The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


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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.

Namaste, folks.

 

 

 

 

Sarah Cahill et al: By and for Terry Riley


Sarah Cahill - Eighty Trips Around the Sun- Music by and for Terry Riley - cover.png

Had to save this one for Christmas.  If ever there was an album that conjures more of the positive intents of the Christmas season this one gets my vote.  Imagine celebrating a living acknowledged master artist in a milieu of his actual and artistically extended family.  That may seem an extreme notion to some but this writer is utterly charmed and thrilled to hear this “one of a kind” collection.  Other interpretations will, of course, be valid but none will ever match this one.  It’s like the Carter family of the avant-garde (and I mean that unambiguously with great respect).

Any release by Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill is reason enough alone to perk up one’s ears but this massive four disc collection of all new recordings in honor of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday (Terry was born in 1935) is a major release of (almost) all of Riley’s music for piano, piano four hands and two pianos.  In addition two of the discs are dedicated to pieces commissioned in honor of Riley.  This set belongs in the collection of anyone interested in mid to late twentieth century music and especially fans of minimalism and the curiously west coast iterations of modernism.

As a listener I have always treated every Terry Riley release as a major event as well and this collection does about as fine a job as one can imagine in paying homage to one of the brightest artistic lights of the Bay Area.  Riley came to prominence (at least historically speaking) with his open score piece, In C (1964).  It is among the earliest examples of the style which, for better or worse, became known as “minimalism”.  Since then he has continued to produce music in pretty much all genres, chamber music, orchestral music, solo music, concerti, etc.

Riley’s style, however, continued to evolve and his later works show diverse influences from his days playing barrel house piano, his interest in progressive jazz, and his studies of Hindustani and Carnatic musics (under the tutelage of Pandit Pran Nath).  Like pretty much every composer of that first wave of “minimalists” Riley has evolved a much deeper and individualized style but, even with the diversity of influences as mentioned, he remains uniquely Terry Riley.

Throughout his career as composer and performer Terry has been a teacher and an advocate of new music.  His enthusiasm and talent has affected all who know him and, I dare say, all who have experienced his work.

This collection ranges over his entire career from the early “Two Pieces” (1958/9) to later solo and four hand compositions on the first two discs.  It is worth noting that Be Kind to One Another (2008/14) was one of the commissions in Sarah Cahill’s wonderful series of anti-war pieces, “A Sweeter Music”.  It then goes on to the homages which, of course, can also be said to be influenced by Riley’s work.

This is not simply a collection of Riley’s piano music.  What we have here is a lively celebration of most of Riley’s music for piano, two pianos and piano four hands from the full spectrum of his career (as the liner notes say a couple of large compositions were not included, most likely a matter of space) along with a touching set of homages by composers related musically and aesthetically to Mr. Riley.  They range from contemporaries to students, artistic descendants to actual family.  It is a multi-generational tribute and a loving artifact that celebrates this artist on a very personal level.

Regina Myers supplies the other two hands in the disc of four hand piano pieces by Riley.  She credits another Bay Area composer/teacher/conductor, the Mills College based Steed Cowart for recommending her for this crucial role.  Such touches add to the sense of this being a Bay Area family project on so many levels.

The interrelationships that comprise this lovely production make it stand distinctly apart from the (no less significant or lovely) homages to fellow minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  This is a much more personal album which reflects Riley as composer, teacher, inspiration, father, icon and friend.  Anyone who has met Terry or experienced him in performance has experienced a certain warmth like that of a wise and gentle guru.

After the two discs of Riley’s music we are treated to music inspired by another generation of artists and, last, by long time colleague, the late great Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), another wise and gentle guru who died just about a year before the release of this album.  She and Terry worked together (along with Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Steve Reich, William Maginnis, and Tony Martin) as founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center which would become the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music (still operating today).  The producers wisely dedicated an entire disc to one of Oliveros’ last compositions, this loving tribute to her friend and colleague. It is now, sadly, a tribute to her memory as well.   Samuel Adams shares the performing duties along with Ms. Cahill on this extended homage.

There is little doubt that the other composers whose music graces this tribute will continue on their unique paths to continued success always acknowledging their connections to Mr. Riley.  Danny Clay is among the less familiar (to this reviewer) names here but his Circle Songs seem to fit quite well to open the first tribute disc.  Gyan Riley is, of course, one of Terry’s children and a fine guitarist and composer  in his own right.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Gyan and Terry play together cannot miss the close bond personally and musically of these two.  They are a joy to behold.  The affectionate Poppy Infinite is a reference to the elder Riley’s Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band which was the “B side” of his classic Rainbow in Curved Air.  Samuel Adams is the son of Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams whose early work China Gates was written for and championed by his fellow classmate at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sarah Cahill.  The younger Adams’ contribution here is called Shade Studies.

The eclectic Christine Southworth also seems to embody the (perhaps loosely defined) West Coast style.  Her interests in electronics and world music describe this superficially but her sound is a welcome one here as well.  Keeril Makan earned his PhD. in music at Berkeley which doubtless has left a stamp on his style.  His composition “Before C” makes reference to what is doubtless Terry Riley’s best known work, the oft performed, “In C”.  Elena Ruehr is a composer whose connection is not as clear as some of the others here but her work, “In C too” demonstrates her understanding of and her respect for Riley’s work.  Last on this disc of tributes is Dylan Mattingly.  He is a Berkeley native and can frequently be seen/heard performing in various venues in the Bay Area.  His contribution YEAR demonstrates both his individual style and his connection to the West Coast Style mentioned earlier.

