Canadian Composers Series #5
Euler Spirals Scenery (2011), Claudiu Ptolemy (2008), Jean Philippe Rameau (2012)
A long time fixture on the Toronto scene as a string performer, improviser, and composer, Marc Sabat now resides in Berlin. However, he has taken his experimental penchant for tuning systems with him, writing in extended just intonation with a fluency that rivals Harry Partch and Ben Johnston’s own explorations of pitch. On the CD Harmony, JACK Quartet plays two quartets and a duo with rapt attention to the detailed nuances of Sabat’s pitch language and a keen sense of its corresponding flowing rhythms.
Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery (2011) is a five movement work that name checks various elements and personages of the intonation studies milieu. The first movement, Preludio, is subtitled “Les Quintes Justes” and it indeed does deal with sustained pure fifths in evocative fashion. Two of the movements, numbers two and five respectively, are titled Pythagoras Drawing. Movements three and four are each dedicated to a different composer who has been influential on Sabat; they are titled Harmonium for Claude Vivier and Harmonium for Ben Johnston. Each successive movement sends us a little further into the dark forest of dissonant overtones that accumulate on top of “Les Quintes Justes.” Thus, the entire piece can be seen as gradually revealing the compass of Sabat’s pitch palette.
Claudius Ptolemy (2008) is a duo, played by JACK violinist Christopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland (note: Jay Campbell now plays with the group). Open string double stops as well as dissonant intervals, harmonics, and ambling melodies combine in this adagio essay to make a fresh-sounding conglomeration of familiar playing techniques. The aforementioned “ambling affect” is one that Sabat shares with a number of his Canadian colleagues, not least Linda Catlin Smith, whose volume in the Canadian Composer Series (#1) appeared as a review here earlier in 2017. The final work on the Sabat CD is named after another important music theorist: Jean-Philippe Rameau (2012). Here the simultaneities are particularly fetching, with double-stops from multiple quartet members overlapping into beautiful chords. In one of his treatises( from 1737), Rameau struggled to describe the consonant and dissonant properties of just intonation: Sabat’s Rameau lays it out for all to hear with abundant clarity.
On Thursday, June 15, 2017 Dog Star Volume 13 landed at the Cal Arts campus for a concert titled The Mean Harpsichord. No fewer than three harpsichords were in place at The Wild Beast, where every chair was filled with someone interested in hearing experimental music at the cutting edge. The 2017 Dog Star Orchestra series, a local new music tradition since 2005, featured a total of eleven concerts this year and has been running at various locations all around Los Angeles since June 3.
The first piece on the concert program was Tasten, by Eva-Maria Houben and for this two harpsichords were employed, manned by Robert Holliday and Sepand Shahab. Two soft notes by Holliday began Tasten, followed by an extended silence. About 30 seconds later, and almost as an answer, three separate notes were heard from the second harpsichord. More silence followed, allowing the notes to ring out and slowly decay. This pattern continued with the sounding of one, two or a few notes by each harpsichord, followed by an extended silence between.
The two harpsichords seemed to alternate in turn, but not strictly, and the extended silences acted to draw the listener into a heightened level of concentration. It was as if each set of notes added a clue to some larger form or structure. There were occasional seven or eight note phrases, but no chords, and the sounds were never hurried. This is very spare music, and it often seemed like a quiet conversation between two people who know each other very well – perhaps after dinner on a dark porch – with the long silences actually adding to the communication. The score for this was not conventionally notated, but was rather a page of instructions followed by several more pages of symbols and letters that gave the harpsichord players their cues. Tasten reduces pitch, rhythm and dynamic content to the minimum while at the same time raising the listeners awareness in ways that are not otherwise experienced in a conventional musical performance.
Arianna (Monteverdi) by Mark So followed, and for this some 10 musicians with their various instruments gathered while a field recording of street sounds and construction equipment was heard over the speaker system. A solemn, deep tone was heard from something like a small hand-pumped portable organ accompanied by softly sorrowful notes from a violin. Harpsichords joined in as well as a cello, creating a feeling of disconnection and loneliness that was very effective in combination with the impersonal sounds coming from the field recording. All of this was slow and stately – there was nothing rapid or with a rhythmic beat. The texture was smooth and lush, and some lovely harmonies were heard at times among the various instrument groupings. A pop tune and then some faint voices were heard in the field recording that contrasted with a series of low, mournful chords from the portable organ and strings. The strongly expressive feel of this piece was the result of distributing small sections of an original Claudio Monteverdi score to the various acoustic instruments. There was no effort to quote this music per se, but rather fragments of chords and harmonies were employed in diverse ways to create the richly haunting mood. Arianna (Monteverdi) is an impressive example of the creation of a new contemporary piece fashioned from the musical DNA of a 17th century Italian master.
Shadow Earth, by Michael Pisaro was next and this was performed by Sepand Shahab at the harpsichord. This began quietly with a few short sequences of notes, followed by some simple chords that unfolded into a modest dissonance as the piece progressed. Counterpoint appeared in the lower registers and this led to a series of thick chords that precipitated a dark, mysterious feel. There was no continuous beat or pulse in this music, but rather a sequence of brief, disconnected passages; sometimes these included chords with harmony and at other times just a few singular notes. It was very much the musical equivalent of a woodcut relief print – where the total is the sum of the ink markings and the white space – so that the viewer’s brain forms the completed image. The abstraction of the sound that is heard in this piece partners with the listener’s imagination. Shadow Earth nicely evokes the contrasting darkness and light of shadows in the same way – the music paints only a part of the image and the listener completes the picture.
The Oracle at Delphi, by Laura Steenberge followed, and this was inspired by the ancient Greek religious sanctuary of Apollo on Mt. Parnassus. At Delphi the oracle would sit, issuing cryptic predictions and guidance to those who had come with questions. The language of the oracle could not be understood directly, but an interpreter would provide a written response to the questioner a day or two later. For this piece, vocalist Argenta Walther portrayed the oracle, robed and sitting in a chair, while wearing a roll of temperature sensitive paper tape about 4 inches wide that hung from a large necklace. The paper tape was drawn out across a small table where Laura Steenberge sat with a hot soldering iron. The tape was further extended to a harpsichord and rolled, scroll-like, onto a tuning fork.
