano player from Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, aka Robert Sheff.  This legendary pianist and composer provides a really insightful set of liner notes and adds so much to the understanding and appreciation of the musical content.

This is a beautiful album brought to life with an auspicious and talented set of people.  That alone is reason enough to buy this album but the best reason is that the listener may follow this next step in the trajectories of the composer Michael Vincent Waller.

The South Shore by Michael Vincent Waller, Radicalism in Context


In 1976 the premiere of Henryk Gorecki‘s tonal and melodic 3rd Symphony stood out as unusual in the context of the usual avant-garde fare heard at the annual Warsaw Autumn Festival.  I recall a similar experience when I first heard the music of Lou Harrison given his association with Henry Cowell and John Cage.  It was not what I expected to hear.

This young composer graciously sent me a copy of this, his major label debut for me to review. I noted that it was on the Experimental Intermedia label which was founded by Phill Niblock and is known for recording of a great deal of challenging and interesting avant-garde music by various composers including Phil Niblock, Jackson Mac Low, Guy Klucevsek, Ellen Fullman, David Behrman and many others. I have been a great fan of this record label for many years and own most of their titles.  But what I heard listening to this beautiful 2 disc set of relatively short pieces mostly for acoustic instruments seems radical in the context of this label’s usual fare.

The Southern Shore  XI  136

The South Shore
XI 136

Don’t get me wrong.  This does not appear to be conservative music.  Waller has studied with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Bunita Marcus giving him a healthy pedigree in the avant-garde.  Indeed his earlier works were concerned with alternate tunings.  By earlier works, of course, I am only referring to a few years before the present music under consideration here because this composer, not yet 30, is presenting a fully developed sound.  Here he is concerned with alternate scales, church modes as opposed to the western diatonic scales.  There are a few instances of the use of quarter tones but, for the most part, he seems concerned with exploring the impact of different modes within the tuning of equal temperament which dominates western music.

For all the technical interest one might have in analyzing this composer’s use of modes the important thing here is the emotional impact of the music.  These frequently somber but beautiful melodies and motives speak very directly to the listener, at least this listener anyway.  This two disc set provides an excellent survey of the composer’s output over the last two or three years.

The titles are somewhat enigmatic and reflect a very personal approach.  He does not seem concerned with classical forms nor is he apparently opposed to them.  Again analysis will not reveal as much as just listening.  He creates beautiful contours of almost vocal quality at times.  I am given to wonder how he will confront music for voices and imagine that his style will serve him well.  I am tempted to compare him to Arvo Part perhaps but I don’t want to suggest that his work is derivative or, for that matter, even influenced by Part’s work.  I just get a similar feeling listening to Waller’s music.

This disc of chamber music for mostly acoustic instruments employs quite of few fine musicians who seem to be inspired to play their best by this music.  Pianists include Yael Manor, Charity Wicks, Nicolas Horvath and Marija Ilic.  Violinists include Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim-Harris, Jessica Park and Esther Noh.  Violists are Daniel Panner, Cyprien Busolini and Erin Wight.  On cello we hear Christine Kim, Deborah Walker and Clara Kennedy.  Carson Cooman is featured on Organ.  Flautists are Amélie Berson, Itay Lantner and Luna Cholang Kang.  Pierre Stéphane Meugé plays alto sax, Didier Aschour plays electric guitar (the only non-acoustic instrument on this recording), Thierry Madiot plays trombone, Katie Porter is on clarinet and Devin Maxwell plays percussion.  All play in various groupings from solo to small chamber ensembles.

The detailed and very helpful liner notes are by “Blue” Gene Tyrrany aka Robert Sheff.  The beautiful cover was photographed by Phill Niblock.

This is an album of miniatures with no track lasting longer than about ten minutes though there are works which are cast in several movements.  The pieces were all written in the last 4 years and constitute an excellent survey of this emerging talent.

Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion


Craneway Pavilion

Craneway Pavilion

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

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

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

English: Rhys Chatham at Islington Mill, Salford

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

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

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

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

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

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

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

Chatham conducting.

Chatham conducting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Far of, most secret, and inviolate

Rose,

Enfold me in my hour of hours; where

those

Who sought thee at the Holy Sepulchre,

Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir

And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep

Among pale eyelids heavy with the sleep

Men have named beauty.

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