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


nakedeye

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.

 

 

 

Quince Ensemble: Motherland


quince

New Focus FRC 203

I looked at the rather drab cover.  I had never heard of the Quince Ensemble nor any of the composers featured on this disc.  I looked again at the cover.  Clearly it was labeled with one of those parental advisory warnings which one rarely sees on a classical recording.

My usual practice is to do some research before spinning a given disc but I decided to just put this one in the CD player cold.  I had about an hour’s drive ahead and I decided to just let the disc speak for itself.  But my spidey sense suggested I might be in for a rather dull listen.

So much for my superhero powers.  From the moment the first track played I felt drawn in.  What I heard seemed to be a mixture of Peter Kotik (of Many, Many Women in particular), Meredith Monk, a touch of La Mystere de Voix Bulgare, the west coast group Kitka, and a few others).  That is to say that this disc grabbed my attention and had echoes of a few other contemporary vocal music styles.  What I heard was very compelling, creative, practiced, passionate.

This is mostly an a capella group though they made very effective use of harmonicas as drone material at one point.  Even after reaching my destination (achieved before the disc ended) I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off so I stayed parked and listening til I had heard the entire disc.  Yes, it was THAT compelling.

Complicating the reviewer’s task further is that the disc contains four compositions by four composers whose first appearance on this writer’s radar was from this very disc.  All four are world premiere recordings and all are by women composers.

The Quince Ensemble consists of Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano).  And this is the fourth album dedicated entirely to this ensemble’s work.  Two previous albums were appearances and collaborations.

The featured composers are (in order of their appearance on this release): Gilda Lyons (1975- ); Laura Steenberge; Cara Haxo (1991- ); and Jennifer Jolley (1981- ).  All appear to be Calfornia based and at the beginnings of what will doubtless be some interesting careers.  I will leave it to the interested reader to look into the details available at these various web sites but, after listening to the music, most listeners will want to know more.

The pieces range from Lyon’s Bone “Needles” coming in at just over 4 minutes to the next two multiple movement pieces and finally Jolley’s “Prisoner of Conscience” which is an homage to the politically active musical group, “Pussy Riot”.  This is the longest and most political piece on the album.

From the initial (and incorrect) assumption that this would be a dull disc to the end of this listening journey I came to see this disc in quite a different light.  The cover now seems friendly and appropriately representative of the album.

Rather than go into a bland or potentially inaccurate analysis of these pieces suffice it to say that this is effective and affecting music by a delightfully talented and energetic ensemble.  If you like vocal music, political music, music by women, or are just looking for something to lift you from your daily malaise give this one a try.  You will be both challenged and entertained.  No doubt this group would be fantastic in a live performance but for now we shall have to make do with this wonderful recording.

 

 

 

Kristjan Järvi Celebrates Steve Reich’s 80th


Kristjan Järvi (1972- ) is the youngest son of justly famed conductor Neeme Järvi.  He is also a frequent collaborator with the talented and ubiquitous Gene Pritsker among others.  This double CD represents a portion of his concerts in celebration of Reich’s 80th birthday.  There are apparently recordings available on the streaming service Medici TV of several other Reich works including the Three Movements for Orchestra (1983) and Desert Music (1986).  All these stemmed from a residency (2013-2014) that Reich enjoyed with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Chorus.

This 80th birthday tribute gives us yet another opportunity to hear another generation (other than Reich’s) interpreting this music.  For years only Reich and his ensemble had access to his scores but this is not the case with his orchestral and choral works.  Some may still consider Reich to be a difficult or experimental composer and this has limited the programming (and no doubt the commissioning) of music for such larger ensembles.  It is delightful to hear how other musicians respond to and interpret Reich’s music.  

In fact Reich’s music for larger ensembles is definitely worth hearing and hearing in different interpretations.  This set gives us the world premieres of beefed up orchestrations of You Are and Daniel Variations.  This writer looks forward to the orchestral version of Tehillim (1981) as well.  

This handsome two disc set includes the early Clapping Music (1971), Duet (1993), The Four Sections (1987), You Are Variations (2004),  and Daniel Variations (2006).  It is not a greatest hits compilation.  Rather it is a personal survey by a wonderful young musician.  Kristian Järvi is a conductor, composer and new music raconteur who is at the beginnings of a very promising career.  This album is a love song if you will.  Järvi clearly understands and loves this music and the opportunity to record these works, especially perhaps the intimate Clapping Music with the participation of the composer.

The Four Sections is tantamount to being a concerto for orchestra and is among this reviewer’s favorites among Reich’s works.  It has received too few performances and to date only two recordings.  This is the first live recording and gives insight into the amazing competence of both conductor and orchestra.  The 1993 Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra is Reich’s homage to a musician of a generation preceding his, the wonderful violinist, conductor, and pedagogue, Yehudi Menuhin on his 80th birthday.  Soloists Andreas Hartmann and Waltraut Wachter handle this all too brief piece with skill and insight.  