Ms. Walther began humming and singing, and as this occurred Ms. Steenberger began making traces on the paper with the hot soldering iron while harpsichordist Sepand Shahab rolled up the paper tape. This resembled something like a crude ticker tape, the moving tape received markings as the soldering iron wiggled in reaction to the singing voice of the oracle. When the marks on the tape reached Mr. Shahab some moments later, a series of notes or chords were played from the harpsichord. When there was no sound from the oracle, sections of blank tape were scrolled over. It took about 20 or 30 seconds for the tape to move from the soldering iron table to the harpsichord, a distance of several feet. All of this was an abstract representation of the original process at Delphi – the oracle humming and singing, an interpreter in the form of the soldering iron making marks on the paper tape, and the translation of the message by the harpsichord. This was engaging to watch and to hear, and could have also been a metaphor for the process of composition – the oracle as the inspiring muse, the composer notating the tape with a soldering iron, and the harpsichordist as musician reading and playing the score. The Oracle at Delphi is an engaging combination of performance art and music that ingeniously operates on several levels.
let it go beyond a certain point was next and a total of seventeen performers sat in a large semicircle, each holding a device of some kind. Some of these items made sounds while others seemed more symbolic or active. Near the center of the semicircle one performer was inflating large toy balloons with a hand pump and with each stroke the balloon grew, until it burst with a tremendous bang. At this point several of the others became active – one fired large rubber bands across the room, another snapped a large twig in two while yet another let loose a blast from an air horn. A second performer began to feed out a tape measure vertically a few inches at a time. Higher and higher it went until it was extended several feet, and then, leaning from its extended weight, suddenly collapsed. This was the signal for more actions by the others – a trumpet sounded, inflated balloons were popped with a pin, all accompanied by other assorted noises and tones.
In one sequence, the string of a small harpsichord was twisted increasingly tighter with a tuning wrench as its note was sounded. The pitch rose, unnervingly, as the tension in the string increased until it finally broke with a loud twanging sound. All of these staged events did much to increase the anxiety level in the audience as well, especially the very loud explosions of the popping balloons. The recurring pattern of slowly building tension and sudden release soon became emotionally exhausting and produced a palpable level of stress in the listener. let it go beyond a certain point provides a concentrated and visceral metaphor of the tensions we encounter in everyday life – the intensity of this performance was a potent reminder of how emotionally damaging our busy lifestyles have become.
A bit of inspired programming concluded the concert with méditations poétiques sur “ma mort future” and this was in the style of the opening piece, performed with two harpsichords. As before, each player traded short phrases or notes, separated by extended silences. The ringing out and decay of the notes, the overtones and quiet meditative atmosphere were a stunningly effective contrast to the preceding piece. The widely separated tones from the harpsichords created a sort of protective framework around the silences – always keeping the listener aware that this was a time for rumination and not for reaction. After the stress of let it go beyond a certain point, this harpsichord piece provided a vivid alternative to an existence filled with constant tension. Time seemed to slow down, broadening the listener’s perspective past the immediate environment. méditations poétiques sur “ma mort future” is not about musical stimulation, but rather the opposite – creating a quiet mental space for contemplation and knowing what a gift that can be.
The performers in The Mean Harpsichord were:
Eric KM Clark
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet
Works by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh
Sono Luminus 2XCD
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs on one of the most compelling releases of early 2017. Beyond (Sono Luminus, June 16, 2017) is a double-disc helping of new works for percussion ensemble by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh. All of these composers are up and coming stars in the new music world. Both Reid and Cerrone are New Yorkers (Reid is now based in NY and LA) who have taken Los Angeles by storm in recent seasons with opera and orchestra projects. Bjarnason and Thorvaldsdottir are Icelandic composers who both have a strong connection to the West Coast. McIntosh is very strongly identified with the LA scene, as a composer, string performer, and the guiding force behind Populist Records, one of the most interesting experimental labels out there (here is my recent review of a Populist release by Daniel Corral).
One of the fascinating things to hear on Beyond is the way in which each composer translates their musical approach to the percussive idiom. Thus, Bjarnason’s penchant for dynamic and scoring contrasts is demonstrated in Qui Tollis, a composition equally compelling in both its pianissimo and fortissimo passages. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aura maintains its creator’s fascination with pitched timbres and colorful clouds of harmony; these are deployed with a deft sense of ensemble interplay. Cerrone imports acoustic guitar and electronics in the five-movement suite Memory Palace. The places he references are familiar to New Yorkers, from the pastoral hues of “Harriman” to the tense ostinatos of “L.I.E.” (Long Island Expressway, for those of you who have the blissful fortune to be unaware of this stress-filled commuter highway), and his depictions ring true. Fear-Release by Reid presents a dramatic use of unfurling cells of rhythmic activity alongside pensive pitched percussion. Its coda for metallophones is particularly fetching; after all of the built up tension of the piece’s main body, it serves as a kind of exhalation.
The culminating, and most substantial, work on the recording is McIntosh’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw, a nine-movement long piece some three quarters of an hour in duration. Much of its composer’s music concerns itself with microtones and alternate tunings – he is experienced in playing both Early music’s temperaments as well as contemporary explorations of tuning. Thus it is no surprise that McIntosh’s pitch template for I Hold the Lion’s Paw is an extended one. However, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece, which also makes extensive use of low drums and cymbals for a ritualistic colloquy. Still more ritualized, taking on an almost sacramental guise, is the pouring of water and striking of ceramics filled with water. Every percussionist I know loves an instrument-making assignment and McIntosh doesn’t disappoint: DIY elements include aluminum pipes, cut to fit. None of the elements of this significant battery of instruments seems out of place: despite the use of water, I Hold the Lion’s Paw is no “kitchen sink” piece. On the contrary, it is a thoughtfully constructed and sonically beguiling composition. Several excellent percussion ensembles are currently active: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is certainly an estimable member of this elite cohort.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960
2xCD, LP, and digital formats
Thelonious Monk, piano, composer, arranger; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Barney Wilen, tenor saxophone; Sam Jones, double bass; Art Taylor, drums
Since its arrival at our house, this release has been in heavy rotation. After it seems as if everything that the famed modern bebop pianist Thelonious Monk put to record had been issued, a treasure like this surfaces: the pianist’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1960 Roger Vadim film adapting Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous 1782 novel. Buoyant versions of Monk classics such as “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” are abetted by excellent soloing from two tenor saxophonists, Barney Wilen (in whose archives these recordings resided) and Charlie Rouse, a frequent partner of the pianist’s. Monk’s playing, varied here in approach from succulent balladry to rousing uptempo soloing, spurs on the rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor to ever more complex coordinations. A previously unissued cut, the gospel number “By and By” by Charles Albert Tindley, receives a particularly sensitive reading. The recording contains a bonus disc that features alternate takes and a quarter hour of the group rehearsing and discussing “Light Blue.” To top it all off, the sound is excellent. Heartily recommended.
On Friday, June 16th from 7:30 to 10 at the New York jazz venue Smalls, pianist Aaron Parks celebrates the release of Find the Way, his second release on ECM as a leader (and third overall). On 2013’s Arborescence, Parks appeared on the label as a solo artist, crafting improvisations in a live setting that were gently sculpted but nevertheless stirring selections. This time out, Parks plays in a trio; he has a versatile and well-versed rhythm section at his disposal and to his credit, the pianist adopts an attitude of collaboration, encouraging each artist to take a turn in the spotlight. He is joined by eminent jazz drummer and frequent ECM recording artist Billy Hart and bassist Ben Street, a musician with many avant-jazz credentials who also plays in Hart’s quartet.
