Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.
Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.
The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.
The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.
The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.
“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.
The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.
This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
Hannah Lash‘s name began appearing on my radar about two years ago but this is my first actual encounter with her music. This recent (2011) Harvard graduate’s star seems to be rising quickly and this is a fine place as any to start to get to know her work. New Focus Recordings is a label with good instincts regarding new and important music and this one is typical of their collective acumen.
This release features 4 works. One is for harp (Lash’s instrument) with string quartet and the rest are for string quartet alone. I find it difficult to describe Lash’s work concisely. Like many in her generation she seems to have been exposed most comprehensively to a huge range of styles and techniques and she appears to be selecting judiciously among those to apply those techniques by which she can achieve her compositional goals.
The works include the single movement, Frayed followed by Suite: Remembered and Imagined (in 6 short movements), the single movement Pulse-Space, and the three movement Filigree in Textile which features Lash on harp along with the Jack Quartet. The rather sparse liner notes are by the composer. They may lack detail as to composition date, commissioner, etc. but they do reflect what the composer’s thought processes were with each piece. She is clearly more concerned with conveying her metaphorical ideas than the technical aspects of her work. That is perhaps best left to future musicologists.
Her work is direct, one might even say concise. Using a basically tonal palette, the composer explores a variety of musical and metamusical ideas. These are intimate and interesting works that seem very much to the point. Keep in mind too that this is simply a disc of recent chamber music which gives no idea as to how she handles larger forms. But from the perspective of this album alone her brevity has an almost Webernian quality (not the thorny harmonies or difficult rhythms, just the brief and direct statements she makes with the music here).
The always wonderful Jack Quartet plays in two different configurations here. Tracks 1-8 feature Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Kevin McFarland, cello. Tracks 9-11 feature: Austin Wullman and Christopher Otto, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello; and Hannah Lash, harp.
As usual with well written new music multiple listens reveal more detail. The music is both interesting at first listen as well as compelling enough to provoke yet another listen. Lash is a rising star who deserves the attention of a new music audience who will learn the subtleties of her musical language. There is great beauty here.
Here I sit with an album by a composer with whom I have no familiarity. Fortunately Eric Moe has a delightfully tenacious public relations department (at least with this particular record label) whose prompts did finally get me listening. OMG, it says “electroacoustic”. That could be really bad or obtuse. Well, I did promise to review it so here goes.
Eric Moe (1954- ) is a composer with a very well organized web page. A quick glance at that web page informs that this is the 12th or so disc from a man who boasts what looks like a list of over 100 compositions. Moe is also a performer and participates on this disc. This graduate of Princeton (A.B., Music) and Berkeley (M.A. and Ph.D., music) teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is also an active performer of both his and others’ music.
This discs contains 6 composition for solo instrument (mostly with) electronics. Now that combination has given this writer pause because the genre given the name “electroacoustic” can be a mixed bag. Sometimes these works can be ponderous or obtuse with meanings obvious to the composer and, hopefully, the performer.
However your reviewer’s neurotic fears were apparently unfounded as the tracks played some truly wonderful compositions. Each track features a different instrument. The instruments, in order, include a drum set played by Paul Vaillancourt, a viola played by Ellen Meyer, a solo 19tet keyboard played by Eric Moe, an unbelievably virtuosic pipa played by Yihan Chen, solo piano played by Eric Moe, and flute played by Lindsey Goodman.
Suffice it to say that all the soloists here come with a high level of virtuosity as well as the ability to interact meaningfully with the electronics. Far from being a nightmare of impenetrable experimental music this is rather a very entertaining set of pieces which tend to avoid the worst cliches of this genre.
Rather than attempting to describe each of these pieces (a task which would likely be more painful to read than write) it is best to simply provide assurances that the combination of this talented composer combined with the more than capable soloists provides a stimulating and interesting listening experience. These are wonderful performers with great material.
The listener will want to hear each track more than once to get a good idea of what the composer is doing but, fear not, this album is much more adventure than ordeal. It shows a composer at the height of his powers producing art which stimulates the senses and provides an emotional experience. While there is clearly intellect behind the creation and performance of these works they tend to speak rather directly to the listener providing a stimulating entertainment that leaves the listener with a shred of hope that classical, even modern classical is far from dead.
Kudos to professor Moe and his collaborators and a nod of thanks to the tenacious publicity folks who would not let this release go quietly into the good night. You shouldn’t either.
One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance. Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.
There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra. It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few. In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice. Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.
Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript. In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity. Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision. They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon. As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.
Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer. However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art. Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way. This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.
Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music. The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate. Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work. And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era. Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.
Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence. Kathleen Supové is a fine example. Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers. In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.
I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work. This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master. Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers. Only three tracks are for solo piano. The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.
Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience. It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review. (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)
Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.
Here is the track list:
1. Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara
2. Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks
3. Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark
4. What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf
1-4. Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield
5-7. Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld
8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper
All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.
So the take away here is as follows: If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album. If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album. It is the second reason the seems the most salient here. I expect to be listening to this many more times. Enjoy.
I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer. Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist. I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album. I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.
Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002). This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).
The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation. The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier. And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well. Can you say eclectic?
The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.
In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas. One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though. The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.
The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect. The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011). The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.
I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing. Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse. I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues. I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming. It is as though this is too much for a single release.
Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well. The Sonata seems to be the highlight here. It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.
There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone. The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what. This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.
The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets. Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well. Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming. This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.
This is a curious collection of flute and piano music. It is framed by two pieces from the late great Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), one by Elliott Carter and a collection of world premiere recordings by composers far less familiar and markedly different in style.
The premieres are all by living composers (Josh Levine, Christopher Dietz, C.R. Kasprzsyk and Sam Pluta). Now these are all fine compositions but their style is so very different from the Harvey and Carter pieces that it is almost jarring to the listener. This living set of composers is represented by a far more conservative compositional ethic (please don’t read that as a negative) than the older, more modernist pieces which frame their efforts here.
Of course only time will tell the eventual place of these works in the annals of musical history but the fact here is that we have two towering works by Harvey, a tasty bit of one of Carter’s lesser known works and essentially unheard works from a gaggle of newcomers. The listener just has to be prepared to switch gears.
The performances are beautiful and loving throughout. The Harvey pieces truly stand out as the masterpieces they are as does the Carter. Curiously Carter (1908-2012) has been somewhat maligned since his passing for reasons that defy logic but I am glad that this late Carter piece was included.
This is a lovely recording and performance. The juxtaposition of the modernist pieces framing the neo-romantic pieces by the younger composers is striking but stick with it. The pleasures of this recording are in the loving and committed performances as well as the recording itself which is quite lucid.
Conor Nelson on flute and Thomas Rosenkranz, piano are new names to me but I will keep them in mind having heard what they have done here. The ear who made this recording so listenable was Ryan Miller, the recording engineer.
Other than the information on this CD and the composer’s faculty page (here) information seems limited on this composer,. He earned a BM, Organ Performance, Brigham Young University, 2001, an MM, Music Composition, Brigham Young University, 2003 and a DM, Music Composition, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 2006. Currently he is associate professor of music at BYU where he teaches theory and composition as well as electronic music.
Thornock is that rare breed of percussionist (or is it keyboardist?), a carriloneur and he takes the opportunity to display those skills on this all percussion release, apparently the first recording of this composer’s music.
It is very difficult to assess a composer based solely on their percussion music and sometimes that genre can take on the insider feel of, say, band music or some more rarefied and sequestered niche of music. As popular as percussion music has become in the 20-21st century it seems sometimes to be an orphan genre. This is also, no doubt, due to the all-inclusive nature of the term “percussion” which leaves a huge list of potential instruments to consider. So an album of tympani music or bongo music or marimba music (conceivably even piano and harp can be included under the percussion rubric).might all be spoken of generically as percussion music. This recording uses a wide variety of instruments.
Having said that this disc appears to show a composer with a wide palette and knowledge of the medium and it is an opportunity to hear carillon music which is itself a relatively rare experience in recordings. His writing is accessible and, no doubt, well-tailored to the skills of the musicians.
There is nothing familiar here. All are new works written, presumably, in the last few years. It would be interesting to hear more of this composer’s output in the areas of chamber, orchestral and electronic music. But this little tease will have to do for now.
Matthew Coley, the percussionist, seems to be the real star here. He plays on all tracks and seems to be a highly skilled player. His website was the most useful to this reviewer as well. Along with him are the Iowa Percussion Group, the Iowa State University Percussion Ensemble and, as mentioned earlier, the composer on carillon on tracks 7-10 with Gerard Norris conducting.
This New Focus recording FCR 156 is beautifully recorded and I think that is no simple task given the variety of instruments involved.
Let me say at the beginning here that this disc contains music of a rather experimental nature. It has underlying complexities and this is not the kind of CD one would have playing at most parties except perhaps to clear the room. That being said this is not bad music but it is challenging listening.
I had not been familiar with Steven Ricks (1969- ) or his music prior to receiving this disc for review. Ricks earned his B.M. in Composition in 1993 from Brigham Young University, and M.M. (also in composition) from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1995, a Certificate of Advanced Musical Studies from King’s College in 2000 and Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2001. His teachers have included Morris Rosenzweig, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Bill Brooks, and Michael Hicks.
He is currently on the Board of Advisors of the Barlow Endowment, and an Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at BYU where he also directs the Electronic Music Studio. His works fall primarily into the realm of the “electroacoustic”. His training and interests seem to put him into orbits that likely include Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lejaren Hiller and perhaps Salvatore Martirano (all, by my definition, great composers but difficult listening and with electroacoustic outputs primarily).
I must confess that I know relatively little about the forefront of electronic music these days and I am working on catching up on this history (which seems to exist almost completely separate from classical music per se). Even the hybrid of “electroacoustic” music seems, for this writer at least, to remain rather marginal in terms of its listening audience and its prevalence in the concert hall.
Now, having loaded the reader with these prefaces, apologies and excuses, I move on to the music itself.
I listened numerous times to the tracks on this disc. Sometimes I listened with direct intention and concentration, other times I listened with this disc playing ambiently (can I use that term here?) whilst pursuing other tasks (not recommended). The music is assertive and, at times downright intrusive.
I get the feeling overall of a great deal of experimentation and complexity that nearly raises Milton Babbitt’s famous question, “Who cares if you listen?”. Certainly the composer and performers care but that doesn’t rule out the likelihood that this music may speak to a limited audience who are better trained and more familiar with these techniques/ideas.
What I like about this disc, though, is that bold, experimental, doesn’t matter who is listening approach. Were it not for such innovation a lot of good musical ideas would never have been expressed. This music is experimental and perhaps more than a little “inside”, meaning that other composers/scholars might get things that the average listener would probably miss. Call it an adventure.
Curiously I was/am intrigued by Ricks’ interest in algorithmic composition (an iffy genre as well, I know). I was pleased to find that he has available for free download on his site a program he wrote called Universal Music Machine and I have been rather entertained by it both as a compositional tool and as a teaching/learning method. And I promise to post mp3 files of any masterpieces I might generate.
There are 9 separately identified pieces here written between 2001-2014. Two are multi-movement works and all but two involve electronics in performance to some degree.
The opening track, Ten Short Musical Thoughts (2002) serves well as an introduction. It makes use of sampling and of algorithmic composition. Indeed these are short musical ideas with some spoken word comments integrated with the music.
If you are not watching/listening closely you may miss the transition between the opening track and the next, “Young American Inventions” (2007) for solo piano and electronics. The title, a mashup of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Steve Martland’s “American Inventions” reflects Ricks’ eclectic interests and fascination with both contemporary classical as well as popular culture. Pianist Scott Holden navigates the challenging keyboard part accompanied by the electronic score. Here is where Ricks’ work reminds me of Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms” series.
The four movement, “Extended Play” (2007) continues the pop culture references as the composer states that those four movements are intended to mimic or approximate the four tracks which are found on most vinyl EP productions. The ensemble composition, which is also full of more specific references to both classical and popular music, is executed by Flexible Music and is the most easily accessible work on this disc (to this listener’s ear).
“Ossifying (Keeping us from…) (2012), listed as “electroacoustic” is a piece of sound art like the opening track (no live performers in the concert hall here) and is one of the most experimental pieces on the disc. It seems both deeply personal and inextricably self-referential.
“Geometria Situs” (2012) is the musical portion of a multimedia work called “WRENCH” which was written for and performed by Hexnut. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Riener handles the delicate vocal lines with grace and ease.
“Sounded along dove dôve” (1999) is the last of the non-live “electroacoustic” pieces and, like its predecessors, is similarly cryptic and self-referential, a puzzle perhaps, in which the components of language itself are used as determinants of the settings of the texts.
A bit of an “aww” moment occurs with “Waves/Particles” (2008) which is performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble conducted by the composer’s former teacher Morris Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig founded the ensemble in 1977. This is both homage and acknowledgement between the two generations of artists. It is lovingly played.
“Young American Inventions REMIX” (2014) invokes another pop culture metaphor of remixing a song. This is another iteration/elaboration of the material in the earlier version of this piece. Scott Holden is the soloist once again with the electronics.
“Stilling” (1997, rev. 2011) is a piece for solo piano. This is described by the composer as being an impressionistic piece, perhaps a sort of tone poem. The language is thorny and modern. The very capable pianist here is Keith Kirchoff.
The lucid liner notes are by Jeremy Grimshaw. The New Focus recording is clean and clear. So if you enjoy adventures in experimental/electroacoustic music this is your disc.
ADDENDUM: Mr. Miller kindly supplied the correct composition dates for the pieces in this album and they have been placed in the text. Also I was pleased to receive a link to their discography:(http://www.zeitgeistnewmusic.org/discography.html) I hope that is a recent addition and not my oversight (apologies if it’s an oversight).
I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review as I am a long time fan of the Minnesota based Zeitgeist ensemble. This varied ensemble has been a vital part of the new music scene in Minnesota since about 1977 (I still have some of their vinyl LPs). Happily they are in the process of making these out of print items available again on CDs via their website.
Curiously there is very little on the ensemble’s web site or on the internet in general on the history of this group prior to about the year 2000 A Google search yields few references to this group and Discogs does not have much listed in their discography of Zeitgeist. Their Wikipedia page is also in serious need of updating. The Innova records site is perhaps the most useful in identifying the albums released by this group in its various configurations and solo or other collaborations by its members (though the re-release of the older discs are not distributed there). I realize that this group began in the pre-internet era but perhaps it is time to clarify this and present a comprehensive history and discography of this significant new music ensemble.
The present disc is a collection of recent works by Scott Miller, a Minnesota based composer and teacher whose association with Zeitgeist goes back to 1993. He is currently the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro Acoustic Music in the United States) and professor of music at St. Cloud State University. You can find his work on youtube and Sound Cloud.
Now let me say here that it is my observation that electroacoustic music, while not an uncommon genre, seems to be a specialized one which, like Zeitgeist, is not consistently well-promoted. At least that is my explanation (excuse perhaps) for my limited knowledge of Mr. Miller’s music up to this point.
The CD is a collection of six tracks with vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw on tracks 2, 4 and 6. Each track is a separate work and they are listed in the proper order on the back of the CD case but are discussed out of order in the notes for some reason.
But now I must stop my whining and criticisms (and thinly veiled references to Prince) and turn to the actual music. This is really wonderful music, well-performed and well worth your attention. And if the term “electroacoustic” puts you off don’t worry. What we have here is an artist who has managed to integrate a variety of techniques into an effective musical language that transcends mere experimentalism to yield some really good music.
The first piece, the one from which the album receives its title, is Tipping Point (2010) and was originally included on the SEAMUS CD Volume 20 (EAAM-2011). This is a remixed and remastered version of that recording from 2010. This writer hears echoes and homages to (or influences by, you decide which) Terry Riley, Steve Reich as well as perhaps Morton Subotnick and even the thornier sound of Mario Davidovsky at times. To my ears this is an integration of many ideas which work effectively together.
The second track, Forth and Back (2003) is the longest track and is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli. The setting is atmospheric, appropriate to the lovely texts and the vocal writing is simply beautiful. Carrie Henneman Shaw delivers this work with the success of interpretation that one would expect of a musician who understands the composer’s intent. Not an explicitly virtuosic piece it nonetheless challenges the performer with sotto voce passages that I imagine are quite a balancing act for a singer. This is a beautiful piece and the fact of its electroacoustic aspects take on far less important place than the effectiveness of the setting.
Next up is Pure Pleasure (2008) is a percussion piece. The composer goes into some detail in the notes as to the genesis of this piece and that is interesting but so is the act of listening to it. This is one of the more obviously experimental works here.
Twilight (2008-13) is actually a portion of a larger work, a collaboration between Miller, Pat O’Keeffe and video artist Rosemary Williams called, The Cosmic Engine. This is a multi-media chamber opera which premiered in 2008 and this section was revised in 2013. The text is by Walt Whitman. Again, Shaw does a lovely job with the lyrical vocal lines.
Funhouse (2003) is a marvelous use of electroacoustic methods. It is a piece with rather complex origins as explained in the notes but, consistent with its title, this is a fun piece to hear and, I imagine, to play. Along with the percussion piece it represents the more overtly experimental work of this artist.
The final track, Consortia (2013), as with Twilight, is an outgrowth or by product of work on the multimedia opera, The Cosmic Engine. Here the composer enlists computer processing to create a sort of live polyphony with live mixing of tracks of pre-recorded and live improvisational structures based on some renaissance tunes and techniques. I will leave it to the listener to read through the technical details but the result is a pretty entertaining piece of music.
Zeitgeist does a wonderful job here playing with passion and dedication. I can only hope that we hear more from both Zeitgeist and Mr. Miller.
The recording done at Wild Sound Recording Studio in Minneapolis (Mark Zimmerman, master engineer on tracks 1 and three; Steve Kaul, master engineer on tracks 2 and 4-6) is lucid and warm. The art and design by Raul Keller makes for an attractive product. This release from New Focus Recordings belongs in the collection of any new music fan and certainly every Zeitgeist fan.