This is Tim Brady’s fourth Starkland release, a distinction shared by only two other composers, the late Tod Dockstader and (the delightfully very much living) Guy Klucevsek. And given the impressive track record of the Starkland label’s ability to find and promote innovative composers and performers who later achieve much wider recognition, this is an event that demands serious attention.
With a catalog presently numbering some 39 plus CDs and a CV that boasts 4 operas and a massive catalog of compositions for ensembles ranging from solo to large orchestra, this proudly Canadian composer has mounted (metaphorically, of course) an invasion from the United State’s northern border of his distinctive artistic vision prompting this reviewer to suggest a comparison to the pop “invasion” of the Beatles in the early 60s.
My admittedly tongue in cheek Beatles comparison is not meant to eclipse the incredible artistry of this obviously very industrious artist. My previous reviews compared his work to electric guitar giants like Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca. But this only serves to illuminate a fraction of this man’s work. I invite listeners to peruse his well organized website to get a perspective.
But let me get back to this release. It is undoubtedly a bold move to use the term “symphony” to describe a work for a solo artist. Charles Valentine Alkan (1813-1888) wrote a symphony for solo piano (opus 39 nos. 4-10 from 1857) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) referred to his third piano sonata (1922) as a symphony and later wrote six more symphonies for solo piano between 1938 and 1976. And more recently the late Glenn Branca (1948-2018) wrote several works for various configurations of guitars he called symphonies. But this is the first symphony written expressly for solo guitar as far as I can determine.
“Symphony in 18 Parts for solo electric guitar (2021) – 50 minutes For solo electric guitar, FX pedals and looper, in 18 movements” as it is listed on the composer’s website is (if I counted correctly) his 8th Symphony. Brady apparently numbers his symphonies in order of composition without reference to instrumentation. While several of his symphonies involve one or more electric guitars, this is the first solo guitar work to which he gives the weighty title of “Symphony” (unless, as noted above, you count the solo version of Symphony No. 5).
The term “symphony” carries with it connotations, at least, of grandeur, painstaking structure, and serious music making. And this work is very serious and meticulously constructed. It is, of course, reflective of a mid career composer who has written a great deal and has learned from that experience. It has as much a right to be called a “symphony” as any similarly large and painstakingly written piece of music.
First, let me say that, other than a tendency to use one (or a lot more than one) electric guitar in his music, Brady’s music has relatively little in common with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. In fact, Brady seems to have more in common with Steve Reich and Elliott Sharp. But while Chatham and Branca emerged from a music scene dominated by punk in all its iterations, Brady seems more connected to the Beatles and Les Paul.
The work is divided into 18 sections, each running a modest 1.5 to just under 5 minutes. It is a structure similar in this listeners mind to American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2008), whose Symphony No. 9 (1949-50) “St. Vartan”, a similarly epic masterpiece in no fewer than 24 short movements. It is the interrelatedness of those movements that make them a part of the whole symphony. And so it is with Brady’s Symphony. David Lang (Pulitzer Prize Winner and founding Bang on a Can” member) says essentially this in his segment of the liner notes that come with the recording. Tim Brady acknowledges much the same in his segment of the liner notes.
The cover art by fellow adventuring guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp is functionally an homage to Brady and his work. The recording by Tim Brady and Morris Apelbaum, mastered by Brady, Apelbaum, and John Klepko is lucid (and great on headphones especially when Brady pans the sounds across the stereo field).
The 18 movements all have titles which are metaphorically related to the music therein. David Lang aptly describes these varied and intense movements as sort of biographical statements about what the composer can do with his instrument. Each movement has both form and development much as one would expect of a symphonic movement.
On the one hand, this symphony is not easy listening. On the other hand it is likely catnip to electric guitarists as well as to new music enthusiasts including your humble reviewer. Brady’s Canadian invasion, far from a takeover, is simply a musician sharing his substantial art from across the northern border and presenting his latest efforts. Like the Beatles, Brady deserves to be welcomed. This prolific composer/performer/teacher/innovator has interesting things to say.
At first I attempted to write something about each of the 18 movements but I don’t think that would have added anything useful for prospective listeners. This piece taken as a whole most aptly deserves the descriptor “tour de force” as each movement seems to have its own character deriving from the composer’s use of various (apparently deeply studied and judiciously chosen) techniques and ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the listener, sometimes with sheer volume, sometimes with dazzling virtuosity, sometimes with softness, sometimes with silence, and always with interesting ideas.
In some ways this is a collections of ideas and techniques the composer has amassed over some 50 + years of playing. Each movement seems to be a more or less self contained exposition of playing techniques and the composers own approach to harmony and invention. That sounds potentially very dull but this is not a collection of etudes didactically accounting for and crystallizing his ideas. It is the organic appropriation of personal achievements in developing his compositional style. And it is an homage to electric guitarists that preceded him. Not a textbook as much as perhaps a signpost defining his present stage of development even as he moves forward with other projects.
