Das Lied von das Abstimmen: Michael Harrison’s “Seven Sacred Names”


Cantaloupe CA 21157

I first encountered the work of Michael Harrison (1958- ) while searching for Lou Harrison CDs. I came across the New Albion release, “From Ancient Worlds” (1992). It is a disc of short piano compositions played by the composer on an instrument of his own invention, The Harmonic Piano, which was conceived in 1979 and built by1986. Harrison was a student/apprentice of the Godfather of American Minimalism and Guru of non-western tunings, La Monte Young. He has also enjoyed a close relationship with yet another icon of contemporary music and non-western tunings, Terry Riley. Via these associations, Harrison has also studied with Pandit Pran Nath (famously a teacher of both Young and Riley) and Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan.

He holds a B.M. in composition from the University of Oregon, and and M.M. in composition from the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Reiko Füting. His collaborations put him in touch with progressive musicians on both the east and west coasts of the United States and he seems to derive a great deal of joy sharing his enthusiasm with many talented artists imparting his knowledge and learning from them as well.

Mr. Harrison’s major opus, “Revelation” (2002-7) for solo harmonic piano is a sort of manifesto or “urtext” and has been the source and inspiration for much of his subsequent work both directly and indirectly. At his 2009 appearance at the Other Minds Festival 14 he premiered “Tone Clouds” (2008) which incorporated a string quartet (Del Sol Quartet) along with the composer at the piano utilizing material from Revelation. Subsequent recordings with cellists Maya Beiser and Clarice Jensen further expanded his use of string instruments along with the piano.

So here we come to Harrison’s second release on Cantaloupe Records (his first was the Maya Beiser release in 2012) this time incorporating Tim Fain (violin), Caleb Burhans (viola), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Payton MacDonald (vocals), Ina Filip (vocals), Ritvik Yaparpalvi (tabla), and Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy winning vocal ensemble in a work which strikes this listener as a grand nearly symphonic effort reminiscent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Also, like Mahler, the composer uses non-western (Sufi) texts and (unlike Mahler) non-western tunings derived in part from Hindustani and Carnatic influences, and from his studies with Pran Nath, Terry Riley, and Mashkoor Ali Khan.

The eight sections vary in style but have echoes of Arvo Part, Hindustani/Carnatic musics, minimalism, etc. all integrated into a large form neatly bookended by a prelude and epilogue. It is, in effect, a song cycle and, guess what? It’s about the earth, well, sort of. It is, according to the liner notes by W.H.S. Gebel, music which corresponds to the seven stages of universal awakening outlined in that author’s book, “Nature’s Hidden Dimension”. Maybe Mahler for the New Age?

Only the second movement, “Hayy: Revealing the Tones” derives directly from the aforementioned Revelation but it is clear that Harrison has integrated his diverse musical studies into a personal style descended from artistic and philosophical ancestors. The work struck this listener as being a successfully unified whole and a landmark in this composers still burgeoning career. This is grand and gorgeous music.

Monk and the Memories


Cantaloupe CA21153

Like many innovative young artists in New York City in the early 60s Meredith Monk had to train musicians to work with her unusual vocal methods. Her first album, Key (1971), was the first time her vocal art began to be dispersed outside the intimate, neo-bohemian loft space where the album was recorded. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 Monk moved to Manhattan where she and many other young, creative experimental musicians populated what became known as the “downtown scene” or SOHO. Many musicians worked with her over the years including composer/cellist Robert Een, Pianist Anthony De Mare both of whom incorporated their extended vocal techniques learned in the loft of the master herself.

Bang on a Can was formed from a very similar aesthetic (that of providing an alternative to the “uptown scene” which generally refers to the “establishment” or “mainstream” of classical music epitomized by Julliard and Lincoln Center. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can and their subsequent touring group, Bang on a Can All Stars (begun in 1992) can be said to be another generation’s effort to achieve what Monk and the many musicians who followed such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, among many others whose musical vision stood in contrast to the established uptown, more academic leanings.

It was Bang on a Can’s transcription of Brian Eno’s famous studio produced album (no live musicians), “Music for Airports” that demonstrated their ability to revision some of the work of their forebears and bring it into the concert hall. This is pretty much what we see here in this loving collaboration/tribute to one of New York’s finest composer/performers from the early downtown/SOHO era.

Monk began her artistic life as a dancer and dance/choreography remains an essential part of her artistic vision. 2014-2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith Monk as a performer. “–M—EM–O-R—Y —-G-A—-ME—” (2020) is a wonderful production which sits somewhere between a “greatest hits” record and that of another generation’s reverent celebration of a unique artist. Bang on a Can shares the duties of transcription and performing with Monk and her ensemble. Most of Monk’s work involves (generally) one to five musicians (playing minimalist style music) onstage but here we see an expansion into a larger ensemble not unlike her collaborations which resulted in one of her largest works, the masterful “Atlas” (1993) produced by the Houston Opera. (Would that a new recording of Atlas may eventually come from such a collaboration).

back cover

So what we have here is a combination of transcription, performance, but most importantly a respectful sharing out of a mutual educational experience between Monk’s ensemble and that of BOC. There are nine tracks comprising nine distinct compositions from Monk’s oeuvre. BOC composers provided transcriptions of “Spaceship” (Michael Gordon), “Memory Song” (Julia Wolfe), “Downfall” (Ken Thomson), “Totentanz” and “Double Fiesta” (David Lang). The other tracks appear in transcriptions by members of Monk’s ensemble: “Gamemaster’s Song” and “Migration” (Monk), “Waltz in 5s” (Monk and Sniffin), and “Tokyo Cha Cha” (Sniffin).

Monk’s ensemble in this recording consists of Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, and guest artist Michael Cerveris. The Bang on a Can All Stars include Ashley Bathgate, cello and voice; Robert Black, electric and acoustic bass; Vicky Chow, piano, keyboard, and melodica; David Cossin, percussion; Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, and voice; and Ken Thomson, clarinets and saxophones. The expansion of the ensemble adds favorably to the sound (as it did in Atlas) and the transcriptions enhance the music (as was the case in “Music for Airports”).

The 2012 collaboration produced by Monk’s House Foundation deserves mention here because it is a crowd sourced two CD production of covers by a variety of artists paying homage to Monk’s work. It is not clear if this release had any influence over the Memory Game album but it does speak to the influence of the artist.

The House Foundation for the Arts
ASIN : B00A1JCY1I

Fans of Meredith Monk and her various music/dance/theater works will find a comforting familiarity in these performances of music which, at one time were the leading edge of the new and experimental, now become familiar and, more importantly, embraced by another generation who clearly took the time to look, listen, and understand the work of this now acknowledged American Master. Those unfamiliar will find this a great introduction to Monk’s legacy.

Though chosen from a variety of compositions which date from 1983 to 2006, this selection comes together in a satisfying unity. The very tasteful album design is itself an homage to the look of Monk’s ECM recordings (under Manfred Eicher’s direction) who released the majority of her work. Kudos to the production team of David Cossin and Rob Friedman whose work here is among the finest of Bang on a Can Allstars’ recordings and a very satisfying addition to Monk’s discography. The little liner notes booklet includes an essay by the composer as well as a copy of the lyrics to “Migration” and “Memory Song”, just enough to inform and not overwhelm the casual listener. This is one fantastic release.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby in San Francisco, 2016 Other Minds

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


susmanscatter

I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

Susman_at_piano

Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


brminc

This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.