Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


klucevsek

Starkland ST-225

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.

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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.

transoft

Starkland ST-225

freerange

Starkland ST-209

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.

polkfringe

Starkland ST-218

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.

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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.

 

The Ensemble Formerly Known as Zeitgeist (?), Music by Scott Miller


Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

ADDENDUM:  Mr. Miller kindly supplied the correct composition dates for the pieces in this album and they have been placed in the text.  Also I was pleased to receive a link to their discography:(http://www.zeitgeistnewmusic.org/discography.html)  I hope that is a recent addition and not my oversight (apologies if it’s an oversight).

 

I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review as I am a long time fan of the Minnesota based Zeitgeist ensemble.  This varied ensemble has been a vital part of the new music scene in Minnesota since about 1977 (I still have some of their vinyl LPs).  Happily they are in the process of making these out of print items available again on CDs via their website.

Curiously there is very little on the ensemble’s web site or on the internet in general on the history of this group prior to about the year 2000  A Google search yields few references to this group and Discogs does not have much listed in their discography of Zeitgeist.  Their Wikipedia page is also in serious need of updating. The Innova records site is perhaps the most useful in identifying the albums released by this group in its various configurations and solo or other collaborations by its members (though the re-release of the older discs are not distributed there).  I realize that this group began in the pre-internet era but perhaps it is time to clarify this and present a comprehensive history and discography of this significant new music ensemble.

Scott Miller

Scott Miller

The present disc is a collection of recent works by Scott Miller, a Minnesota based composer and teacher whose association with Zeitgeist goes back to 1993.  He is currently the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro Acoustic Music in the United States) and professor of music at St. Cloud State University.  You can find his work on youtube and Sound Cloud.

Now let me say here that it is my observation that electroacoustic music, while not an uncommon genre, seems to be a specialized one which, like Zeitgeist, is not consistently well-promoted.  At least that is my explanation (excuse perhaps) for my limited knowledge of Mr. Miller’s music up to this point.

The CD is a collection of six tracks with vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw on tracks  2, 4 and 6.  Each track is a separate work and they are listed in the proper order on the back of the CD case but are discussed out of order in the notes for some reason.

But now I must stop my whining and criticisms (and thinly veiled references to Prince) and turn to the actual music. This is really wonderful music, well-performed and well worth your attention.  And if the term “electroacoustic” puts you off don’t worry.  What we have here is an artist who has managed to integrate a variety of techniques into an effective musical language that transcends mere experimentalism to yield some really good music.

The first piece, the one from which the album receives its title, is Tipping Point (2010) and was originally included on the SEAMUS CD Volume 20 (EAAM-2011).  This is a remixed and remastered version of that recording from 2010.  This writer hears echoes and homages to (or influences by, you decide which) Terry Riley, Steve Reich as well as perhaps Morton Subotnick and even the thornier sound of Mario Davidovsky at times.  To my ears this is an integration of many ideas which work effectively together.

The second track, Forth and Back (2003) is the longest track and is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli.  The setting is atmospheric, appropriate to the lovely texts and the vocal writing is simply beautiful.  Carrie Henneman Shaw delivers this work with the success of interpretation that one would expect of a musician who understands the composer’s intent.  Not an explicitly virtuosic piece it nonetheless challenges the performer with sotto voce passages that I imagine are quite a balancing act for a singer.  This is a beautiful piece and the fact of its electroacoustic aspects take on far less important place than the effectiveness of the setting.

Next up is Pure Pleasure (2008) is a percussion piece.  The composer goes into some detail in the notes as to the genesis of this piece and that is interesting but so is the act of listening to it.  This is one of the more obviously experimental works here.

Twilight (2008-13) is actually a portion of a larger work, a collaboration between Miller, Pat O’Keeffe and video artist Rosemary Williams called, The Cosmic Engine.  This is a multi-media chamber opera which premiered in 2008 and this section was revised in 2013.  The text is by Walt Whitman.  Again, Shaw does a lovely job with the lyrical vocal lines.

Funhouse (2003) is a marvelous use of electroacoustic methods.  It is a piece with rather complex origins as explained in the notes but, consistent with its title, this is a fun piece to hear and, I imagine, to play.  Along with the percussion piece it represents the more overtly experimental work of this artist.

The final track, Consortia (2013), as  with Twilight, is an outgrowth or by product of work on the multimedia opera, The Cosmic Engine.  Here the composer enlists computer processing to create a sort of live polyphony with live mixing of tracks of pre-recorded and live improvisational structures based on some renaissance tunes and techniques.  I will leave it to the listener to read through the technical details but the result is a pretty entertaining piece of music.

Zeitgeist does a wonderful job here playing with passion and dedication.  I can only hope that we hear more from both Zeitgeist and Mr. Miller.

The recording done at Wild Sound Recording Studio in Minneapolis (Mark Zimmerman, master engineer on tracks 1 and three; Steve Kaul, master engineer on tracks 2 and 4-6) is lucid and warm.  The art and design by Raul Keller makes for an attractive product.  This release from New Focus Recordings belongs in the collection of any new music fan and certainly every Zeitgeist fan.