With energetic tom fills and textural cymbal playing, Hart particularly stands out on “Hold Music,” one of eight originals on the recording (the only cover is the title song, a chestnut that isn’t a household name, but ought to be). On “Song for Sashou,” Street supports a supple quasi-bossa, gliding in and out of register with Parks’ comping to underscore both rhythmic elements and a fetching countermelody.
There’s a painterly quality to the tune “Adrift.” It serves as a point of departure from the washes of sound that Parks evokes in his solo playing. These are now incorporated into a multifaceted context with a rhythm section’s underpinning. Still, the title is an accurate one; even with drums and bass, there is a delicacy of approach here that prevents the music from feeling too strongly grounded. Often Parks takes neo-impressionist approach. “Unravel” flirts with Ravel in its extended chord arpeggiations and revels in delightful offsets in the interplay between the hands. “The Storyteller” pits Parks’ stacking of extended chords against bluesy right hand licks. Meanwhile, Hart makes space for fills to spur things onwards and Street plays multi-register melodies, once again finding a melodic role for the bass to navigate. “Alice,” with aching suspensions and deft filigrees in its intro, followed by a rousing colloquy for the trio, is a particularly memorable composition and one that demonstrates that there is a bit of welcome steel in the midst of this trio’s buoyant demeanor. Find the Way is a big step forward in the development of Parks’ already potent musicality – one imagines that this will be a memorable gig!
On Thursday, June 8, 2017 the Santa Monica Public Library presented the Los Angeles premiere of Breadwoman: Variations and Improvisations in the MLK Jr. Auditorium.
Breadwoman has a long and colorful history, reaching back to her first incarnation by Anna Homler in the 1980s. The late Steve Moshier created the synthesized accompaniment and in 2016 the original reel-to-reel tapes were remastered by the RVNG record label in New York. A Breadwoman and Other Tales CD was released last year to wide acclaim in publications such as Pitchfork, The Wire and the Los Angeles Times. A good-sized crowd turned out on a weekday evening for this rare presentation of performance art and music.
The liner notes of the Breadwoman CD state that: “Breadwoman is a guide, a storyteller and an observer of human events. She communicates with gestures and songs in a language that is both mysterious and familiar. Breadwoman is so very old that she stands outside of time. Her territory is that of the interior, where there are no distinctions and all things are whole.” The strong interest in the 2016 CD has prompted Ms. Homler to organize a new live performance and the result was Breadwoman: Variations and Improvisations.
For this concert Ms. Homler was seated behind a microphone and shiny silver table filled with all manner of whistles, rattles, noisemakers and various other found percussion pieces. Maya Gingery as Breadwoman sat still on a chair completely covered by a gray shroud, awaiting the start of the performance. At the foot of the stage, Jorge Martin presided over a vast array of patch cables, mixers, amplifiers and analog synthesizers. All of the pieces in this hour-long performance were performed continuously with no interruptions. This began with Yesh Te’, a gentle invocation sung by Ms. Homler while Breadwoman was seen to be moving and coming to life under her shroud. The electronic accompaniment was similarly subdued, and full of deep sounds – at times Ms. Homler sang, played a tin flute or rattled racks of beads to add some variety to the texture. Her vocals resembled some long-lost Central European language – the words could not be understood, nor were they meant to be – but the sounds and cadences were highly evocative of a primal culture.
Ee Chê followed and here there was a strong percussive beat in the electronics while the singing became stronger and more assertive, as if part of some ritual incantation. At this point, Breadwoman had completely removed the shroud and, although still sitting in her chair, was fully revealed. Her heavily layered clothing and face, obscured by the bread-like headgear, brought to mind a homeless woman such as might be seen in many Los Angeles neighborhoods – the anonymous look and slow movements evoked an immediate and timeless empathy. Breadwoman gathered in some long loaves of bread from the floor before her, and using these as canes, slowly rose to her feet. All of her movements were slow and deliberate as if the weight of a thousand past generations were weighing down on her old body. The choreography, pace and drama of Breadwoman’s movements corresponded perfectly with the music and electronics; even as she was buried in the costuming and makeup, Ms. Gingery couldn’t have been more convincing. Fittingly, Jorge Martin’s analog synthesizers seemed to be closely following Moshier’s original tracks.
More evocative music followed. In one segment, Breadwoman took up what looked to be two large cups and seemed to be splashing the contents on the ground, perhaps in a rite of fertility. The electronic beat was solid and the singing of Ms. Homler was like that of a mystical incantation. Breadwoman later lifted two large rattles and shook them while turning slowly around. It was as if we were witnessing some age-old ritual with Breadwoman as a venerable high priestess.
In another segment deep tones coming from the electronics were accompanied by the sounds of a forest at night. Crickets, frogs and larger, more ominous critters seemingly lurked in the darkness while Breadwoman remained passively seated. Heavy breathing was heard, with indistinct voices and the sounds of running water. Ms. Homler took up various items of found percussion and the clicking, grinding and growling sounds added to the sense of predatory danger. Breadwoman remained stoically seated, making only a few slow movements, as if resigned to the organic dangers of primal life.
The final segment was brighter in tone, the sound of some small bells dispelled the ambient tension and a low drone in the electronics was accompanied by Ms. Homler with a chant. This was taken up by voices in the electronics as Breadwoman rose and faced skyward. The feeling was communal and mystical, as if we were present at the dawn of human spirituality. A low drone in the electronics added a sense of importance to the proceedings as Breadwoman raised a long loaf of bread upward as if acknowledging a higher power. The chanting vocals faded to silence with Breadwoman standing in motionless reverence as the performance came to a conclusion.
The loud and long applause that followed was intended the performers, of course, but also for the artistic concept of Breadwoman as a tangible representation of our distant human past.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Parks.
Kronos Quartet, with Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant
From its earliest recordings, which included transcriptions of jazz, Kronos Quartet has cast their net wide. The group’s repertoire encompasses music from the world over and from numerous composers in a variety of styles. To remind myself of Kronos’ earlier days, I put on their “Landmark Sessions” recordings of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. And what a reminder it was, pointing up the fluid nature of the quartet’s ability to shift tone and rhythmic feel to accommodate nearly whatever they approach.
