I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung. This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music. William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.
Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label. It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work. All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.
There are four pieces on 12 tracks. The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work. It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.
The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto. There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child. It is for piano with chamber ensemble. Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly. Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture. Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part. It works very well.
He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry. Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.
This is the second Harold Meltzer (1966- ) disc to come across my desk in the last two months or so. This time he is heard on the venerable Bridge label which produces a great deal of quality recordings of new and recent music. This one contains four works spread over 15 tracks and, like his previous CD, includes some vocal music alongside two chamber music pieces without voice.
Meltzer seems to be one of a generation of composers who have absorbed many of the vast styles and methods which flowered in the twentieth century. He is not easy to categorize except as a composer. There are in his music gestures and ideas that span neo-romanticism, minimalism, etc. but he has a distinctive and very affecting style.
Meltzer’s ability to write for the human voice and these songs put this reviewer in the mind of composers like Ned Rorem. I’m not saying he exactly sounds like Rorem, just that he is as effective in his writing. Stylistically there is at times an almost impressionist feel in these songs and, while the piano accompaniment is wonderful, they almost beg to be orchestrated.
There are two song cycles on this disc, the first setting poems of Ted Hughes (Bride of the Island, 2016) and the second setting poems by Ohio poet James Wright (Beautiful Ohio, 2010). Tenor Paul Appleby had his work cut out for him and he delivers wonderful performances with a voice that is well suited to lieder but clearly with operatic ability as well. Pianist Natalya Katyukova handles the intricate accompaniments with deceptive ease in these cycles.
There are two chamber works on this disc. The first is Aqua (2011-12) which is inspired by the architecture of the so-called Aqua building in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang. In a city known for its fine architecture this 2007 building manages to stand out in its uniqueness. Need I say that his piece suggests impressionism. It’s string writing is complex with a vast mixture of effects that, under the interpretive skill of the Avalon String Quartet, suggest movement in much the way the building itself does. This is genius, the ability to mix all these string techniques into a coherent whole. It is a basically tonal work and it is seriously engaging but listener friendly in the end.
The second chamber work is a piece written for the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler. As it happens the Library of Congress, who commissioned the piece, owns Kreisler’s Guarneri violin and it is they who commissioned this work. Miranda Cuckson does the honors on violin ably accompanied by the trustworthy Blair McMillen. To be sure some of Kreisler’s style is used here but this work, “Kreisleriana” (2012) comes across as more than an homage, more a work informed by Kreisler. It’s a really entertaining piece too.
Thanks in particular to Bridge Records for releasing this. Bridge is one of those labels whose every release deserves at least a bit of attention. This time I think they’ve found a fascinating voice in Meltzer’s works. Now how about some orchestral work?
Ritorna vincitor! I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago. Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious) featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.
Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.
Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer. His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.
This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed. Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning. In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc. In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.
The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59). Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.
The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name. Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style. As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor. On this 50th anniversary of that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.
By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet. While there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.
The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980). The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.
As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”. Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture. Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.
Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley. It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.
During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16. More on that in future blogs. And now on to the second half of the concert.
Terry Riley’s energy belies his age. Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively. And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.
Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition. She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.
The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles. It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas. The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.
He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997). This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose. In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav. In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath. It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.
Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018). It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite. Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.
Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work. Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist. Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist. They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.
The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause. What a transcendent evening! What amazing artists!
I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer. I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction. The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016). Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style. I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.
The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable. It is also quite a workout for the musicians. In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times. This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.
The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano. All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves. I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.
The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style. This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style. It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo. Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music. The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.
The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens. Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read. What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance. This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915. There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.
Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years. Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works. It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work. The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.
Admittedly I am a sucker for nearly all things minimalist and post-minimalist. Such programming can lead to some potentially dull or cloying experiences. Not so with this lovely collection of miniatures though. While minimalists like Glass and Pärt make their appearances the concept here seems to reach for larger goals. We have a mix of relatively simple chamber compositions along with electroacoustic works, a revelatory take on Ravel’s Tzigane and and arrangement for violin and orchestra of a solemn choral piece by Morten Lauridsen.
This eclecticism seems to flow from the artist’s choices rather than choices imposed by a producer. In this respect she reminds this reviewer of pianist Lara Downes whose repertoire choices are similarly eclectic but born very personally from the artists’ experiences and preferences.
The opening Philip Glass Metamorphosis Two (1988) is presented in an arrangement by none other than Glass’ long time champion Michael Riesman. It is followed by two violin and piano pieces by Arvo Pärt, Fratres (1977) and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978). These lovely works serve to draw the listener in most pleasantly. Akira Eguchi is the fine pianist who plays on all but tracks 4, 7, and 8.
Next up is a piece of musical archaeology. Tzigane (1924) was originally written for violin and piano. It was later orchestrated and it is that version which is best known and probably most recorded. Well it turns out that Ravel had made a version for a now defunct instrument called a Luthéal which is an instrument invented in the early 20th century (patented 1919). It’s actually not so much an instrument as an add on. It modifies the sound of a piano. The device now exists in museums but that hasn’t stopped innovative producers from utilizing an electroacoustic version. Elizabeth Pridgen plays the keyboard to which the lutheal is virtually attached.
Apparently this version has been recorded before but this writer encountered it first in this release. It is a very different sound than the piano or orchestral versions and is a lovely take on the music. Many may buy the album for this track alone.
