William Susman at the Movies


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I think this is the fourth disc of the music of William Susman which has come across my desk. Let me say it is a delight to hear this man’s music and experience the range of his artistry. All releases of his music thus far have been on belarca records, a label founded by Susman to promote The Octet Ensemble and other artists who share an interest in the work of Susman and many of his contemporaries.

The disc which is the subject of this review contains selections from soundtracks to three films: When Medicine Got it Wrong (2008), a film by Katie Cadigan and Laura Murray; Balancing Acts: A Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union (2008), a film by Sam Bell, Kate Stilley, and William Susman; Native New Yorker (2005), a film by Steve Bilich. But this is just one of three discs of film music thus far by Mr. Susman.

Soundtrack to the 2007 film
Soundtrack to the 2004 film

I mention these not just to create a list of Susman’s film music but also to point out that all of these scores have engaged the amazing talents of the longtime cellist of the Kronos Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, herself a composer and producer. Susman appears to be fond of collaborations with other artists.

The 2004 “Oil on Ice” won the 2004 Pare Lorentz award from the International Documentary Association. It was Pare Lorentz’s collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson that produced two of his finest film scores, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). Thomson’s subsequent music for Robert J. Flaherty’s feature length drama, Louisiana Story (1948) earned him the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a film score. Suffice it to say that film scores are a rather neglected genre, at least among non-pop composers. That is another reason to pay attention to these releases, as in “get these before they disappear”. But also because film music by concert hall composers shows a side of their work that may not be evident in concert works. It is a marriage of sound and image, a collaborative effort. Thomson’s film music was written entirely for socially conscious films of the WPA era. Susman’s work seems to be following a similar trajectory some generations later.

Now back to the disc under consideration.

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Joan Jeanrenaud provides her multitracked performances on two of the three films. As always, her artistry is welcome. Her work is evident in the first two film soundtracks. Mr. Susman, an accomplished pianist, plays piano and other keyboards on all three films. Note must also be made of another collaborator, accordion player and vocalist, Mira Stroika (a former student of Susman’s) who plays and sings on the 2008 Balancing Acts film. Among the three this appears to be the one closest to the composer’s heart, he is also one of the film’s producers. Susman plays piano and other keyboards in the final track, an uninterrupted soundtrack (some 13 minutes) to 2005’s Native New Yorker.

Susman manages to create a nuanced variety of music within his predominantly post-minimalist, sometimes neo-romantic style. It exists as subtext in the film context but stands on its own as a purely sonic experience. Fans of film music, and certainly of Susman’s oeuvre, will want to explore all of these.

William Susman: A Quiet Madness


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This 2020 release of chamber and solo pieces by William Susman (1960- ) is the third reviewed by this writer. The music here is from the last six years but these pieces rather unmistakably have Susman’s compositional fingerprints on them. There are six works in total and the solo piano pieces from Susman’s Quiet Rhythms series provide a sort of punctuation on tracks 2, 4, and 6. The Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2012, 2013) series appear to function sort of like working papers, little essays many of which are later used in other compositional projects. Three of those pieces similarly punctuate an album by pianist Erika Tazawa (Belarca 005) of piano pieces by Francesco Di Fiore, Douwe Eisenga, Marc Mellits, Matteo Sommacal and William Susman.

Francesco Di Fiore handles the piano on tracks 2, 4, and 6 playing Quiet Rhythms Nos. 1, 5, and 7 (all from 2010). These are just three tantalizing works from nearly 100 pieces in 4 books. Though these works seem to be a working out of ideas they interesting and engaging rather than simply didactic.

Susman, himself an accomplished pianist, plays the piano with Karen Bentley Pollick on violin in Aria (2013). This is the longest work on the disc and it is tantamount to a concerto or grand sonata which keep both performers very busy. It is above all a joyously lyrical piece likely to please listeners. The liner notes state that this piece uses material from an opera in progress. And a grand teaser it is.

