New Depths of Hindustani and Medieval Music in a Debut Album by Composer/Cellist Chris Votek


Microfest Records 22

Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.

And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.

Chris Votek with this cello. Photo Credit Hannah Arista from composer’s web site

So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.

Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.

The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.

Neelamjit Dhillon with Chris Votek. Photo credit Kat Nockels from the composer’s web site

Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.

While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.

Bach Without the Wax Paper: Mak Grgic Playing on a Well-Tempered (Kirnberger III) Guitar


Microfest Records MF 19

Microtones and alternate tuning systems are increasingly one of the most significant streams in new classical music as well as in the revisioning of old classical music to capture the sound of the music in its original milieu, which is not current performance practice. In the liner notes John Schneider says that hearing Bach in 12 tone equal temperament (current performance practice) is analogous to “exhibiting Rembrandt paintings with wax paper taped over them.”

That image conjures for me a childhood memory of my mother bringing home some of the promotional gimmicks by one of the Chicago based supermarkets. It involved prints of famous paintings with a wax textured surface to imitate the look of oil paint on canvas. It’s a tortured metaphor for the present recording but it speaks of “cheesy imitation”. The present recording is one of an increasing number of recordings done with the scholarship of the very complex area of tuning, the surprisingly varied types of scales devised to solve harmonic complexities that occur due to the physics of sound itself. And by so doing, placing earlier efforts as “cheesy” by contrast.

In fact, Schneider (who kindly sent this disc to me), is one of the scholars at the forefront of recreating the musical scales as they existed at the time of the compositions so to get a clearer idea of how it must have sounded at the time. Toward that end one can now obtain guitars capable of being tuned to the subtleties of the scales. Another such disc was reviewed here. In fact guitarist Dan Lippel, in that recording played one of Mr. Schneider’s guitars.

I am working to learn more about the fascinating field of alternate tuning systems to better understand the various tunings in the flow of new music that comes to my desk. But listeners need not concern themselves with these details. The curious fact for this listener is that, on first hearing, the subtle differences in tunings were not immediately obvious (Well Tempered Kirnberger III on this recording). A better trained musical ear would doubtless hear these differences much sooner than I had but I have noticed that I have begun to hear these subtleties having been listening to this disc and some of the similar efforts on the aforementioned Lippel recordings and other titles on Mr. Schneider’s fine Microfest label. It seems like a sort of learning curve in which my brain learns to process these sounds and to hear them as more natural rather than altered.

I apologize for all this chatter but this album is not just about Bach, it is about hearing Bach as he heard it, freed from the shackles of the dominant western paradigms of how to tune a scale. It is a revelation but a gentle one whose radiance is clearer in the light of the retuning of the scale, removing the “wax paper” of the familiar western tuning to reveal a clarity not heard since the composer’s time. It is analogous to the 2018 restoration of the Rose Window (1210) in Chartres Cathedral bringing light in ways not seen in a very long time.

The fine Slovenian guitarist, Mak Grgic is a new name to this writer but one I hope to hear from again. In his selection of repertoire as well as his distinctive playing he makes a compelling and loving case for this music. His well organized web site details his work as musician, teacher, musicologist, composer, and international performer. This release is (by discogs) his seventh appearance on CD and his second recording for Microfest Records.

These are apparently Grgic’s transcriptions, not the “usual suspects” one might expect from a new Bach recording with the exception of the Cello Suite in D. This is apparently a very personal selection of music chosen with curational care. I’ve included a photo of the back cover to show the unique selections.

The Rose Window depicts the revelation and the final judgement of mankind. The present audio document is a gentle revelation but doubtless not the final word on Bach. But the scholarship is fascinating and the sound simply gorgeous. The wax paper has been removed.

Fixing a Hole to Keep the Music Playing: Starkland brings back Guy Klucevsek’s “Citrus, My Love”


Starkland STS-235

I don’t recall when I first heard Guy Klucevsek but I think it was the early 90s. I grew up hearing a great deal of accordions in polka bands at weddings throughout my childhood. This instrument had, pretty much since its beginnings in the early 19th century, been associated primarily with folk bands and not at all with classical music. I don’t think one can find an accordion used in a classical orchestra before Tchaikovsky’s 1822 Second Orchestral Suite and only sparingly after that. So when I discovered this New York musician via his releases on the Starkland label, Transylvanian Software (1999) and Free Range Accordion (2000) and the CRI disc Manhattan Cascade (1992). I was curious to see what this musician would do with this traditionally “low brow” folk instrument.

Free Range Accordion
Starkland ST-209
Transylvanian Software
Starkland ST-207

I had come to trust the Starkland label (which began in 1991) as one whose releases were usually very much to my taste and I was not disappointed to hear Klucevsek’s playing of pieces written by him and other composers for this instrument. Unlike Pauline Oliveros who did much to expand the very nature of the instrument itself, Klucevsek retained, and sometimes parodied, the humble folk/pop origins and reputation of the instrument while still pursuing its possibilities in the New York downtown experimental music scene where he worked with people like Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Coleman, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn among many others. Klucevsek expanded the role of the accordion in his own way.

Klucevsek later put together a commissioning project called, “Polka from the Fringe” (1992), a project which echoes the 1981 “Waltz Project” by Robert Moran and presages another accordionist William Schimmel’s “The Tango Project” of 2006. All of these commissioning projects utilized dance forms common in the 20th century as a “stepping off” place for a new musical piece. And it was Starkland which rescued the fascinating two disc release of Polka from the Fringe (2013) from over two decades languishing in “out of print” status. These projects are significant in that they invite composers to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate their take on the given dance form. Like Klucevsek’s earlier releases this Polka collection is a veritable Who’s Who of working composers of the era much as the Variations (1819) project of Anton Diabelli collected some 51 composers’ works based on Diabelli’s waltz-like theme (Beethoven’s gargantuan set of variations was published as volume 1 and the other 50 variations in volume 2 which included composers like Schubert and Liszt).

