American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Longleash: Incorporating the Modern


longleash

The strikingly beautiful cover art reminiscent of Magritte is eye catching and make this reviewer nostalgic for the days of the 12×12 format of LP covers.  (Album Artwork: Pink Lady (2015), Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Album Design: Laura Grey).  It is, perhaps by virtue of its nod to modernism, a metaphor for the content of this album as well as being its title.

Longleash is apparently the oh so clever operations name of a CIA project whose goal was to help proliferate American modern art in the cold war era.  These days I guess that would be “weaponizing” art.  And this modern piano trio has (curiously) elected this for their stage name.

Well the content of this album is nowhere near your traditional piano trio and may even seem subversive to some listeners.  Longleash are modernist throughout.  Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano self-identify as a group with “traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity.”  Indeed they have chosen a rather young and pretty much unknown group of composers: Francesco Filidei (1973- ) is the oldest of the group followed by Clara Iannotta (1983- ), Juan De Dios Magdaleno (1984- ), Christopher Trapani, and Yukiko Watanabe.

Despite the varied backgrounds these composers seem to share a particular segment of a modern aesthetic.  They seem fond of judicious use of extended instrumental techniques and quasi-minimalist cells but their styles are quite listenable.  They seem to have aspects of pointillism, the occasional terseness of Webern, some rhythmic intricacies and the occasional nod to a melody.  In short they seem schooled in the variety of techniques which rose largely out of the twentieth century but seem beholden to none of them seeking instead to judiciously use their skills to create their own unique sound worlds.

There are five works on eight tracks and none of them can be easily described except to say the the combination of listening with the aid of the liner notes can be helpful.  That is not to say the works cannot stand on their own.  That is a useful experience in itself.

I suppose it might be best to say that these works will likely evoke a variety of reactions from various listeners.  This is the sort of album, at least for this listener, that benefits from a direct concentrated listen without distraction but it is also worth experiencing as background music, letting the experience creep in where it might while you do other things.  And then a read through the liner notes to try to divine the composers’ intents.

I’m not being facetious here.  I think this is a very intriguing album but one which is difficult to characterize in words and one which is beyond this writer’s expertise in terms of any useful analysis.  Also the newness of these voices does not allow one to place these works even within the contextual canon of each individual composer’s work.  We have free floating modernism which, as was thought in the cold war days, may invade one’s intellect in subversive ways.

The review immediately preceding this one, Soft Aberration, features this piano trio on it’s first track.  Now Scott Wollschleger is very closely associated with the Manhattan School of Music.  What is curious here is that Longleash has managed to find the present disparate group of emerging composers with no directly discernible connections to the Manhattan School but with a clear affinity for the same sound world.  It is the luck of the draw that these reviews have appeared in this sequence but the similarities are striking.  So if you like the spare sounds of the New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff) and their successors in people like Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Futing, and Nils Vigeland (who, along with Pala Garcia provides the useful liner notes) then this will be your cup of tea.  But even if you don’t know these folks you are still in for a fascinating journey of cutting edge ideas by emerging composers.  And even if it is not “weaponized art” subverting your mind to western ideology you can be assured that it is genuine and uplifting work done by some wonderful performers of composers you will likely hear from again very soon.

 

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration


wollschlegersoft

New Focus FCR182

The cover and the booklet that come with this CD contain art that is a remarkably fitting metaphor for the music contained herein.  The almost monochromatic images with sometimes barely visible lines defining a space which requires serious concentration to discern effectively at times is very much like the music we hear on the disc.

Scott Wollschleger (1980- ) is an American composer who studied with Nils Vigeland at the Manhattan School of Music.  His work has been compared to that of Morton Feldman and, more generally, to the other members of the so-called New York School.  Vigeland has been active throughout his career performing and recording definitive versions of some of the best of Morton Feldman, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.  It would appear that these voices and stylistic leanings are very much favored at the Manhattan School of Music.  A previous disc reviewed here with music by head of the composition department Reiko Futing, evokes a similar sound world.

This disc of chamber music contains five works on eight tracks ranging from 1’43” to 14’27” and all require almost as much concentration on the part of the listener as the extended techniques and performance requirements demand of the performers.  The dynamic range is from (generous) silences to forte.

The first track is by the seriously entertaining and odd piano trio called Longleash.  They demonstrate their expertise and concentration as well as their love for this musical genre in their performance of Brontal Symmetry (2015).  Unlike the other pieces here, Brontal Symmetry makes use of ostinati and there is a consistent sound field punctuated with silences.  It is an unusual but ultimately engaging piece.  Longleash consists of Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano.

It is followed by the titular and sparse Soft Aberration (2013) for viola and piano played by Anne Lanzilotti, viola and Karl Larson, piano.  Though approximately the same length as the opening work the silences nearly suspend the perception of time and create a sense of sounds suspended in space in a sort of sculptural way.