Seven Scenes for Four Flutes (2011) is one of those delightful works which will doubtlessly be performed by a soloist against prerecorded tracks. Patricia Zuber, no stranger to Susman’s work, handles all four flute parts with seeming ease. The piece’s seven movements traverse a variety of moods in the poetically titled movements. This is a pretty densely written piece whose charms belie its complexity. Music using multiples of the same instrument (whether live or multi-tracked) inevitably invoke Steve Reich’s counterpoint pieces but there is in fact a large and growing list of such pieces which produce their own unique results consistent with their respective composers and this one is a most welcome addition to this genre.

The penultimate work is one for accordion, an instrument which has risen from folk music roots to a sometime part of an orchestra and, increasingly, as a solo instrument for classical repertoire both new and old. The soloist here, Stas Venglevski, rises to the challenge of Zydeco Madness (2006), a piece which takes the listener though various sections which challenge the artist and entertain the audience.

Despite the title this album is neither quiet nor mad (well maybe a little obsessive). But it is a welcome selection of music by a consistently interesting composer that leaves this listener wanting more.

William Susman’s Collision Point


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I first encountered this man’s music in a concert by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra (reviewed here).  I subsequently reviewed his album Scatter My Ashes .  Now fresh off the presses is the present disc which is a collaboration between Mr. Susman and Piccola Accademia Degli Specchi, a chamber ensemble specializing in new music.  It is a delightful and engaging journey to a region stylistically inhabited by the likes of Mikel Rouse whose post-minimalist chamber works on the Made to Measure label were a revelation to this listener in the early 90s.  What always perplexed me was why I had been unable to find more writing like this.  Well, here it is in all its glory.  These are standard concert length works (15-20 min range) which engage and sustain the listener easily leaving anything obviously experimental behind while also touching an artistic depth that satisfies.  Is there an untapped genre of well written post-minimalist chamber music?  If so, this disc belongs there.

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The disc contains four works, two from the 90s and two from 2010.  The first, Camille (2010) is the three movement work that opened the lovely Scatter My Ashes album from 2014.  Like the second work on this disc (the seven movement Clouds and Flames for violin, cello, and piano also from 2010) it utilizes a very personal take on post-minimalist ideas creating music of a quasi romantic nature with echoes of Brahms as well as Lou Harrison.  By which I mean to say simply that they seem to be a mature integration of what the artist has learned in school and since then as well.

So now to immaturity, so to say.  In the last two works listeners get a glimpse of music from an earlier stage of the composer’s development.  None of that description should be read as leaning to the pejorative in any way.  These works are like studies toward the later stylistic realms of the first two works from nearly twenty years later They can, for the sake of genre, also be subsumed generally into the post minimal.  Motions of Return (1996) for flute and piano along with The Starry Dynamo (1994) for flute, alto sax, violin, cello, and piano are both single movement works. This listener is left to conclude that this artist’s maturity continues to deserve our attention.

As this is a collaborative effort it is only fair to discuss the collaborators Piccolo Academia degli Specchi :
“Piccola Accademia degli Specchi (Little Academy of Mirrors) is a chamber ensemble, based and founded in Roma (Italy) in late 2000, specializing in the performance of contemporary classical music. Its original and characteristic instrumentation (piano 4 hands, cello, violin, alto/soprano saxophone, flute/piccolo), similar but different to the common Pierrot ensemble set up, and the outstanding musicianship of its members provide its unique sound and groove.

Current members are Fabio Silvestro (piano), Assunta Cavallari (piano), Rina You (cello), Giuliano Cavaliere (violin), Claudia Di Pietro (alto/soprano sax), Alessandra Amorino (flute/piccolo). ” (reproduced from the ensemble’s website accessed on 28 Dec 2019)

This album is the result of a ten year collaboration between the composer and the ensemble.  Cited influences include Allen Ginsberg, Colum McCann, and Francis Bacon.  I will leave it to literary scholars to opine as to the influences here but I can say this is some great music and great music making.  Bravo maestri!!

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


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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.

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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.

