I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung. This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music. William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.
Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label. It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work. All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.
There are four pieces on 12 tracks. The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work. It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.
The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto. There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child. It is for piano with chamber ensemble. Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly. Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture. Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part. It works very well.
He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry. Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.
At first listen I thought I might have put an Arvo Part album. The familiar calming sounds of what sounds like “holy minimalism” seemed to be coming at me. But who is this young British composer? Well, let me tell you, you need to pay attention to this one.
While the Arvo Part comparison is apt it only describes a small part of this composer’s range. She does seem to fit some sort of incarnation of “minimalist” by virtue of her use of repetition, silences, etc. At times her music leans sweetly toward the romantic but this is hardly light fare. The music evokes a sort of timelessness and calm but there are moments of tension and sadness as well.
From the composer’s web site.
Jane Antonia Cornish (1975- ) is a British composer and, looking at her education and training she appears to come almost out of nowhere. Her music clearly draws on aspects of minimalism but her teachers are not the “usual suspects”. Like a lot of people from her generation she seems to draw on a rather comprehensive training in the ever expanding language of new music and uses what works for her. (Doubtless she is quite capable of writing thorny serial music should she find that useful to her expression.) She currently lives and works in New York City. Her web page can be found here.
Cornish is originally from London, England and she studied composition with Dr. Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, and completed her master’s degree at the Royal College of Music. She is a recipient of the Edward Hecht Composition Prize, the RNCM Composition Prize and the Associated Board Prize for the Most Outstanding Scholar of the Year. Cornish was also made a Major Scholar of the RNCM. She is also the recipient of a 2005 BAFTA award for her film and television work.
This emerging composer has been quite prolific. The present album is her third and she has also done film scores. Her style seems to be influenced by the post minimalist/holy minimalist school but with a touch of melancholy. Of course it will be necessary to hear more of her work to get a good overall impression but that will be a labor of love. This is really listenable.
This is chamber music, violin, cellos, piano but what a big and warm sound! I liked this album immediately and subsequent listenings have failed to diminish my enthusiasm. This is engaging and substantive music that has enough depth that allows the listener to get past the pretty surface to the complexities and subtleties that lie beneath the surface.
The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).
Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.
There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.
Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.
On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;
Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.
All ready for Women’s History Month is this fine offering which features a fine young woman composer from Lithuania. It comes on the radar of Starkland Records and, happily now, to a new listening audience.
I sincerely hope that no one takes umbrage at my off handed categorization of this music as related to minimalism but I’m not sure what else to call it. This 70 minute work is divided into 10 sections which have poetic titles. It is scored for piano, violin, cello, and electronic sound. It comes from an area of the world (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) where individual national identities have long been overshadowed by the annexation of the former USSR. In the last 20 years a style related to minimalism has emerged as a characteristic style from this region (primarily in the work of Arvo Part). Some of that is here but this music is at least a generation removed and has evolved its own identity at the hands of this new composer.
In an unusual (though not unprecedented) move this album was recorded and produced entirely by the composer in Lithuania. In addition some of her fine color photography is featured in the liner notes (which are mostly by the composer). The production values are very much consistent with the high quality one expects from the Starkland label. In addition it must be noted that this is the simplest and sanest packaging now being used for CDs. None of that fragile plastic and still a functional storage sleeve.
So the next question (also common with Starkland releases) is: Who is Žibuoklė Martinaitytė ? Well she is one of the emerging generation of composers from Lithuania. That, along with her having studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I actually started his Wikipedia article many years ago but his and other articles on new Lithuanian composers is limited still) suggested to me that she may be of the branch of minimalism which hails from this part of the world (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Wrong, but not entirely.
Like a lot of emerging composers we have here an artist fully schooled in a very wide range of musical techniques and possibilities. On first listen one hears elements of drone, ambient, minimalism, extended instrumental techniques, and mysterious but effective use of electronics with this small chamber ensemble. The effect is frequently almost orchestral but also capable of great stillness and silence.