On Folk Songs, their latest CD for Nonesuch, Kronos are joined by an all-star cast of vocalists – Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant – in a collection of American folksongs from various traditions. The arrangements – skilfully wrought by Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher – deploy the skills sets of the guests, including instrumental contributions, Amidon’s guitar and Chaney’s harmonium and percussion, to good effect. The aforementioned fluidity of the quartet affects the way that they serve as collaborators in the various selections. Amidon’s neo-folk adoption of Appalachia is well-served by fiddle tune melodies and straight tone chords. Merchant’s soulful voice is matched by chocolatey timbres and poignant phrasing. Frequent Kronos collaborator Dennehy’s contribution, an arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Ramblin’ Boy,” is an ideal vehicle for the supple singing and exuberant playing of Chaney. An arrangement by Garchik of Delta Blues vocalist Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” is a suave and winning instrumental interlude. Giddens is a marvel, her beautiful singing winsomely swinging in two originals inspired by traditional blues: “Factory Girl” and “Lullaby.” While Kronos is currently busy with a multi-year commissioning project (titled “Fifty for the Future”), such thoughtful music-making in an entirely different vein is most welcome.
New Focus Recordings CD/DL
New Focus Recordings CD/DL
Cellist Mariel Roberts’ second solo album, Cartography, provides a stylistically diverse set of pieces that are all played compellingly and with earnest commitment. Eric Wubbels’ ‘gretchen am spinnrade’ has little to do with Schubert apart from taking the spinning wheel as its motivation. Indeed, spinning gestures abound, but they are hyperkinetic in terms of speed and demeanor (Wubbels plays the piano with almost daemonic fury). Roberts is required to retune her cello, employ microtones, and scratch strings with her fingernails. The propulsive sections are on the edge of assaultive, and when the piece takes a breather and moves into more atmospheric territory, the listener may well realize that their shoulders are around their ears. That said, it is a most impressive work, from the standpoint of virtuosity and extended techniques and in the dynamic interplay between the performers.
Cenk Ergun’s Aman is quite different. It relies first on percussive effects, with clocklike pizzicatos moving from higher register to low open strings. Grating string sounds are set against electronics, some of which take on an old-school analog cast while others play off the percussive sounds in the cello. Again, pacing is key. Where Wubbels seemed eager to take listeners to the edge, Ergun places his sounds carefully and purposefully, allowing each one to settle before the next follows, creating a fascinating blend of acoustic and electric sounds. The long denouement, where Roberts finally gets to play some bowed sounds, replete with microtonal haze and delicious slides, is a welcome surprise.
Spinner, by George Lewis, begins emphatically, with double stop glissandos, tremolandos, and slashing gestures. Despite its modernist demeanor, it is actually the most conventionally scored piece on Cartography. While the elements are ones that appear in plenty of contemporary repertoire, without electronics or fingernail scratches to adorn them, Lewis incorporates this vocabulary into a spiraling form (hence the title) that allows for discontinuous development; it is a fascinating compositional design. Indeed, ‘spinner’ is my favorite work thus far of his in the concert tradition.
There are relatively few notes in Daneil Brynjar Franzen’s The Cartography of Time, a sprawling amplified work more than twenty minutes in duration. But each note is wrung of every bit of resonance, making it seem to truly matter. Against the pitches is an exaggerated whoosh of unpitched string sound, providing a rustling and airy background. Partway through, the piece abandons lower notes for high harmonics, which reverberate intensely. Then the two are combined to great a ghostly duet. Then still another, yet higher, set of harmonics enter, making a registral trio. The slow fade that ensues is one to savor.
Roberts thus treats us to a program in which there are works that use material sparingly and those that exude abundance. Cartography is an engaging listen from start to finish. One might ask how she can top it, but then her first album, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds, engendered similar questions, so watch out for what Roberts has yet in store for us!
Pianist R. Andrew Lee has released a new EP on Irritable Hedgehog. It is a recording of composer/improviser Ryan Oldham’s Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches). The hexachord in question is presented in slow-paced fashion, appearing throughout the keyboard in configurations of varying densities. There certainly are links between Oldham and the Wandelweiser Collective and Morton Feldman in terms of the slow unfolding and deft touch with which material is deployed. One also might infer nods to both Linda Catlin Smith and Tom Johnson, the first in terms of a willingness to allow the proceedings simultaneously to drift and grid to an underlying pulse; the second via the process-based treatment of pitch and spacing. Inner Monologues is both an impressive and beguiling work.
As is so often the case, Lee is a dedicated advocate and compelling performer, cannily exploiting the resonance of the instrument, never pushing the proceedings but instead trusting the piano’s decay to be a guidepost, and exhorting the listener to live in the space of that decay far longer than is customary. When I recently heard Lee’s performance of a piece by Jürg Frey at New Music Gathering 2017 in Bowling Green, Ohio, he demonstrated a similar patient intensity that is perfectly suited to experimental and post-minimal repertoire. See and hear him in person when you can. But in the meantime, let his Irritable Hedgehog releases be a valuable stand-in for the live experience.
Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All
On Beauty Will be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All, composer/pianist Anthony Pateras and composer/sound artist Jérôme Noetinger join forces to create an hourlong work for Synergy Percussion and improvised electronics. Its conceit is a clever one: the piece is of similar scope to Iannis Xenakis’ work Pleïades and utilizes a similarly gargantuan battery of percussion instruments, over 100, notably Xenakis’ 17-pitch microtonal metallophones, the Sixxen. These are used to particularly fine effect in the accumulating washes of sound in the piece’s first movement.
Pateras’s notated music and Noetinger’s electronics blend well together, with an emphasis on merging their respective sonic terrains rather than juxtaposing them. Along with many textural diversions, the percussion combines pulse-driven mixed meter passages with polymetric sections of considerable complexity. Noetinger finds his way inside this space admirably, teasing out contrasting rhythmic figures of his own and adding layered textures with refreshing subtlety. That said, his electronics cadenza in movement four is a standout. Haloed in a soft-mallet gong roll, he employs static to mirror the hypercomplex rhythms found in the previous movement’s percussion parts. Added to this is a duet of sustained high pitches, whose call and response fleshes out the frequency spectrum. Drum rolls return, piano this time, to reassert the place of unpitched percussion in the proceedings.Synergy performs with dedication to the subtlest details of Pateras’s score and with responsive attention to Noetinger’s contributions as well. Thus, the recording is a truly successful amalgam of notated and spontaneous music-making.
On Saturday, June 3, 2017 Music@Boston Court hosted Broken Rivers, a concert of piano trio music presented by the composer collective Synchromy. Pianist Vicki Ray, Cellist Timothy Loo and Alyssa Park on violin performed no less than eight pieces, including three premiers. Also featured were compositions selected from a call for scores that drew over 240 respondents. Narration for several of the pieces was provided by actor Ray Ford. Only a few vacant seats remained in the Branson performance space with the audience looking forward to a full program.