 

No Ordinary Romance: San Jose Chamber Orchestra Plays Dvorak, Musgrave, Fung, Shatin, and Susman


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The Concert Hall at the Le Petit Trianon Theater in San Jose

It was a pleasant spring day in San Jose where, in this modest hall, there was to be a concert of mostly contemporary music with one exception.  The concert was billed as “A Touch of Tech” due to its use in some pieces of electronics and, in one case, slide projections.  However the overall sense of the experience left this writer with a strong sense of the romantic, hence the title of this review.

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Conductor Barbara Day Turner (from the SJCO web site)

The concert was to be led by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra‘s music director and regular conductor Barbara Day Turner.  A quick look at the orchestra’s web site or the repertoire of tonight’s conductor will dazzle and intrigue any fan of new music.  This modest ensemble of approximately 20 musicians (give or take) consists of professional musicians who clearly take their work seriously.  No spoilers here in saying that they turned in some seriously powerful and polished performances.

This writer was initially asked to review this performance on behalf of the management agents of composer Vivian Fung (1975- ), a Canadian-American composer whose star is rising rapidly.  In preparation for the evening’s performance it was wonderful to find some of her work on You Tube.  It was a rewarding experience to hear some of her range of compositions.  The featured composition of hers for this evening was Humanoid (2017) for cello and electronics.  It was third in the programming sequence for the evening.

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Vivian Fung (from her web site)

First up though was a composition which initially seemed anachronistic in context.  It was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (1833) for cello and orchestra in a transcription for cello and strings by Kerry Lewis.  This piece of unabashed high romanticism in fact seemed to contextualize what was to follow.  The soloist Coleman Itzkoff gave a wonderful display of his romantic chops in his interpretation of this somewhat lesser known bon bon of Dvorak’s.  The audience responded most appreciatively to a lush and lovely performance.

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Thea Musgrave (from her website)

Second up was Green (2008-16) by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (1928- ).  This work was being played in honor of her 90th year.  Mr. Musgrave was reportedly unable attend this evening, not due to infirmity but rather to industry.  She is reportedly hard at work adding to her already prolific catalog of works.  (This version was a string orchestra version prepared by Martyn Brabbins.)  Nonetheless her presence was strongly felt in this recent ecologically themed piece for string orchestra (sans electronics).  The tonalities in the work seemed to almost be echoes from the first work.  Despite a few string effects, pizzicati, glissandi, there was an overall feeling of romantic gestures here in a discursive development that included a disturbing motif from the double basses and rather romantic and lyrical responses from solo violin and viola embedded in the lush orchestral textures (it is astonishing to hear what a master composer can do with a small string orchestra).  The conductor and ensemble displayed an intensity of concentration which resulted in a really spectacular performance which was very much appreciated by the audience.  (Curious side note:  I later learned that an elderly gentleman who sat in front of me and listened with obvious concentration and appreciation throughout the program was in fact a relative of Ms. Musgrave so, at least by that proxy she was there in yet another capacity.)

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Coleman Itzkoff playing Vivian Fung’s Humanoid

The stage was then set for the west coast premiere of Vivian Fung’s Humanoid for cello and electronics.  Here I had the advantage of being able to speak with the evening’s engineer (and electronic co-conspirator) Tom Johnson.  This gentleman advised me of his roles in the three pieces which involved technology.   Apparently the Fung piece required the most attention and coordination involving a click track.  The Shatin piece basically played the electronics in parallel to the orchestra with the coordination largely left (presumably) to the conductor.  And the last piece involved projections whose synchronization were not as minutely critical as the other two pieces.  Said gentleman was also the recording engineer for this concert.

For this writer the term “electroacoustic” indicates that one should approach such a work with caution.  Indeed the success of the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments varies a great deal.  Perhaps the best known of such efforts are the pioneering “Synchronisms” of Mario Davidovsky in which various instruments are paired with an electronic track.  And these days one must ask if the electronics interacts with or alters the sound of the acoustic instrument or if it exists in parallel.  Electroacoustic music has been and remains a huge compositional challenge and no small challenge for the listener.