I suppose one could challenge the notion of calling this a work for solo guitar given the effects pedals, looping systems, etc. but the use of electronics and looping techniques as a compositional aid or method is so ubiquitous that point is moot. Call it what you like but just listen. Let the music flow over your ears. At the very least this is a defining milestone in Brady’s long and productive career. It’s hard to to imagine what he might do next but I’m sure he’ll think of something.
Let me start with a positive image from a brief photography trip which I managed this year. It was one of the highlights of what has been a difficult year for many of us. Weather, politics, COVID, itinerant employment issues, financial, and personal difficulties were an encumbrance but now stand in relief to the many positive aspects of 2022.
First, let me say that nothing musical fell into the category of “worst of” so fear not, what follows is essentially my “best of” from 2022. In my head I blame the aforementioned encumbrances for delays and sheer lack of production on my part. Whether that is the ultimate truth does not matter really so here, for better or worse, is my celebration of the positive experiences enumerated in this music blog in 2022.
My first post for the year struck a sad note. It was my personal tribute to a composer, A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb described George Crumb, who had been one of my “gateway drugs”, so to speak, which helped put me on the exciting roads of new music upon with I continue to travel with great joy. Recordings of his complete works are still being released on the visionary Bridge Records.
Carolyn Shaw’s striking and much performed “In Manus Tuas” (on solo viola as well as solo cello) was originally written for Collins. Her selections on this album, including that Shaw work, suggest to this writer/listener that she has both vision and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially that written for her instrument. She will be among the major shapers of this repertoire via her vision as well as her interpretive talents. And Sono Luminus’ superb sonics certainly helps make this a great release.
I have followed the work of Sarah Cahill since her first solo CD (music of Ravel). Like Collins, she has been an artist who, by her intelligent selection of repertoire, serves as a guide to listeners (and musicians) as well. She has championed many composers as a pianist and as a broadcaster on her weekly KALW broadcasts. Her curation of concerts throughout the Bay Area, such as her solstice concerts at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, have showcased a large variety of creative performers.
As she focuses her lens on women composers (neglected is implied) she embraces a stunning range of styles from the baroque era to the present and it seems as though she can play anything she chooses well. She is also collaborative with an amazing ability to discern the substance in the works she chooses to play. And she has discovered (or rescued?) much music from obscurity via scholarship and intelligent collaboration. Can’t wait for the next release. She is consistently interesting and relevant.
This album was sent to me by a friend. I knew the Ligeti pieces but heard them with new ears in this release and I was amazed by the Kodaly works too. Marcus Creed may not be as well known in the U.S. as he is across the pond but he should be.
This album was kindly sent to me for review by John Schneider of Microfest records. Read the review. Listen to this album. And watch for more from Chris Votek, another rising star in 2022.
Dan Lippel is one of the founders of the fabulous new music label, New Focus Recordings. Here he is acoustic, electric, conventional, and experimental but always interesting. Keep his name on your radar.
This is a gorgeously designed, very collectible art object. It is a beautiful hard cover, full color book which also contains a CD of a recording (from acetate masters) which had languished in the archives of the Eastman/Rochester Music School where Harry Partch gave this lucid lecture/performance in 1942. Mr. Schneider, who sent me the Votek release as well, fronts an ensemble called PARTCH which, in addition to performing Harry Partch ‘s work, is recording Partch’s complete works for David and Becky Starobin’s Bridge label. This one is both eye and ear candy to my ears.
Rescuing those acetate masters from obscurity is a major find that rises in significance (in the musical sense) almost to the level of the archeological discovery of Tut’s Tomb. Schneider is a musician, a composer, a radio broadcaster, and an archivist and now a sonic archeologist I suppose. He also sports a collection of authentic copies of Partch’s curious instruments which were built to play the microtonal scales required. Partch is a major American composer whose work is now gaining its rightful place among the best of American classical music.
I first discovered Mr. Susman’s work when I was asked to review a performance of another composer’s work. I heard one of his works played by the remarkable San Jose Chamber Orchestra on that same concert. Here we have another multi volume release of these lovely and significant piano works. The remarkable pianist (mentioned often in these pages) has contracted to record all 4 books of this sort of “Well Tempered Clavier” type gesture which effectively provides much insight to this composer. Nicolas Horvath, known for marathon concerts performing (and subsequently recording) all of Philip Glass’ piano music, among others. (We’re talking 15 hours or so. There is also a 35 hour live rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” on you tube.) Who better to record these? The remaining three volumes are due some time this year. Who better to take on this post minimalist set of pieces? Can’t wait for the next volume.
Yolanda Kondonassis is about as household a name that you can find among harpists. These five minute (more or less) pieces are a significant addition to the solo harp repertoire. They are forward looking works for her instrument. Very interesting work, excellently performed.
I remain in awe at the curatorial and historically aware work of this truly fine pianist. Greenberg helped me grasp the historical context of the Second Viennese School in a new way with his earlier release “Book of the Hanging Gardens”. In that release he played all the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s pre twelve tone song cycle, Webern’s Variations, and the Berg Sonata which helped this listener to better grasp the historical context of this music. This small collection of works written for him reflects a collaborative and visionary ethic akin to that of Sarah Cahill’s. Keep an ear out for this guy.
I have received some good natured teasing about the fact that this, one of my longer reviews, is of a 15 minute piece of music. But this act of musical archeology by the bay area’s Kate Stenberg (who is a regular collaborator with Sarah Cahill BTW) has made the first recording of this little work. It’s Webernian duration belies a style very much in character with this beloved composer’s other work. My review was as much about the music and the recording as it was about the dedication of Stenberg to new music. This release is from Other Minds, another shining example of advocacy of new music and collaboration among composers and performers. Get it. Listen to it. And don’t miss a chance to hear Stenberg live performances or to hear anything Harrison has written.
The Chicago based Cedille label is one of my favorite classical music labels. Producer James Ginsburg has a golden ear and Cedille is the finest Chicago based classical label since the justly fabled Mercury records. All their releases deserve attention but this two disc set of little known works for String Trio written between the world wars is a feast of substantive, if slightly conservative, voices. This one is a great listen and, trust me, none of this music is in your collection.
While circumstances conspired to limit my attendance to only one of the three days of OM 26, I would be loathe to leave this world class music festival off my “best of” list. My first published blog of 2023 was of the 30th anniversary celebration which showcased Marc-Andre Hamelin’s stunning reading of Charles Ives’ massive Concord Sonata. Anything OM does deserves your attention but the roughly annual festival continues to present composers and performers from around the world. Not to be missed.
Another exciting release of Cahill’s visionary series. Like the previous volume (and the aforementioned Cedille release) the consumer will suffer no unnecessary duplications if the music herein. Fascinating and expertly done. This set (the third volume due this year) is a testament to Cahill’s encyclopedic knowledge of piano music as well as her collaborative nature and, of course, her skills as a pianist.
I’m cheating a bit here since I wasn’t able to complete my review until 2023 but this Starkland disc was released in 2022 and definitely earns its place in my “best of” list. This rising star is another one to watch. Starkland, run by the dynamic Tom Steenland is one of those labels that reliably finds interesting and substantive new music. This one is no exception. It goes a long way to alleviating my skepticism of the electroacoustic genre.
And, in order to be fair I must cheat equitably. Charles Amirkhanian kindly sent me this exciting and excellent DVD of his collaboration with his partner in life and in artistic crimes, Carol Law. My more extensive review will appear shortly but this was a major release in 2022. Amirkhanian spends far less time promoting and performing his own unique compositions so this is an especially welcome release.
Last but not least of my best of 2022 is this wonderful Neuma release which, when I began my research to write a cogent and informed review, left me stunned at how little I actually knew about composer David Tudor and the astounding dimensions of this unusual piece that evolves with every performance. After gathering a whole ton of data I finally decided that I could not write a comprehensive review without more research so I settled on a tasteful (I hope) summary with the expectation that I will write a larger piece on Tudor and his work. The review will be out very shortly. This is an amazing and significant release.
Happy 2023 to all my readers and thanks to those who kept reading my blog during more fallow times. I have many blogs currently in preparation that I look forward to sharing in the months to come. Peace, health, and music to all.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Pamela Z first came to this writer’s attention when the fine Starkland label under the very insightful guidance of Tom Steenland released a cutting edge, surround sound 5.1 DVD release in 2000 which featured her along with other similarly interesting musicians in a forward looking recording.
The first CD dedicated entirely to Ms. Z’s work was also a Starkland release (A Delay is Better, 2004) was quickly added to my music collection when I was still a Chicago resident. Since moving to California in 2005 I have had the pleasure of seeing Pamela’s work live on numerous occasions (something which I highly recommend). She is a fascinating performer to watch as well as hear. These releases are the only ones dedicated entirely to her work currently available to the general public though her crowd funded DVD, Baggage Allowance may be obtainable through her web site. Much of her presence on recorded media is as a collaborator so this new disc of largely new work is a truly welcome addition to her catalog and an opportunity to see a unique talent.
Her visual presence and gestures are an important part of her work but it is the hearing part with which we are concerned here. Philip Blackburn at Neuma records has chosen to release a new disc consisting of performances of more recent compositions. Z maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing world wide and her quirky creativity has not failed her. Let me say that I use the word “quirky” just to indicate that her work is unique, a technological expansion of the tired “one man band” cliché in which she uses a variety of compositional electronics (some made exclusively for her) to facilitate her uniquely recognizable style. It is difficult to describe her work in a way that can easily be understood without actually having heard her work. Suffice it to say that, generally speaking, she works with live recording and subsequent looping of those sounds. She is able to turn loops on and off as the piece progresses. Her texts come from a variety of sources, including found texts. And the presentation of these texts are sometimes sung and sometimes spoken.
She has had great success as a collaborator with spoken word narration, singing (she also has a beautifully trained soprano voice), and performing with other musicians. These collaborations are listed on her web site and are worth your time to explore.
The photo of the back cover of this new album serves both to provide a listing of the tracks but also to display one of the wearable electronic devices mad for her which she uses (to pleasantly theatrical effect) in performance. From her web site: “She uses MAX MSP and Isadora software on a MacBook Pro along with custom MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound and image with physical gestures.”
Z is a vocalist, an operatically trained singer and voice over artist who has pioneered the use of complex delay and looping systems to produce her work. She is apparently enamored of language (she has studied English, French, Italian, and Japanese). Her combination of spoken and sung passages combined with the looping/delay technology, and, increasingly, writing for other instrumentalists is the basic medium(s) with which she works.
In my mind she shares conceptual space with artists like Amy X Neuberg, Meredith Monk, and Diamanda Galas, at least that is the way I have them filed in my collection. In fact, each of these performers has their own distinct style and aesthetic, each a separate origin story. What they have in common in this listener’s mind is the fact that they are women, the fact that their voice is their primary instrument, and the fact that each uses that voice, sometimes with some augmentation, to achieve their compositional and performance goals. (I nurture a personal fantasy of some day hearing one or all of these women doing their cover of a piece like Rzewski’s “Coming Together” or some similar speaking pianist type work but that’s a topic for another blog).
The ten tracks on this release represent Ms. Z’s more recent work. Taken as a whole this album has an almost existential/apocalyptic character at times. There are 10 tracks ranging from about 4 to 10 minutes each and they span the years from 2003 to 2018 with one track from 1995. The overall feel of this is rather darker in tone than the Starkland disc but it also reflects her further artistic development and that alone is worth the purchase price. The album is recorded, edited, and mixed by the artist who also supplies the brief but clear and useful liner notes.
The first track, Quatre Couches/Flare Stains is a studio mix of two pieces (Quatre Couche from 2015 and Flare Stains from 2010), two works she has combined in her live performances. So this is mix is a 2021 artistic mashup reflecting what she has gleaned from her live performances and incorporating that learning into a new compositional experience.
Unknown Person (2010) is an excerpt from the aforementioned “Baggage Allowance” (2010) which uses found texts collected during the composition process as lyrics and is a work with many metaphorical dimensions that touch on existential ideas that touch us all.
Other Rooms (2018) is constructed around vocal samples of an interview with playwright Paul David Young.
A piece of π (2012) utilizes the first 200 digits which express the value of that mathematical constant. Z recounts further details of her process in the liner notes.
Site Four (2017) is a section of music which was composed for a dance work.
He Says Yes (2018) is an excerpt from music for a theater piece.
Typewriter (1995) is the outlier here. It is one of Z’s live performance staples which utilizes the beautifully designed MIDI controllers which she wears and which control the electronics as she moves her body through the performance space. Even without the visuals, one can get an idea of this seminal work and how it influenced her later developments.
The disc ends with a trilogy of works, The Timepiece Triptych, which consists of Declaratives in the First Person (2005), Syrinx (2003), and De-Spangled (2003). This trilogy is a virtual compendium of the techniques which Z has thus far developed. Using sampling, linguistics, spoken voice, singing voice, and her signature electronics this artist presents work which functions on many levels. It is entertaining, it is thought provoking, it is funny, it is sad, it is personal, it is self referential, it refers to us all. Denotation, connotation, musical/electronic alchemy, language (both spoken and sung) all come together to create art which is engaging and, watch out, sometimes subversive.
Though I earlier made reference to my filing preferences for this and (what I consider) similar artists there is, in the end no one quite like Pamela. She is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and, of course, the Z.
I don’t recall when I first heard Guy Klucevsek but I think it was the early 90s. I grew up hearing a great deal of accordions in polka bands at weddings throughout my childhood. This instrument had, pretty much since its beginnings in the early 19th century, been associated primarily with folk bands and not at all with classical music. I don’t think one can find an accordion used in a classical orchestra before Tchaikovsky’s 1822 Second Orchestral Suite and only sparingly after that. So when I discovered this New York musician via his releases on the Starkland label, Transylvanian Software (1999) and Free Range Accordion (2000) and the CRI disc Manhattan Cascade (1992). I was curious to see what this musician would do with this traditionally “low brow” folk instrument.
I had come to trust the Starkland label (which began in 1991) as one whose releases were usually very much to my taste and I was not disappointed to hear Klucevsek’s playing of pieces written by him and other composers for this instrument. Unlike Pauline Oliveros who did much to expand the very nature of the instrument itself, Klucevsek retained, and sometimes parodied, the humble folk/pop origins and reputation of the instrument while still pursuing its possibilities in the New York downtown experimental music scene where he worked with people like Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Coleman, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn among many others. Klucevsek expanded the role of the accordion in his own way.