In the liner notes by the composer she speaks of being inspired by her observations whilst visiting Notre Dame in Paris. She speaks of a rather impressionistic notion of hidden or lost beauty. So I guess that throws impressionism into the mix. The composition does have metaphorical devices which do suggest the emerging of ideas and themes from an initial chaos or, to use Ives term, a “silence of the druids”. One must get to the 4th track to really get a sense that there is actually a piano trio on this recording. Very effective actually and then it fades back into the chaos and then the silence.
The album opens with silence into which a drone gradually makes itself known. These meanderings take the listener on a journey which is essentially the artists sonic vision as she walked through and around the iconic cathedral. The listener doesn’t even hear really more conventional musical sounds until about track 4 and concepts like melody and harmony take on a different meaning in this context. It is a large arc of a composition that embraces both chamber and orchestral textures as it tells its sonic tale of the composer’s visions and returns to the chaos of the unfocused mind at the end.
This puts this work in the realm of the earlier release (also on Starkland) of Ingram Marshall’s Alcatraz (1982) and Eberbach (1985). Eberbach was later released with its originally intended photographic component along with Alcatraz on a recent DVD on Starkland. And Mr Marshall provides some insight and reassurance in his liner notes for In Search of Lost Beauty. He affirmed for this listener that one needs to listen more than once to perceive the beauty found herein.
Recorded and produced entirely in Lithuania the artists include Indre Baikstyte, piano; Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene, violin, and Povilas Jacunskas, cello. The recording, done in Lithuania was mastered by the always reliable Silas Brown back here in the United States assures the quality listeners have come to expect from this fine independent record label.
I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer. I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction. The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016). Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style. I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.
The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable. It is also quite a workout for the musicians. In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times. This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.
The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano. All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves. I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.
The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style. This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style. It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo. Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music. The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.
The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens. Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read. What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance. This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915. There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.
Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years. Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works. It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work. The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.
Helmut Lachenmann (1935- ) is a composer who has been “on my radar” for some years now but, like a lot of names I get, I had yet to hear much of his music. Along comes Gregory Oakes from, of all places, Iowa. The Midwest in the United States doesn’t have much of a reputation for embracing the avant garde (though they actually do). So into the CD player goes this one and…wow, I really need to hear more Lachenmann and whoever this Oakes guy is I want to pay attention to what he is doing with that clarinet.
Admittedly this disc languished a bit before I heard it but I am now glad I did.
This disc consists of only three tracks comprising three works by this major German composer from three different periods in his career. Dal Niente (Interiur III), Trio Fluido, and Allegro Sostenuto.
Dal Niente (1970) is for solo clarinet and, as the title prescribes, the music is to be played as “from nothing” the meaning of the title. In fact this seems to be practically a textbook of extended techniques for the clarinet. But far from being a dull accounting of dry techniques, this is a tour de force which will challenge the skills of even the most experienced players. It is quite musical and listenable but the virtuosity will knock your socks off. Oakes pulls it off with a deceptive ease that demonstrates his rather profound knowledge of his instrument. It is easy to see the seeming cross pollination between the avant garde and free jazz here.
Next up is Trio Fluido (1966-68) which is a respectably avant garde trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion with Matthew Coley, percussion, and Jonathan Sturm, viola. Like the previous work this one is also about extended techniques (for all three instruments this time). This is a fine example of mid-twentieth century modernism and deserves a place in the repertoire. All three musicians are challenged to play their instruments in unconventional ways and the effect is almost like some of the electronic music of the era. It is a complex and pointillistic texture that has a strong and serious content.
Finally Allegro Sostenuto (1986-88) is another trio, this time for clarinet, cello, and piano. So while this work would make a fine companion work to the Brahms clarinet trio the work is unambiguously avant garde in the finest Darmstadt traditions. It is, at about 30 minutes, the longest piece here and it reflects the further maturity of the composer as he creates another challenging but almost surprisingly satisfying work.
This album serves as a nice way to be introduced to Helmut Lachenmann and to get to know some major new champions of the avant garde. And one would do well to stay informed about the work being done by this fine new music clarinetist.