The first piece was the premiere of a new version of Broken River Variations by Nick Norton. This began with a strong flowing feel from repeating figures in the piano and cello. The violin entered with long sustained tones above but the overall sense was of an rapidly rushing river or stream. About midway through the pace diminished significantly, and the repeating figure in the piano was confined to the higher registers as if the river had become deeper and slower with just a few small ripples on the surface. The violin then took up the rapid figure while the cello and piano remained in the lower registers. The balance of sounds coming from the trio was admirably managed in both the score and the playing. Broken River Variations artfully captures the character of a river in different places, and so eloquent was the music that this piece could well have been extended to describe still more of the river’s course.
Tarantella Carbine, by Caroline Louise Miller followed, a piece for solo cello and electronics. This began with a series of chirps and other anxious tones emanating from the speaker, answered by cellist Timothy Loo with a series of squeals and trills. Further tension was added by the electronics from a string of ominous beeps and the cello responded with a flurry of strong passages that brought to mind the vivid expressionism of the early 20th century. The mood turned darker still from a run of deep pizzicato notes and then a sequence of low solemn tones in the cello. More scratching and scraping sounds in the electronics provided a good contrast here, enhancing the sense of anxiety. Tarantella Carbine is complex and difficult cello piece that fittingly captures our present angst, and a challenging one for both the performer and the listener.
The west coast premiere of fold by fold, by Michael Gilbertson followed, and this was one of the pieces selected from the Synchromy call for scores. Narrator Ray Ford explained that Gilbertson’s inspiration for writing this piece came from a painting by an acquaintance – who had subsequently died of bone cancer at a young age. Accordingly, fold by fold opened with slow, solemn chords in the strings and single notes or short chords in the higher registers of the piano. The feeling was introspective and sad, but never melancholy. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies in the strings were heard, joined by the piano in an engaging counterpoint. Later, an active, repeating figure appeared in the violin and this was matched against sustained tones in the cello below. The flow and texture of this piece were impressively scored and played – the sound often seemed bigger than just a trio. fold by fold came to a quiet finish, a fitting musical tribute to a friendship ended too soon.
East Broadway, by Julia Wolfe was next, and for this Vicki Ray returned to the piano accompanied by only a boom box which began the piece by issuing a series of steadily repeating rhythms that sounded distantly mechanical. The piano joined in with a fluidly recurring melody in the higher registers that added a bit of humanity to the mechanized feel from the electronics. The pace of all this was frenetically fast, and brilliantly captured the lively wit and free form spectacle of the New York street scene. Ms. Ray kept up with all of it, and East Broadway lurched to an appropriately fitful conclusion amid much applause.
Wake the Dead by Dante De Silva followed, and this was preceded by a narrative reading from Ray Ford about death and burial, setting a pertinent tone. Wake the Dead began with several deliberately sharp chords in the strings, separated by silence. This was heard again, a bit faster, as the piano entered with an active repeating figure, adding to a purposeful feel. The strings soon joined in this, interweaving layers of busy notes in a complex tapestry. As the piece continued, this compound texture gave way to dark, deep tones in the piano which combined with pizzicato figures in the strings to create a more subdued and mysterious feel. A change back to the shifting syncopated passages and a lively rhythm highlighted the precise playing of the trio and the evocative quality of the score. At just this point, however, the tempo slowed dramatically, and some lovely sustained harmonies were heard in the strings along with a simple counterpoint in the piano. The feeling was peaceful and serene, like a sleepy lullaby, as the piece glided to a quiet close. Wake the Dead is beautifully written and this was a warmly performed depiction of what will always remain unknown.
Following an intermission, gone into night are all the eyes by Thomas Kotcheff was performed by the piano trio in three movements. This opened with a bit of poetry read by Ray Ford, accompanied by quiet passages in the cello. As the poem ended, pizzicato in the cello and sustained tones in the violin were accompanied by rapid piano figures ending in brisk trills. The cello and violin then took up a duet, with only scattered piano notes heard and this resulted in a somewhat remote and lonely feeling. More trills in the piano introduced some tension, but a strong melody in the strings evoked a sense of the lovely and the mystical as the first movement faded to a close.
The second movement was more complex and dynamic, with a quicker tempo and a purposeful feel. The ensemble playing here was accurate and precise given the busy syncopation and a doubled melody line in the strings; a nice contrast with the opening movement. Towards the finish, strong cello notes were answered by the violin as this movement faded to silence. The third movement was slower with a quiet harmony in the strings that suggested sadness. The piano then took up the somber melody as a solo in the lower registers with the violin and cello entering to create some beautiful harmony. More piano followed and then a violin solo and a stronger tutti section that felt darkly mournful. A slightly brighter feeling emerged from an ascending scale figure and this combined with more warm harmonies in the strings at the finish. gone into night are all the eyes is a beautiful work, well founded in its structure and strong emotional exposition.
Well-Spent, by Eve Beglarian was next and this was a solo violin piece accompanied by a recording of a violin from the speaker. Inspired by the notebook of Leonardo Da Vinci, for this piece Alyssa Park tuned her violin down half a step. Well-Spent began in a flurry of double-stopped notes from the violin amid a solid outpouring from the speakers. At times it seemed that the sound was coming from all directions and in all registers, like being caught in a swiftly flowing stream. As the piece progressed, a slower melody emerged in the recording that formed a cantus firmus around which Ms. Park wove a compelling counterpoint. More sounds boiled out from the speakers and the intricacy of the playing by Ms. Park was impressive. At the finish the melody from the recording began to slur downward in pitch, fading out at the close. Well-Spent is an intense experience in tuning and rhythm, adroitly played by Alyssa Park.
The final work on the program was the US premiere of the atrocity exhibition, by Anton Svetlichny, a composer based in Russia. This music was probably the most technically challenging piece selected from the call for scores, having meter markings of 10/16, 12/16, 6/16, 7/16 or 4/16 that alternated between measures, and a bright tempo based on rapid sixteenth note passages. Appropriately, Ray Ford began with a reading from J.G. Ballard’s poem of the same name. the atrocity exhibition then began with a sharp repeating piano figure and the strings responded with a needle-sharp, syncopated accompaniment. The notes were harsh and dissonant, producing an immediate sense of anxiety and stress. The piano managed to hold the ensemble in a tight rhythmic groove while the complex figures in the strings evoked a sense of disconnection with reality.
As the piece progressed, the cello takes up the repeating figure and the piano answers in counterpoint. A cello solo full of trills and glissandos follows that adds greatly to the disorienting feel. As the piece drew to a finish the repeating figure was taken up by the entire ensemble and the sense of frustration and futility was complete. The score required all the players to end end on the same pulse – a specification made all the more demanding given the rapid tempo and the changes in metering with almost every measure. This was accomplished with perfect precision, however, and the atrocity exhibition was received with a standing ovation and loud cheering.
Broken Rivers brought new and established pieces for the piano trio together in a single concert program that united cutting edge composition with musicians capable of exceptional technique. Another landmark event for new music in Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, May 30, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert titled Vicki Ray and Richard Valitutto present New Song. Every seat was filled in the cozy Koreatown performance space with an audience looking forward to an evening of contemporary art songs from some of the finest musicians and composers in Los Angeles.