Klucevsek later put together a commissioning project called, “Polka from the Fringe” (1992), a project which echoes the 1981 “Waltz Project” by Robert Moran and presages another accordionist William Schimmel’s “The Tango Project” of 2006. All of these commissioning projects utilized dance forms common in the 20th century as a “stepping off” place for a new musical piece. And it was Starkland which rescued the fascinating two disc release of Polka from the Fringe (2013) from over two decades languishing in “out of print” status. These projects are significant in that they invite composers to get out of their comfort zone and demonstrate their take on the given dance form. Like Klucevsek’s earlier releases this Polka collection is a veritable Who’s Who of working composers of the era much as the Variations (1819) project of Anton Diabelli collected some 51 composers’ works based on Diabelli’s waltz-like theme (Beethoven’s gargantuan set of variations was published as volume 1 and the other 50 variations in volume 2 which included composers like Schubert and Liszt).
So here comes Starkland to the rescue again in this (languished for some 25 years after only having been available for two years) very personal recording which displays Klucevsek’s substantial compositional chops as well as his knowledge and use of extended instrumental techniques for his instrument. It presents pieces written for a dance performances and shows a very different side of Klucevsek, one which shows more of his substance as a composer alongside his virtuosic skills on his instrument. In this digital only release there is an option to include (for a mere $3.00 more on the Bandcamp site) a series of 13 videos featuring Guy Klucevsek talking about the music on this album and his various musical interests. A gorgeous 10 page booklet providing further detail including the original liner notes with updates is included in all purchases. The album will also be available on Spotify, You Tube, and other streaming services but the videos are only available on Bandcamp.
Listeners may find this new release has some in common with Starkland’s previous Klucevsek release from Starkland, “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy” (2016) which features some similar compositional diversity in a disc entirely of Klucevsek’s works. The line from Citrus, My Love to Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy seems to be a logical succession in Klucevsek’s compositional development. In addition to his accordion studies Klucevsek studied composition in Pittsburgh but it was the influence of Morton Subotnick with whom he studied in his independent post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts that exposed this east coast artist to some of the splendors of the west coast encountering artists like Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. Indeed Klucevsek can be said to be “bi-coastal” in his compositional endeavors. And though this is a “tongue in cheek” characterization it does speak to the roots of Klucevsek’s diversity in style.
There are 12 tracks on “Citrus, My Love” representing 3 separate works: the three movement, “Passage North” (1990), the single movement, “Patience and Thyme” (1991), and the eponymous, “Citrus, My Love” (1990) in 8 movements. The production of this album is by none other than Bobby Previte, another valued east coast musician and colleague. The notes have been updated under the guidance of Tom Steenland with input from Klucevsek who, understandably, expresses great joy in having this album available again.
The first three tracks are dedicated to a single work, “Passage North” (1990) written for accordion and string trio consisting of Mary Rowell, violin/viola, Erik Friedlander, cello, and Jonathan Storck, double bass. They are dubbed “The Bantam Orchestra”. This Copland-esque work was commissioned by Angela Caponigro Dance Ensemble. The second movement is for string trio alone and is dedicated to the memory of Aaron Copland who died in 1990.
Patience and Thyme (1991) according to the composer “is a love note to my wife, Jan.” He composed the work while in residence at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania, which coincided with his 22nd wedding anniversary. It is scored for piano and string trio, no accordion. Compositionally it seems at home between the larger pieces.
Citrus, My Love was commissioned by Stuart Pimsler for the dance of the same name. It is in 8 scenes and is scored for Klucevsek’s accordion accompanied by his personally chosen Bantam Orchestra. Klucevsek describes the music on this album as representing his transition from hard core minimalism to a more melody driven style and this is the missing link, the “hole” to which I referred in the Beatles metaphor in the title of this review.
For those who already appreciate Klucevsek’s work this album is a must have. To those who have not gotten to know this unique talent this is a good place to start.
For those seeking to get more deeply into Klucevsek’s work (a worthwhile endeavor) and to provide a perspective on the range of this artist’s work I’m appending a discography (shamelessly lifted and updated from the Free Reed Journal) :
Scenes from a Mirage (Review) Who Stole the Polka? (out-of-print) Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse (Experimental Intermedia) Polka Dots & Laser Beams (out-of-print) Manhattan Cascade (CRI) Transylvanian Softwear (Starkland) Citrus, My Love (Starkland) Stolen Memories (Tzadik) Altered Landscapes (out-of-print) Accordance with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Free Range Accordion (Starkland) The Heart of the Andes (Winter & Winter) Tales from the Cryptic with Phillip Johnston (Winter & Winter) Notefalls with Alan Bern (Winter & Winter) Song of Remembrance (Tzadik) Dancing On the Volcano (Tzadik) The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova) Polka From The Fringe (Starkland) Teetering On the Verge of Normalcy (Starkland)
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy’s in Love With You (Tzadik) Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts Legends of Accordion, Awakening (Rhino) The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup (CRI) Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi (Toshiba EMI) Norwegian Wood, Monk’s Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi (Toshiba EMI) Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae (CRI) Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache (Callisto) A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear (Extraplatte) A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps (Einstein) A Classic Guide to No Man’s Land, Samba D Hiccup (No Man’s Land)
WITH JOHN ZORN
The Big Gundown (Nonesuch Icon) Cobra (Hat Art) Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes (A&M)
On Edge (Mode) Open Boundaries, Parterre (Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording) Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle (Hat Art)
Laurie Anderson: Bright Red (Warner Bros) Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992(Black Saint) Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter (XI) Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night (Avante) Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements) Fast Forward: Same Same (XI) Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith (Elektra Musician) David Garland: Control Songs (Review) Robin Holcomb: Rockabye (Elektra Musician) Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print) Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (Nonesuch) Bobby Previte: Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release. The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history. Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles. Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books. Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb. It is an amazing disc on many levels.