The liner notes by Sarah Cahill are part of the tribute and a good description of the various influences behind the man of the hour, Terry Riley.  Credit is properly given to the artistic influences that inspired Mr. Riley and a brief description of what must have been an intimidating but loving project.  It is likely that there are even more connections involved in this undertaking but that must be left to future musicological and historical research.

The Kronos Quartet has long ago championed Riley’s work for that medium and new versions of his classic, “In C” continue to come on the scene.  One can only hope that the energy embodied here will inspire recordings of some of Riley’s lesser known work with orchestra which richly deserves hearings.  But regardless there is much to celebrate here and best holiday wishes go out to Mr. Riley and his talented progeny.  Happy listening, all.

 

 

 

Howard Hersh’s Chamber Music: Dancing at the Pink House


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This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer.  His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord.  This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.

This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story.  Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character.  Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014).  The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level.  It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.

Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone.  It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.

I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom.  Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well.  Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.

Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out  in jazzy/bluesy moments.  This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season).  José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.

Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website.  It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano.  Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece.  Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).

Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer.  This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.

Femenine, a Lost Julius Eastman Recording, a Major Treasure


This is an epic minimalist masterpiece that has the same sort of almost full orchestral impact that one hears in works like Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, Riley’s ‘InC’, and perhaps Glass’ ‘Music with Changing Parts’ or ‘Music in 12 Parts’.  The point is that it is entrancing and engaging music that deserves to be heard.

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was an American singer, performer and composer whose work was little known until after his untimely death.  It was the efforts of composer Mary Jane Leach who performed a labor of love essentially saving Eastman’s work from obscurity when she called upon her fellow musicians and artists to help her gather all the extant recordings and scores many of which were lost after Eastman was evicted from his apartment not long before he died.  Her Julius Eastman page is a valuable reference and her work has inspired further research and performances of Eastman’s music.

Leach’s substantive initial efforts resulted in the release of the 3 CD set, Unjust Malaise which made available all of the then known serviceable recordings of this composer’s music.  Since then this recording became available and it may be the finest that Eastman did.

This is a live recording of a performance from 1974 which is quite lucid and listenable.  It starts slowly but quickly finds its rhythm and pace and provides an uninterrupted 70 minutes of consonant, even romantic sounds.  It’s relation to femininity or any gender issues is not clear, perhaps not even the point.  This piece also seems to have had a companion (called masculine) which is sadly now lost.

Anyone interested and entertained by the minimalist works already cited will find this work very inviting.  Hopefully the release of this recording will encourage a revival of this work and it will be performed again soon.  We as consumers are blessed to have this major work by this major composer available for listening and study.  Eastman deserves recognition as a composer and this disc certainly is a strong support for that.

Lavinia Meijer, New Superstar of the Harp Takes on Philip Glass



This is the ninth CD and the fourth Sony release by harpist Lavinia Meijer (1983- ).  This South Korean born artist was raised and educated in the Netherlands by her adoptive parents.  Her musical talent has earned her Cum Laude Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music and she has successfully pursued a career as both a soloist and an orchestral musician.  She appears to have a thorough grounding in both classical and contemporary harp repertoire and a passion for music.

In this double CD she presents her own transcriptions of ten of Philip Glass’ piano etudes and a second disc of music inspired in part by Glass’ style.  The Herculean tasks of transcribing and learning these etudes elicited collaboration with the affable composer and any Glass fan will want to hear her take on these pieces.

Meijer has chosen ten (of the now twenty) piano etudes for this album.  Now the harp is very close to the piano in many ways.  I believe it has basically the same pitch range and it does rely on strings and a sounding board.  However the playing of the instrument and the range of possibilities playable by two trained hands differs quite a bit.  There are problems on transcribing piano music for the harp.  It is not clear that all twenty can ever be successfully transcribed and played on Meijer’s instrument but this reviewer is truly grateful to hear the ten she has done and holds hope for the future that the remaining ten may find their way to a future release.  Her interpretation of these works help to provide the listener with insight to their complexities both technically and in their interpretation.  

The sassy neo-punk haircut on the album cover conjures comparisons in this reviewer’s mind of the hipness in both dress and presentation that characterized the wonderful Kronos Quartet, especially in their early days.   Indeed she does seem to be following a similar trajectory and Sony no doubt has hopes that she will establish a similar marketing niche doing for her instrument what the Kronos did (and continues to do) for the string quartet.  It certainly appears to be a safe bet.

One need only look to the second of the two discs to find Meijer championing some recent works written in contemporary styles that owe something to Glass’ compositional style.  The disc which includes Meijer’s take on portions of Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score along with compositions by five other composers is definitely a lighter even more pop-inflected experience at times.  That is not to say that this disc is lesser in any way but that it does seem to be reaching perhaps for a younger audience less versed in the classical harp repertoire.  Classical music needs to embrace other genres as the very concept of genre becomes more divisive than useful.  Another Strategy reminiscent of the Kronos.  

Whether or not this album manages to attract a wider audience to the charms of her instrument it does serve to showcase the range of this artist’s technical skills and the delightfully broad reach of her repertoire.  This rapidly rising star seems poised to be writing a bright new chapter in the life of the concert harp, a truly exciting prospect.

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! John McGuire


When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire.  Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s.  His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do.  He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog.  I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.

Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer.  In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts.  However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.

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Cover image from one of McGuire’s recordings.

John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.

I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records  store in Chicago in the 1980s.  It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.

Variations for 2 pianos CD

Variations for 2 pianos CD

My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take  on minimalism and pattern music.  It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development.  It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.

As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers.  After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.

The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label.   Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.

The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer.  The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978.  This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics.  This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation  but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast.  Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.

McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998.  He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.

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