Four Elemental Songs (2014), by Vicki Ray was first and this consisted of four short movements based loosely on the natural elements of air, fire, water and earth. Elissa Johnston was the vocalist, accompanied by the composer at the piano. Luftpause, the first movement, began with a light, airy strumming of the piano strings that was soon joined by Ms. Johnston singing in German to create an alluring, mystical feel. The simple piano gestures involved just a few conventional key strokes, and Ms. Ray often reached into the piano touching or plucking the strings to achieve additional effects. Luftpause ended on a quietly gentle note, in great contrast to the strident opening of the second movement, Fire Song. Rapid trills in the piano plus the shifting and changing phrasing recalled the dancing flames of a fire. Ms. Johnston’s strong singing heightened the drama, perfectly capturing the powerful text by Susan Stewart.
Siren Song followed, adapted from a poem by Margaret Atwood, and based on the familiar myth of mermaids luring sailors to a watery death by beautiful singing. Ms. Ray again reached into the piano, producing an unexpected series of notes that sounded more like a harp or guitar. In fact nowhere in this movement were conventional keystrokes heard and the unorthodox sounds nicely complimented the mysteriously beguiling vocals. Siren Song was masterfully realized but equaled in inventiveness by the last movement, Pritam Basat, which began with a thumping, percussive effect in the lower piano keys. The rolling, rhythmic character of the music felt south Asian, in keeping with the Sanskrit text “My beloved dwells in the cave of my heart.” As the piano grooved along, forceful vocal passages arced overhead to provide a strong finish. Four Elemental Songs is a remarkable combination of extended piano techniques and solid singing that brings a fresh perspective to the venerable art song form.
The west coast premiere of kennen schon nicht mehr (2017), by Nicholas Deyoe followed and for this soprano Justine Aronson joined piano accompanist Richard Valitutto on the stage. Written for the performers and based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, kennen schon nicht mehr began with a simple descending scale in the piano, followed several quiet chords. This was soon supplemented with a bit of dissonance and a series of dark, thick chords that created a faint sense of the ominous. The vocal entrance by Ms. Aronson was deliberate, but subdued, matching the pensive tone of the text: “We don’t know what we spend: All that’s named is past and each being Invents itself at the last second And will hear nothing.” The words were sung in German, and this added to the expressive feeling as the piece proceeded along its somber path. About midway through a series of solemn piano chords in the lower register rang out like church bells, further darkening the mood, while sustained tones in the voice soared overhead with a beautiful combination of strength and fluidity.
As the piece concluded, the church bell tones returned, but with a more hopeful feel from a masterful adjustment to the original chords. “Now we wake up with our memory And fix our gazes on that which was: Whispering sweetness, which once coursed through us. Sits silently beside us with loosened hair.” kennen schon nicht mehr is ideally matched to the sentiment of the text, and to the formidable talents of the performers for whom it was written. Every nuance of language and music was expertly portrayed in this highly evocative work.
FAQs (2014) by Evan Ziporyn was next, and this world premiere was performed by Vicki Ray and tenor vocalist Timur. FAQs is a lighthearted look at the Frequently Asked Questions section of crowd-source funding websites, with their typical phrases such as “How does it work?” or “Where does my money go?” comprising the text. This begins with an active line of rapid piano notes filling the air with a busy and somewhat unfocused feel. The vocal line “How does it work?” enters with earnest straightforwardness, and is then repeated, but the accompaniment continues noodling along as if oblivious to the question. This musical disconnect perfectly captures the often unsatisfactory nature of website information, even as Timur’s questioning voice becomes more dramatic and insistent. Further questions follow: “Is this secure?” comes deliciously close to that unnerving uncertainty we have all experienced when shopping on-line. “Where does my money go?” provoked a chuckle from the audience from it’s obvious double meaning. FAQs is a skillfully balanced mixture of whimsically ardent piano playing and contrived operatic melodrama, all lightened by just the right amount of wit.
Two pieces by Ted Hearne followed. The first piece, I am Sick of Feeling (2017), is based on the poem Jakob by Dorothea Lasky and performed by Richard Valitutto with Justine Aronson. A series of simple repeating chords opens this, while the voice enters with evenly sung words and regular tones that completely drain all the energy from the text: “I am sick of feeling. I never eat or sleep.” A sense of heartbreak and emotional numbness filled this piece as it progressed, and although never boring, was appropriately featureless and flat in the articulation by both Valitutto and Aronson. Only a slight uplift in feeling was detected as this piece came to its quiet close. The heartache and sadness so strongly manifested in the text of I am Sick of Feeling was quietly realized in both the music and the performance.
For the second piece, Everyone Keeps Me, Vicki Ray took her place at the piano and the composer sang the baritone vocals. Based on a poem of the same name, again by Dorothea Lansky, Everyone Keeps Me is upbeat and expressive with lines like “And everyone keeps me from my genius Because genius is not human.” Hearne’s smooth singing and the strong accompaniment combined in this accessible and slightly bluesy piece that moved nicely along with an amiable groove. Everyone Keeps Me was ably performed and had all the energy and charm of a popular song – but without over-simplification or excess.
After an intermission, the balance of the concert program was given over to the daunting Got Lost (2007-8) by Helmut Lachenmann. Soprano Stephanie Aston and Richard Valitutto took the stage with the advantage of having performed this piece previously in 2015. The opening minutes are filled clicks, hissing, whooshes and other breathy sounds from the voice – ably expressed by Ms. Aston – with soft piano notes underneath. After several minutes, some humming, and a bit of whistling, marked the first musical sounds in the voice while Valitutto was kept busy employing a number of extended techniques inside the piano. Strings were strummed or plucked by hand as well as stopped, adding a significant percussive element to the texture. As the piece continued, the singing was at times very powerful, and Ms. Aston occasionally turned and issued a strong fortissimo note directed into the piano, activating the strings in sympathetic vibration. The close confines of Monk Space made these gestures especially effective, and the ghostly echoes were easily heard well out into the audience.
As Got Lost progressed, the singing became more musical and and the piano passages more complex and agitated. The dynamic control and strength of Ms. Aston’s voice was especially impressive given the wide variety of sounds and tones required. The piano playing was no less remarkable and with the various percussive elements in the score it often seemed as if Valitutto was playing two different instruments on the stage. The performers were both reading from the full score – and did not seem to need visual communication – yet successfully navigated the many layers and interweaving passages. As the piece built up to its conclusion, the tension and anxiety increased, with crashing tone clusters and a series of strong sustained notes in the voice at the finish. Got Lost requires a strong virtuoso effort on the part of both performers who did not disappoint, and their efforts were received with extended applause.