This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015). Starkland’s first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition. Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing. He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).
As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015. He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more. Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show. He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions. The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created. Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.
Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music. Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.
Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time. Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).
When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.
Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6. Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works. He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015. There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.
For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal, a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate. She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new. Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading. She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.
The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces. They are all dated between 2005 and 2008. The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer. One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future). At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.
The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission. I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.
The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family. The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy. Bravo gentlemen!
Release is scheduled for November 18th. You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.
As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do. The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century. It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.
Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions
Guy Klucevsek (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s. He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh. He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts. His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat. He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities. The accordion will never be the same.
Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label). He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule. He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.
Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.
The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga. His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world. Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.
On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface. What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed. To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann. You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.
Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording. Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians. Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.
The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds. Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music. There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.
Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano. No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.
The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels. William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer. Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.
Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit. The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums. Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks. Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.
The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end. Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.
As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones. Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia. This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved. Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.
Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.
The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein. Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin. Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown. All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.
Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.
Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes. If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.
I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.
ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase. The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release. The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer. Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea. Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling. And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.
About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release. One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.
Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age. Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal. In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.
Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer. His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.
The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.
The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano. This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression. This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options. This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.
The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen. Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.
Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again. Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.
Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing. Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly. Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”. This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either. The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.
Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011). Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape. This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”. Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.
The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis. Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.
Soprano Tony Arnold
The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression. This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work. Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets. The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.
As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail. This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program. You won’t be disappointed.
I think the first time I heard of Elliott Sharp was when a friend played a vinyl copy of 1988s Larynx. I later got hooked on the delightfully noisy string quartets of 1987s Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup. With 89 albums to his credit (according to discogs.com) Sharp writes and plays music in a range of styles and for a range of ensembles.
Only two years older than John Zorn their musical paths are similar in that they both learned multiple instruments as children. While they are both incredibly creative, intelligent and productive artists, Sharp initially took a more traditionally academic path while Zorn is largely self taught (an amazing feat in itself).
Sharp studied music, anthropology, improvisation and electronic music with teachers like Benjamin Boretz, Roswell Rudd, Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller. His music frequently uses Fibonacci numbers, fractals, chaos theory and genetic metaphors. His collaborators have included blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Qawalli singer Nusret Fateh Ali Khan (and many others) and practically a who’s who of the Downtown New York scene.
He produced the Nonesuch album of Ornette Coleman covers by John Zorn (Spy vs. Spy, 1988) which is definitely worth a listen. It is one of a series of such recordings of covers of various artists which have also included Ennio Morricone among others.
The present recording comprises works written between 2004-2008 and, like the previous release of music by Martin Bresnick (reviewed previously in this blog here), comprises a sort of snapshot of the composer’s recent work. Like the Bresnick disc this recording samples Sharp’s writing for a variety of ensembles and is an effective portrait of his mature style.
As a long-standing performer in the New York downtown scene Sharp experimented with a variety of compositional and instrumental techniques consistent with his scientific interests. Now such experimentation by itself is of little interest except on a theoretical level but what we hear in the works in this recording is a composer who has integrated these techniques into a sound that is pretty uniquely identifiable as Elliott Sharp much as J.S. Bach’s techniques are easily recognizable in identifying that composer.
The first work (and the one that lends its title to the album) is The Boreal (2008). It is the most recent of the compositions and is another chapter in Sharp’s reinvention of string quartet writing. Written for the noted JACK quartet, it involves the use of different types of non-traditional bows fashioned by the composer and creates sounds full of harmonics. It is probably unlike any string quartet music you have ever heard and it expands the notion of what that traditional classical ensemble can do. The recording, though recorded live at the Ostrava Festival, is remarkably free of ambient noise which allows the listener to hear the subtleties of the rather wide dynamic range to be heard without the interference. The work resides in more or less the same sound world as his other quartets and its four movements seem to follow logically creating a conceptual whole as with any of the more conventional quartets in the repertory.