Polka from the Fringe
Starkland ST-218

So here comes Starkland to the rescue again in this (languished for some 25 years after only having been available for two years) very personal recording which displays Klucevsek’s substantial compositional chops as well as his knowledge and use of extended instrumental techniques for his instrument. It presents pieces written for a dance performances and shows a very different side of Klucevsek, one which shows more of his substance as a composer alongside his virtuosic skills on his instrument. In this digital only release there is an option to include (for a mere $3.00 more on the Bandcamp site) a series of 13 videos featuring Guy Klucevsek talking about the music on this album and his various musical interests. A gorgeous 10 page booklet providing further detail including the original liner notes with updates is included in all purchases. The album will also be available on Spotify, You Tube, and other streaming services but the videos are only available on Bandcamp.

Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy Starkland ST-225

Listeners may find this new release has some in common with Starkland’s previous Klucevsek release from Starkland, “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy” (2016) which features some similar compositional diversity in a disc entirely of Klucevsek’s works. The line from Citrus, My Love to Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy seems to be a logical succession in Klucevsek’s compositional development. In addition to his accordion studies Klucevsek studied composition in Pittsburgh but it was the influence of Morton Subotnick with whom he studied in his independent post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts that exposed this east coast artist to some of the splendors of the west coast encountering artists like Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. Indeed Klucevsek can be said to be “bi-coastal” in his compositional endeavors. And though this is a “tongue in cheek” characterization it does speak to the roots of Klucevsek’s diversity in style.

There are 12 tracks on “Citrus, My Love” representing 3 separate works: the three movement, “Passage North” (1990), the single movement, “Patience and Thyme” (1991), and the eponymous, “Citrus, My Love” (1990) in 8 movements. The production of this album is by none other than Bobby Previte, another valued east coast musician and colleague. The notes have been updated under the guidance of Tom Steenland with input from Klucevsek who, understandably, expresses great joy in having this album available again.

The first three tracks are dedicated to a single work, “Passage North” (1990) written for accordion and string trio consisting of Mary Rowell, violin/viola, Erik Friedlander, cello, and Jonathan Storck, double bass. They are dubbed “The Bantam Orchestra”. This Copland-esque work was commissioned by Angela Caponigro Dance Ensemble. The second movement is for string trio alone and is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland who died in 1990.

Patience and Thyme (1991) according to the composer “is a love note to my wife, Jan.” He composed the work while in residence at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania, which coincided with his 22nd wedding anniversary. It is scored for piano and string trio, no accordion. Compositionally it seems at home between the larger pieces.

Citrus, My Love was commissioned by Stuart Pimsler for the dance of the same name. It is in 8 scenes and is scored for Klucevsek’s accordion accompanied by his personally chosen Bantam Orchestra. Klucevsek describes the music on this album as representing his transition from hard core minimalism to a more melody driven style and this is the missing link, the “hole” to which I referred in the Beatles metaphor in the title of this review.

For those who already appreciate Klucevsek’s work this album is a must have. To those who have not gotten to know this unique talent this is a good place to start.

For those seeking to get more deeply into Klucevsek’s work (a worthwhile endeavor) and to provide a perspective on the range of this artist’s work I’m appending a discography (shamelessly lifted and updated from the Free Reed Journal) :

SOLOIST/LEADER

Scenes from a Mirage (Review)
Who Stole the Polka? (out-of-print)
Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse (Experimental Intermedia)
Polka Dots & Laser Beams (out-of-print)
Manhattan Cascade (CRI)
Transylvanian Softwear (Starkland)
Citrus, My Love (Starkland)
Stolen Memories (Tzadik)
Altered Landscapes (out-of-print)
Accordance with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter)
Free Range Accordion (Starkland)
The Heart of the Andes (Winter & Winter)
Tales from the Cryptic with Phillip Johnston (Winter & Winter)
Notefalls with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter)
Song of Remembrance (Tzadik)
Dancing On the Volcano (Tzadik)
The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova)
Polka From The Fringe (Starkland)
Teetering On the Verge of Normalcy (Starkland)

COMPILATIONS

Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy’s in Love With You (Tzadik)
Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts
Legends of Accordion, Awakening (Rhino)
The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup (CRI)
Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi (Toshiba EMI)
Norwegian Wood, Monk’s Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi (Toshiba EMI)
Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae (CRI)
Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache (Callisto)
A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear (Extraplatte)
A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps (Einstein)
A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land, Samba D Hiccup (No Man’s Land)

WITH JOHN ZORN

The Big Gundown (Nonesuch Icon)
Cobra (Hat Art)
Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes (A&M)

WITH RELACHE

On Edge (Mode)
Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording)
Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)

WITH OTHERS

Laurie Anderson: Bright Red (Warner Bros)
Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992(Black Saint)
Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter (XI)
Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night (Avante)
Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements)
Fast Forward: Same Same (XI)
Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith (Elektra Musician)
David Garland: Control Songs (Review)
Robin Holcomb: Rockabye (Elektra Musician)
Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print)
Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (Nonesuch)
Bobby Previte: Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)

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


Sony Classical 19439809212

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


New Focus FCR274

It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.

The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.

This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.

The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.

The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.

The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.

The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.

The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.

This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.

This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting