Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.  It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir.  It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent.  She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.

Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice.  Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century.  Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.

Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career.   She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career.  The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry.  Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.

In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.

Thomas Kozumplik’s Percussion Symphony, “Child of the Earth”


This is a big work written expressly for these musicians and commissioned by conductor Jonathan Haas. It is titled percussion “symphony” which suggests a grand undertaking. It is the only work on the disc.

The composer, Tomas Kozumplik is an American composer unfamiliar to this writer and most likely to most listeners. Kozumplik is a percussionist and composer based in Brooklyn.  He is perhaps best known as a film composer but his interests and his collaborations reveal him to be embracing a wide variety of musical interests.His website is definitely worth your time as it describes this artist’s range.

This work is neither noisy modernism nor “lite classical”. It is almost neo-romantic at times as it lives up to the grand promise of its title. It is a great example of how to write for percussion. Indeed the genesis of this work lies partly in the collaborative. Kozumplik worked closely with the musicians to mold this work into its final form. Multiple listens reveal more of the structure and unity of this work.  It is not, strictly speaking, difficult music but it is also not simple either.

Indeed, as the titles suggest this piece has a sort of external program, “Child of the Earth” and the subtitle, “Un nino busca a Dios” (which my limited Spanish means, “A child looks to God”) are referred to in greater detail in each track. It’s not clear how these ideas are integrated musically it does couch this work in a sociopolitical genre. The music certainly works well by itself but astute listeners will want to be aware of the meaning these ideas have had for the composer’s and, doubtless, the performers whose intimate investment here is ultimately the joy in this release.

Beethoven, Bartok, and Davidovsky with the Julliard Quartet


The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.

The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.

He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.

Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.

As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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Ondine

The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

Ann Millikan’s Symphony


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The combination of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project alone are reasons to buy this disc.  The process of discovering new music can be an arduous task with few hints along the way.  However certain musical gurus have been very helpful to this writer and one of the finest is Mr. Rose and his orchestra.  His curation and the dedication of these incredible musicians pretty much guarantees a satisfying listening experience. The useful liner notes by Bay Area music maven Sarah Cahill also serve to recommend this disc.

If those accolades are not enough for you let me tell you that this was my first encounter with this composer so I went in with few expectations and no negative prejudices.  What I found was a hugely entertaining work of deep substance which grows on the listener with each run through.

The work is in four movements, each concerned with each focused upon one theme or idea related to the life of Robert Millikan, the composer’s brother. The movements are, “science”, “animals”, “rowing”, and “violin”. Each one describes an aspect of his life and, while elegy is a part of the intent in this music (which it does well), each one stands on its own musically and the work entertains on a purely musical level as well.

That last movement is virtually a violin concerto and seems among the most personal of the four. No doubt there are many personal references but the overall feeling is celebratory, the step just past mourning.

All in all a great listening experience which will send this listener on a quest for more of this composer’s work.

Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


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Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

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.