The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger, a Reacquaintance


First let me say that the title of this blog and its contents is presented as both apology and explanation. It is an apology for the intervening 12 months during which this blog was on unplanned hiatus. Indeed the ongoing requests for reviews were certainly a factor in getting this venture up and running once again and I am grateful for the persistence of musicians and their representatives. It is also a brief explanation of some of the reasons this has happened. Nothing here should be construed as being a lament or request for assistance of any kind (except for encouraging more readers). This blog post is also intended as an announcement that there is much more to come.

2020 was a year which one which has been a long and strange time for most of us. I took on an extended contract in February, 2020 which required me to move to Tacoma where I pursue my “day job” of working as a registered nurse. My place of employment is a state psychiatric facility and my first few months were consumed with training and other pre-employment hurdles. While I enjoy my work I found the transition to a city far from home and the learning process of dealing with this facility and its clientele impacted me in ways I could not predict. Add to that the overwhelming onset of the Covid 19 pandemic began to eclipse and alter so many things.

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To ease my transition going approximately 1000 miles from home I brought my little 12 year old Maltese dog, Clyde along for the adventure. This wound up being a most pleasant learning experience about the meaning of “emotional support animal”. He continues to do his job.

As it was most practical, I chose to drive to my new assignment so I packed the car with clothing, a few books, a kindle, a computer, and a small flock of CDs for the drive time. Traveling long distances is a wonderful opportunity to listen to lengthy or multiple pieces of music. Of course this is best appreciated in the long freeway segments between towns that dominated my itinerary.

My listening program consisted of (in no particular order): Ives- Concord Sonata played by Rene Eckhardt, Alvin Curran- Crystal Psalms, the two disc Chicago Blues album by AACM, Charlie Haden- Not in Our Name, several private recordings of music by Primous Fountain, Daniel Bjarnason- Collider, several private recordings of music by David Toub, Peter Maxwell-Davies- Symphony No. 1, Wilfred Josephs- Requiem, and occasional forays to sample the local broadcast spectrum (ew). An eclectic program to be sure, one which benefits from solitude from other homo sapiens. My little companion took the passenger seat and easily accessed the little cup of water in the console, happy regardless of the music selections. It was a satisfying listening experience augmented by some truly eye candy vistas (I did bring my camera but…driving.)

It was jolting to see the post fire-ravaged sections of forest that dotted the landscape in this journey but it remains visually stunning if not in the most beautiful way. It was about 22 hours of leisurely drive time calculated to give me a couple of days to find my residence and figure out my daily driving route. My little companion and I ensconced ourselves in an Extended Stay America hotel arranged by my contract agent.

The planning I had done was pretty good actually. We arrived as I had planned where my companion immediately began his ambassadorial responsibilities by attempting to meet (and charm) all who crossed his path. All signs suggested a smooth transition.

However the unpredictable reared its presence in a variety of forms including licensure delays (not the fault of Washington State), subsequent training delays, a camera in need of repair, a failed hard drive, a rather challenging work environment (this state facility is long term and functions largely as a forensic facility dealing with illness too severe for the jail system), and the onset of the Covid lockdown as well as an actual Covid infection (which I survived with minor consequences and have since been vaccinated). All these did not occur at once but I’m just summarizing. Most of these events could neither be foreseen or prevented but they presented challenges.

One of the most curious effects on my psyche was an extended period of time when I lost my ability to focus on many things other than the job. I had brought a box of CDs for review fully expecting that I would be able to continue my blogging with my readers getting no clue as to the chaos of the writer’s mind. As a Rabbi once told me, “Man plans, God laughs”, a less than comforting chestnut of wisdom which applies as it doubtless will again. So why worry?

Mount Ranier as seen from my hotel window.

My lack of ability to focus manifested in an inability to read for leisure (one can partly blame the toxic writing habits that plague “orientation materials” for numbing my brain) but also in a seemingly selective ability to hold my attention on the musical genres that had been my soundtrack on the trip to get here. I found myself craving jazz and blues and in a serendipitous gesture of fate I was more than pleased to find that my local broadcast options included two NPR stations, one of which (KNKX), plays a masterfully curated selection of jazz and blues most of the day excepting news breaks. That music continues to soothe my soul but I’m happy to say my focus seems to have returned to its accustomed wider spectrum of genres.

From Cahill’s web page.

I lament the fact that I have missed the opportunity to write about the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 during the actual year but the impact of the sundry musical celebrations and creations will continue to resonate and the cause will continue to deserve attention. One of the few new music events which grabbed my resistant attention was the series that Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill produced on YouTube. The series on women composers features short works (2-8 minutes) played in the artist’s Berkeley home. It is a virtual manifesto collecting a variety of too little known solo piano works by women (here’s hoping there’s an album in the offing). Of course the listener shouldn’t stop with the women composers. Cahill’s site offers of wealth of lesser known male composers interpreted with the same passion.

Linda Twine from Google Images.

I quite reasonably expected a sharp decline in readership given that my last blog post was published on March 7, 2020. There was initially at least a 50% fall off in readership but I was delighted to find that I ended the year with about 9300 hits, only about 4000 less than the previous year. A large part of that readership sought out my articles on black musicians and composers. Now, I focus on new music and just about any music which I think deserves an audience so the inclusion of black musicians is, of course, a given. So it seems particularly apt that I am returning to the blogosphere during black history month. This small portion of my output has driven more than its share of traffic to this site. The article on composer/director/producer Linda Twine was written in 2018 and has gotten well over 1500 views. I hope that means her star continues to rise. Other older articles, some written for Black History Month, also performed remarkably well. Indeed this can certainly be attributed in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing civil rights struggles in our purportedly “Post-Racial” era.

The blogger with composer Anthony Davis at a house concert in 2018

I was particularly pleased when composer Anthony Davis (whose work I have long admired) was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five. Like much of Davis’ work this opera is focused on civil rights issues such as, in this case, the miscarriage of justice against five black men falsely accused of a rape in Central Park. At least I got to say this during Black History Month.

I continue to reside in Tacoma where it is only a twenty minute drive to work. I have become accustomed to my daily duties and have found a surprisingly warm welcome for me and my skill set. I truly enjoy my day job.

We are still firmly in the time of Covid, in the time of serious social unrest, now transitioning with excessive drama to a new president as the world seemingly plunges toward fascism, hate, and economic disaster. But musicians have risen most heroically to the challenges of their art, performers trying to maintain a presence during a time in which live performances are severely restricted for public health reasons. But there are now fascinating concerts online, wonderful new music being released and I need to get back to talking about that.

Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


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OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.

Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.