Based on the attendance and response to this concert, contemporary art song would appear to be thriving in Los Angeles.
On Saturday, May 27, 2017 Betalevel was the venue for a concert of experimental music, spoken text and radio sounds as created and performed by Scott Cazan, Pauline Gloss and Casey Anderson. A nice crowd ventured into the colorful subterranean performance space on a quiet holiday evening in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.
The first piece on the program was Grammar, by Scott Cazan, who presided over a computer table filled with cables leading to mixers and speakers. A section of the floor in front was filled with symbols and letters chalked onto the cement prior to the start of the performance. These markings acted as the score and represented the computer keystrokes to be applied as the piece progressed. Grammar began with a steady rhythmic beat, followed by a series of continuing trills in something like a marimba, all of which established a nice groove. After a few moments, a short burst of white noise was heard and this recurred on intervals of a few seconds. A deep bass tone entered, sforzando, and this was heard again after a somewhat longer interval. The result was to establish a congenial and layered texture, propelled along by the various recurring elements.
About a third of the way through a soft hissing was heard, increasing in volume until it obscured all but the low growls in the sforzando bass. The regular rhythmic elements became overwhelmed – leaving the listener without that reassuring reference – and the hissing sound became more menacing, like the scream of an out-of-control steam vent. A high metallic screeching was added to the mix, and the intensity increased to something approaching the sound of a dentist drill. The confined spaces of Betalevel amplified the piercing sounds – almost to the threshold of pain – but at just that point the squealing subsided and then ceased, allowing the bass tones and then the percussion to reappear. The original elements from the beginning reasserted themselves, restoring order, and slowly faded out in a peaceful ending. Grammar is an artful mix of the reassuringly familiar and the totally terrifying, with both possibilities hanging in the balance – a metaphor for these uncertain times.
Pauline Gloss was next with three text/sound works, First Piano Lesson, Trauma Response and An Integration, presented serially and without pause. This began with First Piano Lesson, a recording of a spoken piece, played through the speaker system. The stream of words first came singly, and then were repeated in various combinations and permutations; each phrase a clue that added to the total picture. The speech was processed through self-oscillating band-pass filters and this gave the text a thin aura of musical tones. As described on the sonospace.org website: “First Piano Lesson is a compressed coming of age story produced from accreted and recombinant language. The majority of the piece is built out of the materials of one 8 word sentence, whose purpose is to act as a sort of DNA of boyhood, both in terms of its syntax and language material. As the language repeats and is recombined, a story emerges.” This technique is surprisingly effective – the listener concentrates, parsing out the information embedded in the stream of words, while at the same time responding to the tone coloring and shape of the recited text.
About halfway through, the recording ceased and Trauma Response began, delivered live by the composer from the stage. The same process was employed – minus the acoustic filtering – and now the spoken words had a more immediate and intimate feel. The contour of the phrases depended more on the shape and sound of the words, and the patterns were assembled to convey different weights and textures. At times, even individual words were broken down into syllables and used in the stream of text. All of this was confidently delivered by Gloss, who had to contend with low lighting and the random patterns of the words and phrases in the score.
The second half of First Piano Lesson then resumed and the recorded words seemed even more rounded and softened by the filtering in contrast to the live speech. An Integration completed the set, spoken from the microphone, and this was perhaps the most forthright piece. The contrasting sharpness and smoothness of the word combinations was more apparent, exerting a more pronounced influence in shaping the overall emotional feel. Strong declarative words, short hard words and phrases containing opposite meanings were most effective. Phrases such as “Is not” and Is so” when repeated together provide a powerful double message from both content and texture. Although created from simple materials, these text/sound works operate at the intersection of cognition and emotion, expanding the vocabulary of art into new territory.
The final work on the concert program was performed by Casey Anderson, stationed at an audio console equipped with a PC, a 1 minute tape loop, amplifiers and an AM/FM portable radio. This piece was untitled, but Anderson’s compositions invariably involve broadcast radio and the process employed here was very straightforward: tune the radios until something is heard, let this play for a few seconds, and move the tuning again. Luckily the reception in Betalevel – deep under the streets and alleys of Chinatown – was adequate, and a variety of sounds were heard and looped as the piece proceeded. Sometimes a station came in clearly and intelligibly, bringing the usual commercials, sports or news. At other times, static was heard and because this counted as a sound, it was included in the sequence. Occasionally there were random squeals and chirps, and this added something of a musical dimension. The rapidly changing sequence of sounds challenge the listener to engage cognitively or emotionally, depending on the type of signal received.
Both AM and FM stations were heard, in all their many varieties. Faint stations, as well as those in a foreign language, prompted more intense concentration as the listener tries to put the newly received sounds into some sort of context. Stations clearly heard triggered emotions that depended on the content: casual interest for sports or news or perhaps disdain for some all-too-familiar commercial. As the various stations and static washed out over the audience, the brain was kept busy reacting emotionally or sifting for context. The individual listener responds to each stimulus, and this ultimately becomes an enlightening exercise in self reflection.
More experimental music will be featured in the coming Dogstar Orchestra series of concerts, running June 3, through June 17, 2017 at various locations throughout Los Angeles.
The indefatigable Marvin Rosen is marking 20 years of broadcasting his indispensable radio program “Classical Discoveries” on WPRP in Princeton, New Jersey (and on the web) and to celebrate the occasion he is doing two special programs this week; one, tomorrow, May 29 from 5:00 till 11:00am and another broadcast on Wednesday, May 31, from 5:00 till 11:00am. Marvin’s two main interests in music are old music–Baroque and before–and new music–composers who are still breathing or still modestly still warm in their graves. He was probably the first person with a radio show to begin championing the music of living composers and certainly the only one to have survived for two decades. He even beat us (Sequenza21) by a couple of years.
Marvin became seriously interested in classical music in 1966. There was always great music playing in his home, he says, and after relatives took him to Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” in New York City, he was hooked.
“That was probably the greatest inspiration for me and my love of serious music. There has ever been a better or more inspirational classical music teacher. I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone quite like him I again. I feel very blessed to have grown during that time.” (Ed: I must confess I trace my love of classical music to the same source although my exposure to those concerts was entirely through television.)
Marvin went on to acquire a doctorate in music education from Columbia University and become a full-time music educator with the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton. He was managing the record department at Princeton University’s store in 1997 when he got a chance to fulfill his childhood dream of being a disk jockey after a volunteer position opened up at WPRB.
“I still have my first playlist,” Marvin says. “It is handwritten, since we didn’t go online until 2001. There were works by Bach, Mozart, and Scarlatti on that program, there were also works by Philip Glass, Richard Yardumian, and even Lennon-McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.”
