Quantum Koh: Jennifer Koh’s “Limitless”


kohlimit

Cedille 9000 191

Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor.  First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Second, the joy:  All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.

So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers.  She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.

Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.

It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.

Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.)  She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.

Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres.  Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard.  The work is in three short movements.

Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints.  The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.

Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer.  The AACM was founded in Chicago.

I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17.  The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener.  The concert took place in 2012.  Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page.  Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.

Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin.  The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion.  This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition.  But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration.  First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu .  This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work.  Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds.  This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part.  It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.

Next up is Vijay Iyer.  Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece.  It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism.  It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.

The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer.  She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”.  The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics.  The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one.  The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting.  Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.  

Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.


 

Other Minds 17 Day 3


The final night of the 17th Other Minds Festival presented music by four composers and included two premieres of music commissioned by Other Minds.

The concert began with music by Finnish composer Lotte Wenakoski. This diminutive Finnish woman, who also sang quite beautifully during the panel discussion, works with barely audible sounds seeking inspiration ” on the borders of silence”. Her 2006-7 work Nosztalgiam (Hungarian for ‘my nostalgia’) was performed by the modular Magik*Magik Orchestra whose size varies according to the need of the pieces to be played. Tonight’s configuration for this piece consisted of 12 players playing woodwinds, brass and strings.

Fellow OM 17 composer John Kennedy, who is the conductor for the Spoleto Festival among others, conducted the chamber ensemble. Nosztalgiam (2007) is apparently a set of variations/deconstructions or meditations on two Hungarian folk songs (one of which she spiritedly sang during the preconcert discussion). The sometimes sparse and always delicate sounds expressed Wennakoski’s personal impressions of her time studying in Budapest in the late 1980s. It is difficult to assess this composer represented in this festival by a single work. But the sweet, delicate personally nostalgic sounds evoked by a variety of extended techniques suggest that seeking to hear more of her work would certainly be worth one’s effort. The sensitive and virtuosic performance was greeted warmly by audience and composer alike.

Next in this first half were two works by John Kennedy, conductor, composer, percussionist and promoter of New Music. Here is a man in a role similar to that of OM Festival director Charles Amirkhanian having a chance to be, so to speak, on the other side of the table. There are apparently no available commercial recordings of this man’s music but according to his web site (which does have some too brief sound samples) he has composed many works in all genres including theater, orchestral, solo and electronic. And he has received many commissions.

This night he was represented by two works, one of them an Other Minds commission. Both are hommages to the late John Cage. As I mentioned in an earlier blog Cage is also the inspiration/impetus behind Other Minds’ esthetic.

The first work, “First Deconstruction in Plastic” (the title a play on Cage’s First Construction in Metal), does double duty as an homage and as an environmental statement. Percussion duo Ryder Shelley and Andrew Myerson sat facing each other each with a collection of ‘found objects’ consisting of plastic buckets, bottles, shopping bags, etc. This well rehearsed duo gave an energetic and engaging performance which the audience clearly appreciated. But for this reviewer was left with the impression that this accomplished work, though no doubt intricate in it’s conception and satisfying to the musicians, failed to fully engage it’s audience. I was entertained but I did not particularly want to hear it again.

The second work, “Island in Time” (2012), was a world premiere. This, also dedicated to Cage, was a different matter. Scored for the unusual combination of bass clarinet, flute, cello and percussion (all members of Magik*Magik Orchestra) was an engaging though not derivative tribute to the influence of John Cage. The composer describes a process involving different types of temporal processes to structure the work. But the specifics of the processes are secondary here to the overall impact of the work. A meandering flow of sounds and tempi flowed beautifully reverently invoking the spirit and influence of Cage’s work. I have no doubt that the riches in this piece would continue to reveal themselves with repeated hearings. And though I have very little knowledge of this composer’s other work I have no doubt that it is likely to be quite compelling.

The musicians, clearly familiar with the work, gave a loving smooth reading of what appears to be a fairly complex work requiring serious concentration and collaboration. The audience, myself included, rewarded their efforts with enthusiastic applause.

In the second half of the program the next composer, who had performed the previous night in collaboration with Ikue Mori and Ken Ueno, was Tyshawn Sorey. This was to have been a solo performance as a percussionist but in the course of the discussion in last night’s pre-concert panel festival director Charles Amirkhanian mentioned that he had heard Sorey playing the piano earlier in the day. Amirkhanian remarked on the apparently eclectic nature of what he had played. Sorey responded saying that his piano playing is informed by the likes of Art Tatum, David Tudor, Cecil Taylor and Morton Feldman. He also mentioned deconstructing Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata (!) to inspire his compositional process. Eclectic indeed! And he easily consented to playing the piano in his segment of the program saying, “…if you are open to it, sure.”. Sorey exudes a sort of calm, friendly, matter of fact confidence in his skills.

So Sorey walked onto the stage which contained his percussion kit on one side and a concert grand piano on the other. He began with a percussion improvisation starting with a fortissimo strike on the side drum followed by some fevered loud work on tenor and snares as well. This then segued into some more delicate and complex soft sounds elicited from various cymbals and drums making frequent use of special techniques which brought forth some rich vibrant harmonics especially in the quieter moments. I couldn’t help being reminded at times of Han Benink’s performance at last years festival as he released a small sower of sticks onto a drum at one point. Sorey’s sheer energy and good humor were reminiscent (though not imitative). And, unlike Benink, Sorey never left the stage in the course of the performance.

Following the well received percussion set Sorey moved to the grand piano sitting confidently and commandingly at the keyboard and pausing as he focused on the task at hand. He started slowly with a few chords and before long launched into a dizzying and virtuosic flow of music reflecting the influences he mentioned. At first perhaps Morton Feldman, sometimes Pierre Boulez, a little Art Tatum, certainly some Cecil Taylor and then deftly playing sometimes inside the piano then back to the keyboard as part of the same unbroken musical phrase evoking the experimentalism of David Tudor. But the overall impression was not episodic imitation but rather an absorption and integration of all these techniques transcending genre and becoming, simply, inspired music making. The audience was transfixed and absorbed in the flow of the music and responded with cheers of “Bravo” and enthusiastic applause (I think they were pushing for an encore but time did not permit). Had I heard a recording of this without knowing the background I would have guessed this to have been an accomplished composed work by a master composer but this was an improvisation. I am surely going to seek recordings and follow this man’s career in the years to come.

The finale was another Other Minds commission this time from composer, vocalist and Berkeley music professor Ken Ueno. The piece, “Peradam” (2011) takes it’s title from the unfinished spiritual allegorical novel, “Mount Analogue” by the French surrealist writer and poet Rene Daumal (1908-1944). Peradam is a mythical diamond-like stone sought after on the similarly mythical mountain of the title.

Ueno’s work is scored, as is his practice, specifically for the skills of the formidably talented Del Sol Quartet who so ably played the Gloria Coates quartet the previous night. Specifically the specialized skill (in addition of course to their string playing) is the multiphonic throat singing capability of violist Charlton Lee. Ueno demonstrated his vocal skills on the previous night singing with the percussions of Ikue Mori and Tyshawn Sorey. In fact all the players were asked to sing as well as play their instruments for this performance. In addition there was video creatively projected onto the sound baffles at the rear of the stage.

The music was a post modern integrated amalgam of a wide variety of conventional and extended instrumental techniques along with singing at times (the throat singing is a strikingly unique timbre which commands attention when it emerges in the fabric of the piece). The quartet positioned themselves stage right to afford the audience a clear view of the projection across the three sound baffles at the back of the stage. They played with characteristic concentration and skill in what looks like a technically challenging piece of shifting moods and tempi to which the images responded.

The images, manipulated in real time and in coordination with the music with software written by video artist Johnny Dekam, were abstract mostly monochrome images that moved and transmuted hypnotically along with the music. Dekam, who has worked with a variety of pop acts like Eminem and Thomas Dolby, had collaborated with Ueno before. In the darkened theater the images dominated the visual field though the quartet could be seen as well.

It was a complex experience that could only be grasped, if at all, by going with the simultaneous flow of music and image. This piece will benefit from repeated listenings/viewings to more fully appreciate it’s intricacies. But this first performance clearly satisfied the mostly hard core new music fans audience. And while the direct John Cage associations were not as obvious it is clear that Ueno, Dekam and the Del Sols embody the open minded spirit of his work in this, his centennial year. This grand finale was appreciated in kind by the cheering audience successfully bringing to a conclusion the 17th always uncategorizably eclectic Other Minds Festival.

Other Minds 17. Day 2


The second night at Other Minds featured two different generations of composers. As is their practice Other Minds on this night featured two composers already established and fairly well known in new music circles as well as three up and coming artists.

The first performance was by San Francisco’s own champions of new music, the Del Sol Quartet. They performed the American premiere of American expatriate composer Gloria Coates’ String Quartet No. 5 composed in 1988. This and her 8 other quartets have been made available on the brave and progressive Naxos CD label. Coates also holds the record as the most prolific woman symphonist of all time with some 16 symphonies to her credit (many of those are available and well worth seeking on CD as Well).

String Quartet No. 5 is cast in three movements. By the composers description all of the movements are canons, a simple counterpoint form. But the result is hardly simple. Using microtonal glissandi, sometimes having instruments tuned a quarter tone apart and relying on creative ways of synchronizing the players individual tempos Coates achieved a complex sounding but friendly and approachable result. The quartet which lasted about 30 minutes would be a challenge for any ensemble but the Del Sol (which, except for the cellist, perform standing in a break with convention) clearly knew and liked the work and gave an intense and beautiful rendering sounding at times like there were more than four players. The piece has an almost romantic feel at times, cleverly incorporating melodies into a sound world uniquely the composer’s own (I am at a loss to identify a precedent). I sincerely hope that this work and her other works become better known in this, her native country. It is a tribute to the acumen of the Other Minds team that music like this is presented here. The audience greeted the performance very appreciatively.

Next up was Harold Budd on piano playing with Keith Lowe on double bass augmented with electronic effects. The piece, titled “It’s Only a Daydream” from 2011 is, by Budd’s description, entirely improvisational as is most of his music. Lowe began playing first with long sustained tones awash with rich harmonics. Budd’s piano then entered and we were transported to the familiar sound world which is Budd’s musical signature. Those who knew his collaborations with Brian Eno and his later solo works recognized his somber pretty ambient sounds. The two musicians were well matched and played a sort of jazz duet trading solos and accompaniments evoking a curiously nostalgic and hypnotic atmosphere of a strange dream-like lounge. Time seemed suspended and I don’t know exactly how long they played but when they finished the enthusiastic audience reception brought them back for a shorter encore, something I had never seen occur before at this festival.

Following intermission Ikue Mori took the stage sitting at her laptop which controls her various electronic sounds. She played the laptop solo for a few minutes and was then joined by UC Berkeley faculty composer Ken Ueno on vocals. But ah, what unusual vocals. His extended vocal techniques seem to come equally from Tuvan throat singing, Buddhist chanting, David Hykes (of the harmonic choir), Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas, Kenji Suzuki (of the band Can), Tan Dun (on Taoism) and God knows what else. After another few minutes Tyshawn Sorey, a doctoral candidate in composition at Columbia, seated himself quietly at his drum/percussion kit, then with an assertive fortissimo bang on the side drum confidently entered the energetic fray. Mori sat intently gazing at her computer screen and entering the sound changes for her part while Ueno, holding the microphone to his mouth with both hands issued passionate wordless vocalizations of endless variety and Sorey executed a similar endless variety of high energy acoustic percussion sounds.

Mori calmly issued computer commands to perform her Japanese/New York/ punk/free jazz/Stockhausen expanded percussions while the academic Ueno improvised intense growling, multiphonic, wild vocals with few pauses and Sorey got in touch with his AACM ancestors producing a unified three ring circus of wonderful musical mayhem transcending any concept of genre. Three different traditions, separate but working together. Metaphorical? You decide.

Well deserved and enthusiastic applause greeted the intense but calm Mori and the sweaty and apparently exhausted but satisfied Ueno and Sorey.

The relative order of Coates followed by the ethereal calm improvisations of Budd were but a distant memory (albeit a pleasant one) after the ritual emotional exorcism of the second half. This is the rich variety that characterizes these concerts. And now anticipation builds for tomorrow’s finale.