While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.
There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?
A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.
Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.
Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.
Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.
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.
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).
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.
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) :
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)
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)
On Edge (Mode) Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording) Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)
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)
As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do. The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century. It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.
Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions
Guy Klucevsek (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s. He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh. He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts. His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat. He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities. The accordion will never be the same.
Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label). He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule. He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.
Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.
The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga. His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world. Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.
On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface. What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed. To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann. You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.
Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording. Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians. Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.
The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds. Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music. There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.
Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano. No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.
The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels. William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer. Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.
Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit. The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums. Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks. Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.
The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end. Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.
As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones. Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia. This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved. Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.
Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.
The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein. Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin. Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown. All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.
Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.