Bring Something Incomprehensible into this World (2015) is for trumpet and soprano.  The three parts of this work are spread across the disc (tracks 3, 5, and 8) creating an even more spare sense.  It is interesting to play the three movements manually without the interruption of the intended track sequence to get a sense of the piece.  Again we have silences predominating with extended techniques demanded of the performers.  Andy Kozar plays trumpet and the soprano is Corrine Byrne.  The first movement at 6’39” is the longest followed by the second at 3’25” and the last at 1’43”.

America (2013) is a solo cello piece here played by John Popham (of Longleash).  It is a pointillistic mix of silence and extended instrumental techniques which makes reference to an art work by Glenn Ligon.

White Wall (2013) is for string quartet and is played by the Mivos Quartet consisting of Olivia De Prato, violin; Josh Modney, violin; Victor Lowrie, viola; and Mariel Roberts, cello.  This is an amalgam of unfolding processes which seem to be indiosyncratic to the composer.  It is very intimate music in that sense.  The piece is in two substantial movements.

The album concludes with the brief last part of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World.  Suffice it to say that there are attempts here to tie in philosophical as well as visual metaphors.  Wollschleger is apparently enamored of the writings of Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Brecht.  Her lies another tie in to the New York School with their love of visual metaphors and philosophy.  This is not an easy listen but it is a serious effort deserving of some attention.  The listener can decide whether the artists have indeed brought something comprehensible into this world…or not.

 

 

Reiko Füting: names Erased


names erased

Reiko Füting (1970- ) is the chair of the music department at the Manhattan School of music.  The present album is actually my introduction to this man and his work.  It consists of a series of 15 works written between 2000 and 2014.

These works tend to emphasize brevity especially the solo vocal pieces (tracks 2, 4, 6, 8,  and 10).  These, originally for baritone and piano are here rendered very effectively as solo vocal pieces.  They are used as a sort of punctuation in this recording of mostly brief pieces which remind this listener of Webern at times.  They are in fact the movements of a collection called, “…gesammeltes Schweigen”  (2004/2011, translated as Collected Silence).  It is worth the trouble to listen to these in order as a complete set.

The first track here is also the longest piece on the album at 15:43.  Kaddish: The Art of Losing (2014) for cello and piano is an elegiac piece inspired by several people and seems to be about both loss and remembrance.  The writing in this powerful and affecting piece is of an almost symphonic quality in which both instruments are completely interdependent as they share notes and phrases.  The cello is called upon to use a variety of extended techniques and the piano part is so fully integrated as to make this seem like a single instrument rather than solo with accompaniment.  It has a nostalgic quality and is a stunning start to this collection of highly original compositions.

tanz, tanz (dance, dance) (2010) is a sort of Bachian exegesis of the Chaconne from the D minor violin partita.  This sort of homage is not uncommon especially in the 20th/21st century and this is a fascinating example of this genre.  The writing is similar to what was heard in the cello writing in the first track.  This piece is challenging and highly demanding of the performer.  It is a delicate though complex piece but those complexities do not make for difficult listening.

leaving without/palimpsest (2006) for clarinet and piano begins with a piano introduction after which the clarinet enters in almost pointillistic fashion as it becomes integrated to the structure initiated by the piano.  Again the composer is fond of delicate sounds and a very close relationship between the musicians.

names erased (Prelude, 2012) is for solo cello and is, similar to the solo violin piece “tanz, tanz”, a Bach homage.  The performer executes the composer’s signature delicate textures which utilize quotes from various sources including the composer himself.  And again the complexities and extended techniques challenge the performer far more than the listener in this lovely piece.

Track 9 contains two pieces: “ist-Mensch-geworden” (was-made-man, 2014) for flute and piano and “land-haus-berg” (land-house-mountain, 2008) for piano.  Both pieces involve quotation from other music in this composer’s compact and unique style. Here he includes references to Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach, Alban Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Schumann, Debussy, Nils Vigeland, Beat Furrer, Jo Kondo and Tristan Murail.

light, asleep (2002/2010) for violin and piano apparently began its life as a piece based on quotation but, as the liner notes say, lost those actual quotes in the process of revision.

finden-suchen (to find-to search, 2003/2011) for alto flute, cello and piano is a lyrical piece with the same interdependent writing that seems to be characteristic of this composer’s style.

…und ich bin Dein Spiegel (…and I am Your Reflection, 2000/2012) is a setting of fragments by a medieval mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg for mezzo soprano and string quartet.  This is deeply introspective music.

All of Fùting’s compositions have a very personal quality with deeply embedded references.  His aesthetic seems to be derived from his roots in the German Democratic Republic having been born into that unique nation state both separate from the West German state and still deeply connected to it.  He is of a generation distant from the historical events that gave birth to that artificially separate German nation but, no doubt, affected by its atmosphere.

The musicians on this recording include David Broome, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Nani Füting (the composer’s wife), mezzo soprano; Luna Cholong Kang, flutes; Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; John Popham, cello; Yegor Shevtsov, piano; Jing Yang, piano; and the Mivos Quartet.  All are dedicated and thoughtful performances executed effortlessly.

The recording is the composer’s production engineered by Ryan Streber.  This is a very original set of compositions which benefit from multiple hearings.