The second disc contains studio recordings of the large orchestra versions of two very personal works.  These recordings alone are adequate reason to purchase this set.  Reich has gained much from tapping his Jewish heritage (musical, linguistic, and literary) in service of his art.  Both of these pieces feature texts from a variety of sources including the Bible, Hasidic aphorisms, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein among others.  In both works the texts determine to some degree the rhythmic choices of the music. 

You Are Variations is a four movement orchestral/choral work which sets a different aphorism in each movement.  It is among the composer’s more personal works and includes quotations from Wittgenstein (the subject of Reich’s undergraduate studies) along with Biblical and Talmudic texts in a beautiful existential meditation.

Daniel Variations is a powerful overtly political work written in response to the tragic murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by extremists in Pakistan in 2002. It is a deeply felt and very pained work which expresses the tragedy and creatively makes a link with the Book of Daniel as well as Pearl’s own words.  Reich is no stranger to political protest on his music and this is among his finest in that genre.

If you don’t know Reich’s music this is not a bad place to start.  If you are already a fan (as I’ve been for years) you will want this set to round out your collection.  

Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch über Schweine)


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) left Germany in 1953 because of his dissatisfaction with German intolerance of both his leftist politics and his homosexuality. He settled in Italy where he lived with his partner and had a long, prolific career composing music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater, soloists and film. Much of his music was an expression of his politics.

The “Versuch über Schweine”or in English, “Essay on Pigs” of 1968 is scored for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, “beat organ” and electric guitar with vocal soloist. It was created at one of the composers most overtly political periods which included the Sixth Symphony (1969), El Cimarrón (1969-70) and Das Floss Der Medusa (1968). Indeed there was much political conflict in the world at this time.   The musicians have a challenging instrumental score to interpret but this is no ordinary vocal part as it calls for the extended vocal techniques of the singer for whom it was written. Henze was reportedly very impressed with having heard the Rolling Stones and this encounter appears to have influenced his musical sound as well.

As near as I can determine the work was performed only once on February 14, 1969 with Roy Hart and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and subsequently recorded with those forces. The vocalist in the Deutsche Gramophone recording is Roy Hart as well and he appears to be an early practitioner of what we now call ‘extended vocal techniques’. He precedes the likes of Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galas, Julius Eastman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk. Monk’s students like Robert Een, Andrea Goodman and Anthony De Mare (among others) also carry on the tradition but I know of no one who has attempted this piece since Hart.

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gaston Salvatore (1941-  ) who collaborated with Henze on several works. The music reflects the angry and sometimes hysterical tone of the poetry making this anything but easy listening.

I recall a musicologist, Dr. Richard Norton, who had corresponded with Henze, playing this piece in its entirety (some 20+ minutes) during one of his classes (at the University of Illinois Chicago in the mid-seventies). I always felt that was a sort of revolutionary act to do that. From what I recall I think I was probably the only person in the class who was already familiar with the work. The reaction of confusion or stunned silence from my fellow students was what one would expect from anyone who had not heard the piece before.

I have been unable to find any critical reviews or reports of audience reactions to performances but this is a piece that has the potential to clear a room or provoke anger.  It must have been quite a show. The piece certainly deserves a revival and I think it is a very significant piece of political music whose expressionism reflects well the issues of the times.  The problem is finding a vocalist to navigate this highly unique and unusual piece..  Any takers?

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Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.

Hiroshima After the Fact


English: Photo of Polish composer, Krzysztof P...

English: Photo of Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’ was an experiment in extended techniques for string instruments and the use of tone clusters written in unconventional musical notation using specialized symbols for the extended techniques and marking time in seconds rather than a tempo and metric divisions. It is scored for 52 solo strings which play sounds, not melodies for the indicated durations in the score.

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It was written in 1959 and was originally titled, ‘8’ 37″‘ perhaps a reference to John Cage’s ‘4’ 33″‘ of 1952. The composer had just won prizes for three works (Strophen, Psalms of David and Emanations) at the Warsaw Autumn Festival earlier that year. The Threnody effectively launched his career as a composer.

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Penderecki states that he simply changed his mind about the title and decided to dedicate it as “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”, a title which was certainly topical in the Cold War paranoia of the times about nuclear holocaust. It is under that title that the piece has received numerous performances and recordings. It was used briefly in the film, ‘The Lives of Men’.

Penderecki’s music has been used in films such as ‘The Exorcist’ (which first introduced me to this composer), ‘The Shining’ and ‘Shutter Island’ among others. But the sound world or sonic signature of his work has been very influential.

He has not been largely political in his musical output but the ‘Lacrimosa’ (1980 later incorporated into the ‘Polish Requiem’, 1980-2005) was commissioned in commemoration of the Solidarity struggles which signaled the end of communist rule in Poland. His composition, ‘Dies Irae’ (1967) has been subtitled the ‘Auschwitz Oratorio’ and is dedicated to the victims of the infamous Nazi death camp.