In the case of Fung’s piece the electronics exist in parallel but carefully synchronized (the soloist does listen to a click track) to the cello score.  No alteration of the cello’s sound is done by anyone other than the cellist.  So we are then hearing basically a duo between two musical streams, one live, the other on a digital stream of largely concrete sounds and, at one point, a drum kit.  Such technical issues can be tiring but the sound of the music was not.  According to the composer the piece is in three parts.  The cello and the electronics are both equally present in all.  In fact the cello seems to be creating sounds that are analogous to the electronic sounds at times and the cellist is given a lot of large romantic sounding gestures which in many ways were not entirely different emotionally than the gestures of the Dvorak.  Fung’s work seems, appropriately here in Silicon Valley, to be challenging the human vs. the machine, an increasingly intriguing dichotomy.

It was clearly a challenging piece for the cellist requiring a plethora of techniques and a great deal of virtuosity.  Itzkoff handled his role with stern concentration and demonstrated a strong command of both his instrument and the score.  He was rewarded with a standing ovation and two curtain calls for his efforts which he gratefully accepted.  The program notes indicated that this was Fung’s first major foray into the use of electronics and one hopes not the last.

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Judith Shatin (from her web site)

Following intermission was the premiere performance of the work of another established citizen of American music.  It was Judith Shatin‘s Ice Becomes Water (2018) commissioned by Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to them.  Shatin is a sound artist as well as a composer meaning that she has mastered the incorporation of a variety of sounds into her compositional palette.  In this case she utilized sound samples gathered by glaciologist Oscar Glowacki.

This piece continued the basically pastoral/ecological themes suggested by the earlier works.  Again too there was lyricism though the sound images here were, appropriately, colder and more stark than those in some of the other compositions.  In fact this composition seemed to have some affinities to the sound world of Musgrave’s work at times but perhaps a bit harsher.  What sustained interest here, in addition to the sonic inventiveness of the string writing, was the seamless integration of the sounds into the overall texture.  Here the electronics seemed to augment Penderecki like sound mass effects and gave way to gentler clicking sounds (or were they pizzicati?).  It was another very intense but very satisfying musical experience for this writer and, by the sound of the applause, the rest of the audience as well.  Happily Shatin was there to enjoy the success of this performance and the appreciation of her artistry.

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William Susman (photo from his website)

To end the program there was a multimedia work by William Susman (1960- ) The work of this composer is new to this reviewer’s ears but not apparently to the music world at large.  A quick perusal of Susman’s web page reveals a prolific composer who maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing (including a performance of his recent opera, Fordlandia at the Forth Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase) coming up in May.

The work was a piece entitled, In a State of Patterns (2018) which received its premiere on this night.  The work is a series of six movements which are designed to respond (or maybe create musical analogs) to 6 art works created by Santa Clara University mathematician Frank Farris (1955- ).

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Frank Farris (from the Santa Clara website)

The movements (performed without pause) are: 1. California, the Golden State, 2. The Sierra Nevada, 3. At Home in San Jose, 4. Sierra Tree Death, 5. Spiral Vortex, and 6. The Stars Come Out to Comfort Us.

The photos and mathematical abstractions were projected stage left and more or less synced to the music.  This writer is not well schooled in mathematics but the appearance of the images were reminiscent of those never ending fractal drawings which eternally reproduce themselves.  Farris apparently extracts the images and colors from photographs.  Now whether the music creates successful analogies is probably more relevant to the level of satisfaction that each of the artists feels with their work but the effect in performance was quite satisfying.  One can safely say (I think) that the music and the art work both have sufficient merit to stand successfully on their own but the combination was at least intriguing.

Susman’s music draws on some very pleasant minimalist type structures that nonetheless managed to take on almost Wagnerian grandiosity at times.  Again the combination of ecology and a sort of high romanticism combined to create a very successful and enjoyable work.  The abrupt ending reminiscent of the ensemble performances of Philip Glass provided a stunning coda waking the audience from the beautiful dreams evoked by the six movements.  Again we witnessed a powerful and dedicated premiere performance of a wonderful piece of music which appeared to leave the audience quite satisfied. Susman was there to take a much deserved bow.

This was some brilliant programming and excellent musicianship. What an evening!!!