This is followed by a charming lullaby written for Meyers’ youngest daughter. John Corigliano has absorbed only a small bit of the minimalism bug (maybe his 1985 Fantasy on an Ostinato qualifies) but he is one of our finest living composers and he appears to infuse this violin and piano miniature, Lullaby for Natalie (2010) with a tender romanticism that is both sweet and touching. In the notes we learn that it did seem to put her daughter to sleep but I doubt it will do that to most listeners.
The next two tracks are works by one Jakub Ciupinski (1981- ) who also has a stage persona under the name Jakub Ζak under which he performs live electronic music. This Polish born composer is now based in New York and works with various forms of electronics including a theremin. Both “Edo Lullaby” (2018) and “Wreck of the Umbria” (2009) come from a similar place musically. Both use electronics in varying degrees to enhance and accompany the solo violin. Both are delightful little gems that give a nod to some minimalist roots but stand on their own merit and prompt this listener to keep an eye/ear out for more of this composer’s work.
The concluding piece is an arrangement by the composer Morten Lauridsen (1943- ). The performer states she pursued Lauridsen for a new piece and when he finally acquiesced he presented this lovely arrangement of his well known choral piece, “O Magnum Mysterium”. The arrangement is for string orchestra and violin and orchestra here given its world premiere performance. It should come as no surprise to new music fanciers that the Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by none other than Kristjan Järvi, a fine conductor, composer, and avid new music advocate who can always be found near some interesting musical projects.
This album stands out in that the choices of the musical selections and the personal connections between the composers and the soloist are clearly collaborative and inspired. This is substance rather than fluff but it may appeal to a wider audience. This one can be said to have crossover hopes but it does not pander. This is a wonderful album and will likely prompt listeners who, like this writer, have yet to know this soloist to go and seek more of her recordings and live performances. Brava!
Wow! What a discovery. This album was kindly sent to me by a friend, one of his most recent discoveries. And from the moment I put this in the CD player I was entranced. Despite the appearance of yet another cute musical duo these are two amazingly talented musicians playing some of the best post-minimal pieces this writer has heard in years.
Twiolins is are violinists with a wide range of interests (their repertoire as reported on their web site is impressive) but with a clear love for post-minimalist music. In fact they are brother and sister, Marie-Luise Dingler and Christopher Dingler. Unlike acts that seem to be designed to reach an audience with mediocre pop-inflected classical music Twiolins here presents 13 works by composers completely unfamiliar to this writer but astoundingly fresh and inventive.
My first impression reminded me of the music of the late great violinist and composer Michael Galasso. There is a remarkable similarity in styles between the composers represented here but all seem to fall basically into a post-minimalist category. The difference is that this music went right to my head (so to speak) and I found this music invaded my nervous system in the same delightful way that my first encounters with minimalism did. My linear thinking was impaired and I found myself carried away, willing to follow wherever the music led me. It was a curious mix of nostalgia and revelation.
There are 13 relatively brief tracks (ranging from 2:13 to 6:46) representing 13 compositions. Once I put the disc in the CD player I just had to hear the whole thing. No pause allowed. There is a consistency of styles with these pieces and the ordering on the disc promotes a nice flow from faster to slower pieces, then faster ones again. And adding to the basic quality of the compositions is a clear sense that these musicians are able to bring out details in the phrasing of their playing that make these compositions shine in ways that would flatter any composer.
Rebecca Czech, Germany: Ich glaub´, es gibt Regen
András Derecskei, Hungary: Balkanoid
Benjamin Heim, Australia: Trance No.1
Edmund Jolliffe, UK: Waltz Diabolique
Jens Hubert, Germany: Rock you vs. Ballerina
Johannes Meyerhöfer, Germany: Atem • Licht
Nils Frahm, Germany: Hammers
Aleksander Gonobolin, Ukraine: Metamorphosis
Dawid Lubowicz, Poland: Carpathian
Vladimir Torchinsky, Russia: Eight Strings
Benedikt Brydern, USA: Schillers Nachtflug
Andreas Håkestad, Norway: Three Moods, I
Levent Altuntas, Germany: Chasma^2
This is apparently their third album (their first was released in 2011 and another in 2014). It was released in late 2017. I picked these up at Amazon as digital downloads for comparison. It would appear that these musicians have been carefully cultivating their sound and selecting their repertoire.
Granted there is a slightly populist feel here but none of these composers are known to this reviewer so it’s difficult to say if this is typical of their work. These are strong, well-wrought pieces that will delight and move the listener. The term “populist” here is not intended to imply simplicity or lower quality, just a nod to the fact that it will likely have an immediate appeal to listeners. The composers are a nationally diverse set and doubtless have other compositions of interest in their catalogs. Listeners can doubtless anticipate more tasty little miniatures as well as (hopefully) selections from their repertoire of concerti and the like.
This is not a mind bending or taxing album but neither is it negligible. The liner notes give little info about the pieces but that doesn’t really matter because they’re relatively brief and you will either like them or not but this writer is betting on “like”.
This is heresy. It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz. Their “heresy” comes from their choices. The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice. There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.
No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy. Quite the opposite actually. And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration. The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.
“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”. It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well. In addition there is no conductor’s score as such. Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved. The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”. He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.
There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968) on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes. The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).
Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music. The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.
The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently. This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning. Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references. This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.
It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points. The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.
The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier. The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country. In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career. Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.
What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world. We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.
The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that. It is an homage. It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists. And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals. Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.
The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.