The second work, Oligosono (2004) is for solo piano. As the liner notes tell us it is Sharp’s application of extended instrumental techniques which he developed on his guitars to the piano (a pretty interesting accomplishment). It is written for and played by the wonderful Jenny Lin who navigates the inside of the piano as well as the keyboard in some rhythmically complex and virtuosic playing. She executes the three movements with seeming ease.
Now we come to the composer’s work for larger ensembles. Proof of Erdös (2006) is named for the mathematician Paul Erdös (1913-1996) perhaps most famous for the Erdös Number which is an indicator of the degree of separation a given person has with another (Erdös’ number would be a zero and his direct collaborators would be a one. I’m guessing my Erdös Number with regard to Mr. Sharp would probably be at best a three for having reviewed this album).
Proof of Erdös is a four movement work written for Orchestra Carbon (one of Sharp’s various ensembles) and it is ably conducted by the American composer/conductor David Bloom. It is a studio recording. The work shares some of the sound world of the last piece on the album but the ensemble is more of a chamber group than the full orchestra but produces a similarly large and complex sonic image.
On Corlear’s Hook (2007) is a work for full orchestra and, for this reviewer, it is a great opportunity to hear Sharp’s ability to write for large orchestra. It’s title is taken from a the lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan where Sharp resided with his family. As the composer says in the notes there is no attempt to be programmatic or pictorial that the music is, “a reflection of the spectra of my existence (there) from one frequency band to another”.
The performance by the fine Janacek Philharmonic is conducted by the German conductor Peter Rundel (1958- ). Rundel, whose credits include a Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the works of Jean Barraque (1928-1973), delivers a convincing performance of this tour de force. The four movements, reflecting Sharp’s “spectra” coalesce to a unity which suggests that this piece could easily be called “symphony” if one wanted to use that apparently dated term. The audience seems attentive or at least respectfully quiet which makes for a pretty definitive recording.
A great debt is acknowledged here to the fine work of the Ostrava Days festival under the guidance of Petr Kotik (1942- ) for curating this amazing annual new music event. There are very useful liner notes by legendary boundary defying cellist (and sometime Sharp collaborator) Frances-Marie Uitti. Sharp himself provides notes in the accompanying booklet. As usual with Starkland the recording is of very high quality and Tom Steenland’s gift for graphic design (using an 1888 photo of electrical “effluvia” from the surface of a coin) is well suited to represent the contents of the recording.
The Boreal Starkland ST-222
Like many of Starkland’s releases this album challenges the listener but meeting that challenge and giving this a serious listen is ultimately very rewarding. This is a fine example of a composer whose work deserves to be better known and this is a good sampling of some of his most refined work. Hopefully this release will help to position Sharp as a composer with roots in the downtown improv scene who has taken his experimentation successfully into the larger world of the contemporary classical scene.
This latest release from Starkland adds significantly to the discography of the Yale based composer Martin Bresnick. Born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York, he studied at the University of Hartford (B.A., 1967), Stanford (M.A., 1968; DMA, 1972) where he studied with electronic music pioneer John Chowning and Györgi Ligeti. He also studied with Gottfried von Einem in Vienna (1969-70). He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University and Yale where he is now a professor of composition. Bresnick is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous prizes and awards. His wife is the wonderful new music pianist Lisa Moore whose work with Bang on a Can as well as her solo efforts have made many valuable additions to new music recordings.
Composer Martin Bresnick
I had heard of Bresnick but had not yet sampled his music so the opportunity to review this disc prompted me to follow-up on my long-planned intent to investigate the work of this American composer. Not wanting to judge him just from this disc alone, I obtained for comparison the CRI recording which contains his second and third string quartets and a couple of other chamber pieces for strings which range from 1973 to 1994 in their composition dates. As I listened to both that disc and the one which is the subject of this review I found myself increasingly intrigued with this unique musical voice.
As it turns out the unsuspecting consumer may have already been exposed to this man’s work in one of several film scores including two of the Cadillac Desert series, The Day After Trinity and an Academy Award nominated short from 1975, Arthur and Lillie. The most recent film score listed on his site was for The Botany of Desire, after Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on human interactions with food. I must confess that I don’t really recall the music from these films but I will be listening closely next time I screen them.
The CRI disc consists of Bresnick’s earlier works for strings. It is an enjoyable if more an academic musical experience. But the present disc, Prayers Remain Forever consists of more recent compositions ranging from the 2010 Going Home to the 2012 Ishi‘s Song. These are much freer compositions concerned more with expression than form. David Lang, who wrote the liner notes on the inside of the gatefold, describes them as being “deeper and more personal.”
A look at Bresnick’s starting places for these pieces gives a clue as to their nature. The composer, writing in the booklet that comes with the disc, cites Kafka, Goya, Ishi (the last of the Yahi-Yani Indian tribe), mortality, religion and his own emotional response to having visited his ancestral home in Belarus. All in all a somber, elegiac set of pieces that deal with deeply personal emotions and memories.
Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6 were recorded at the Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Hall at Yale University by Eugene Kimball. Tracks 2 and 4 were recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT by Nick Lloyd who also mastered this disc.
The first piece on the disc, Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello. It was inspired by the composer’s experiences having visited the ancestral home of his family. He speaks of remembering the stories he heard from his grandparents of the “alte heym” (Yiddish for old home) and the suffering they endured, the murder of his great grandparents, the destruction of the town. Bresnick, who is himself a trained oboe player, weaves a beautiful, though painful, picture here. This could conceivably be a film score to the images that are in the composer’s memories. It is, for this writer the most poignant and personal of the pieces on this recording. It is beautifully played by an ensemble who call themselves “Double Entendre” with Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford, viola and Brian Snow, cello.
Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)
The second track, Ishi’s Song, was inspired by an actual recording of Ishi, thought to have been the last of his tribe of Yahi-Yani Indians of Northern California. Ishi lived out his life at the University of California at Berkeley under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and remains a beloved figure to many especially in the San Francisco bay area . Ishi recorded a song he that he had been taught and it is this song that forms the basis (or cantus firmus according to the composer) of this piece for singing pianist. Lisa Moore is no stranger to the repertoire for speaking or singing pianist having recorded Frederic Rzewski’s masterful De Profundis (1992). Her talents are put to good use here in this virtuosic set of variations on the haunting tune.
Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Josephine, the Singer (2011) is perhaps the most unusual piece here. It is inspired by the Kafka story of the same name which is about a mouse that can sing. This piece is a significant contribution to the solo violin repertoire. It is an expressive piece in a single movement which is played with an easy sense of virtuosity and expression by violinist Sarita Kwok.
Strange Devotion (2010) is a lyrical piano piece sensitively played by Lisa Moore. Bresnick’s inspiration, according to his notes in the accompanying booklet, state that he is here depicting a one scene from Goya’s horrific set of etchings, Disasters of War in which a donkey pulls a cart holding a coffin as people kneel by the roadside while it passes. The “strange devotion” to which he refers is the devotion to religion. The mood here is not one of cynicism it is more like a lament.
A Message from the Emperor (2010) is another piece based on Kafka. This piece is scored for two speaking percussionists who play marimba, vibraphone and small tuned drums. This little narrative follows in the same basic tradition as the speaking pianist piece. The musicians speak sometimes separately, sometimes together coordinating their substantial duties on their instruments as well. The story tells of an important message that, as is characteristic in Kafka’s absurdist world, can never actually be communicated. It’s not clear if this (or, for that matter, the other tracks on this disc) is intended as political protest music but the analogies are certainly there if the listener chooses to apply them..
Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)
The last work here is inspired by “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever”, a poem by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). One line of the poem, “Tombstones crumble” provides the inspiration for the appropriately somber cover art while the music at hand, Prayers Remain Forever (2011) chooses perhaps a more optimistic line from the poem. Again we have a deeply felt emotional expression here expertly interpreted by TwoSense (Lisa Moore, piano and Ashley Bathgate, cello).
Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever
I saw in the street on a summer evening
I saw a woman writing words
On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
And went off.
I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
Who will read the writing and not the words.
On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.
One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
Amen, Amen, may it be His will.
Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
Prayers remain forever.
(found on http://jpbaird.com/2013/11/)
Perhaps these non-literal musical expressions here can be said to be poetic and, like the prayers of Amichai’s poem may even last forever. At least that seems to be the optimistic point Bresnick seems to make here. This is a beautiful recording with talented and dedicated musicians that will continue to make it to my playlists. And I am now compelled to seek out more by this wonderful composer.
This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label. The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images, Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).
Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956. He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds. In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques. But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software. His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.
This was indeed his breakout release. Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work. ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989. And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.
Seuil de Silences (2003)
Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)
He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005). Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers. There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey. There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States. This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.
Delires de Plaisirs (2005)
Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras. His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars. He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.
So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work. His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others. Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive. It is worth seeking out.
Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics. And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting. Its dense complexities would require very large forces. The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.
The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden. The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known. Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art. Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.
This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here. Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections. In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.
In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior. Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn. I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.
Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence. Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.
The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others. It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.
That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work. It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition. It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years. This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.
This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player. It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak. It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon. Highly recommended.
The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father. The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno. Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies. He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments. But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style. Very difficult to describe in words alone.
Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer. He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups. He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.
Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army. His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from ECM. His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.
Jim Bengston in his studio 2009
Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production. Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.
Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object. The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music. But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show. It is not didactic and only incidentally linear. It is not just a piece of music for listening either. The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).
Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece. It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston. There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany. Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac music.
The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985. According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively. They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time and the quality of their collaboration is apparent. And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.
The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments. Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay. The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks. Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.
The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures. It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo. These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone. And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions. One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.
Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’. It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.
Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways. The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs. Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.
The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This disc works on many levels. You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by. But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object. One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone. This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.
The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus. Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design. Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.