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.
Ritorna vincitor! I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago. Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious) featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.
Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.
Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer. His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.
This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed. Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning. In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc. In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.
The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59). Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.
The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name. Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style. As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor. On this 50th anniversary of that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.
By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet. While there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.
The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980). The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.
As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”. Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture. Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.
Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley. It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.
During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16. More on that in future blogs. And now on to the second half of the concert.
Terry Riley’s energy belies his age. Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively. And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.
Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition. She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.
The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles. It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas. The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.
He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997). This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose. In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav. In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath. It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.
Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018). It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite. Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.
Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work. Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist. Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist. They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.
The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause. What a transcendent evening! What amazing artists!
Wow! What a discovery. This album was kindly sent to me by a friend, one of his most recent discoveries. And from the moment I put this in the CD player I was entranced. Despite the appearance of yet another cute musical duo these are two amazingly talented musicians playing some of the best post-minimal pieces this writer has heard in years.
Twiolins is are violinists with a wide range of interests (their repertoire as reported on their web site is impressive) but with a clear love for post-minimalist music. In fact they are brother and sister, Marie-Luise Dingler and Christopher Dingler. Unlike acts that seem to be designed to reach an audience with mediocre pop-inflected classical music Twiolins here presents 13 works by composers completely unfamiliar to this writer but astoundingly fresh and inventive.
My first impression reminded me of the music of the late great violinist and composer Michael Galasso. There is a remarkable similarity in styles between the composers represented here but all seem to fall basically into a post-minimalist category. The difference is that this music went right to my head (so to speak) and I found this music invaded my nervous system in the same delightful way that my first encounters with minimalism did. My linear thinking was impaired and I found myself carried away, willing to follow wherever the music led me. It was a curious mix of nostalgia and revelation.
There are 13 relatively brief tracks (ranging from 2:13 to 6:46) representing 13 compositions. Once I put the disc in the CD player I just had to hear the whole thing. No pause allowed. There is a consistency of styles with these pieces and the ordering on the disc promotes a nice flow from faster to slower pieces, then faster ones again. And adding to the basic quality of the compositions is a clear sense that these musicians are able to bring out details in the phrasing of their playing that make these compositions shine in ways that would flatter any composer.
Rebecca Czech, Germany: Ich glaub´, es gibt Regen
András Derecskei, Hungary: Balkanoid
Benjamin Heim, Australia: Trance No.1
Edmund Jolliffe, UK: Waltz Diabolique
Jens Hubert, Germany: Rock you vs. Ballerina
Johannes Meyerhöfer, Germany: Atem • Licht
Nils Frahm, Germany: Hammers
Aleksander Gonobolin, Ukraine: Metamorphosis
Dawid Lubowicz, Poland: Carpathian
Vladimir Torchinsky, Russia: Eight Strings
Benedikt Brydern, USA: Schillers Nachtflug
Andreas Håkestad, Norway: Three Moods, I
Levent Altuntas, Germany: Chasma^2
This is apparently their third album (their first was released in 2011 and another in 2014). It was released in late 2017. I picked these up at Amazon as digital downloads for comparison. It would appear that these musicians have been carefully cultivating their sound and selecting their repertoire.
Granted there is a slightly populist feel here but none of these composers are known to this reviewer so it’s difficult to say if this is typical of their work. These are strong, well-wrought pieces that will delight and move the listener. The term “populist” here is not intended to imply simplicity or lower quality, just a nod to the fact that it will likely have an immediate appeal to listeners. The composers are a nationally diverse set and doubtless have other compositions of interest in their catalogs. Listeners can doubtless anticipate more tasty little miniatures as well as (hopefully) selections from their repertoire of concerti and the like.
This is not a mind bending or taxing album but neither is it negligible. The liner notes give little info about the pieces but that doesn’t really matter because they’re relatively brief and you will either like them or not but this writer is betting on “like”.
When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire. Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s. His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do. He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog. I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.
Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer. In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts. However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.
I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records store in Chicago in the 1980s. It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.
Variations for 2 pianos CD
My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take on minimalism and pattern music. It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development. It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.
As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers. After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.
The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label. Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.
The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer. The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978. This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics. This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast. Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.
McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998. He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.
I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.