Hundreds of playlists later, Marvin is still as enthusiastic as he was on day one. Even the prospect of getting out of bed at 3am on a snowy day in Princeton cannot discourage him from making his appointed rounds. He is ably abetted in this passion by his wife Beata Rzeszodko-Rosen who acts as kind of volunteer co-producer, archivist, webmaster, marketing consultant and cheerleader. (She gets up, too.)
Among the folks whose music you’ll hear this week are Antonio Caldara, George Crumb, Daniel Dorff, Ross Edwards, Eriks Esenvalds, Joep Franssens, Vladimir Godar, Galina Grigorjeva, Amanda Harberg, Jennifer Higdon, Gao Hong, Alan Hovhaness, Haji Khanmammadov, Wojciech Kilar, Vladimir Martynov, Claudio Monteverdi, Robert Moran, Victoria Poleva, Jaan Raats, Arnold Rosner, Andrew Rudin, Terje Rypdal, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, Alex Shapiro, and others.
On behalf of the Sequenza21 gang, past and present, we send many congratulations and much love. Thank you for being such an important part of the now thriving new music community and for showcasing the work of so many talented people. On a personal note, thank you for turning me on to the music of Alan Hovhaness. The world needs more people who do what they and love what they do. You’re a mensch.
The Spectral Piano
From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age
By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt
Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)
By Christian Carey
Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.
Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.
As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.
In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.
On Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, directed by Louis Karchin along with conductor David Fulmer, will present a program of works by Arvo Pärt, Fred Lerdahl, Lisa Bielawa, and Sheree Clement (a new piece commissioned by League of Composers/ISCM) at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Tickets are $25/$15 for students/seniors
Below is my program note for the concert, which should supply some background in advance of the concert.
Program note: Season Finale: Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM
By Christian Carey
One of the fundamental ways in which the League of Composers fulfills its mission is by programming a diverse selection of music. As with past “season finale” concerts given by the League’s orchestra, tonight’s program encompasses works from the United States and abroad in a variety of styles. Commissioning and highlighting new work is a particular focus; the concert includes a world premiere (written by Sheree Clement and commissioned by the League).
The concert begins with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s important first forays into the tintinnabuli style for which he has become best known. The composer’s style has often been described as minimalism (“holy minimalism” by opportunistic broadcasters and less-than-kind critics), but this strand of repetition-based composition is quite different from American varieties. Rather than being based primarily on unfolding repetitive processes, like the approach taken early on in music by Glass and Reich, or being based on the omnipresent ostinatos of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, Pärt’s approach is based on melodic formulations: canon and monodic stepwise melodies set against bell-like triadic sonorities. While the materials themselves are simple, they are variously combined in an accumulation of gestures that is anything but.
Whereas Pärt’s piece doesn’t include a single accidental, Sheree Clement’s Stories I Cannot Tell You, revels in a labyrinthine chromaticism. There is also significant attention paid to timbre: a panoply of orchestral combinations and colors supply this work with still more intricacy and mystery. The portentous quality of repeated notes from a bass drum delineates and unifies the piece’s three connected movements. While the composer avows that Stories is not specifically programmatic, her program note is filled with visceral images and powerful emotions – which are equaled by the music’s expressionist quality – descended from Schoenberg yet firmly on 21st century footing.
Originally composed for American Composers’ Orchestra and the pianist Anton Armstrong (who also performs the work on this program), Lisa Bielawa’s Start is the last section of The Right Weather, a four-part work whose movement titles derive from the key words of a quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Roam, Wait, Beckon, Start. It is not a minimal work per se, although it shares some features with minimalist compositions. Start uses the aforementioned trope of American minimalism – the ostinato – as the motor in a variegated postmodern atmosphere. In addition to local ostinatos, there is an overarching repetitive process at work as well, a fascinating structural device that starts as a repeated single note in the slow section midway through the piece. Gradually, this “big beat” accumulates more and more pitches until it is a rearticulated chord and then – in one of the piece’s culminating gestures – an emphatically presented cluster. In a craftily enigmatic close, we are treated to an echo – a triad with a split third – presenting both major and minor in countervailing tension.
Fred Lerdahl supplies his own 21st century reset of a 20th century style; in this case, neoclassicism. Composed for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Time and Again is a lithely scored but powerfully articulate piece. Initially, this music was sketched for truly Spartan resources: as a duo for violin and cello called Give and Take. While there is an element of “theme and variations” here, the material isn’t exactly reiterated. Rather, continual transformations, particularly in the rhythmic domain, take place. Three large sections of development speed and slow the material in myriad ways, creating an unpredictable whorl of gestures. The coda builds a sustained unison to a cadence that is deflected by one final, puckish flourish.
Composer Christian Carey is an Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He edits the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (christianbarey.com).
Geoff Nuttall is looking for a few good rocks. One for each hand of 60 random patrons who show up at Charleston’s Dock Street Theater this Friday at 11 am or 1 pm for the first 2017 concert of Spoleto Festival USA’s immensely popular Bank of America Chamber Music Series. The rocks will be there for a piece called Trans for Percussion Solo and Audience, written by composer Lei Liang. The percussion solo will be performed by the legendary percussionist Steven Schick; the audience part will be performed by the 60 patrons who have been armed with rocks. The same program opens with Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor and closes with Glinka’s Divertimento Brilliante from themes from Bellini’s La sonnambula, with another modern piece by this year’s composer-in-residence Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, sandwiched in between.
“I am not really that thematic in approach to programming,” Nuttall says. “You want the individual pieces to work together but you also want each of them to be distinctive and stand out on their own.” He favors, what the architect Robert Venturi, once described as “a messy vitality over obvious unity.”
Nuttall is a consummate showman who has shown up just about every year with a different hair style—ranging from wavy to spiky to blond, Marcello Mastroionni to Gomer Pyle in length. Audiences love it.
But, don’t be fooled, the Spoleto chamber music schedule is a demanding one. Eleven programs, each played three times, over a 16-day period. “Not for the faint of heart,” Nuttall says.
The opening program is a typical day at the office for the always surprising Nuttall, first violinist and co-founder of the improbably still-cool-after-28-years St. Lawrence String Quartet, lecturer and Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, and Artistic Director of the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series, a post he inherited in 2009 from–and with the blessing of–the venerable pianist Charles Wadsworth, who guided the program for three decades (not to mention his leadership of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for many years.)
It was an inspired choice. Nuttall is one of those rare people who can explain complex music in a way that is engaging, entertaining and often downright funny. The New York Times labeled him the “John Stewart of classical music”, in fact, his comedic style is closer to that of Charleston native Stephen Colbert.
Born in College Park, Texas, Nuttall’s family soon moved to London, Ontario, Canada where he spent a few happy years skating on ponds and playing hockey until someone discovered he had violin talent and packed him off–at the age eight, while he still had his fingers and teeth–to Lorand Fenyves at The Banff Centre. He went on to the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto, where he received his bachelor of arts.
Among the guest artists, Nuttall has scheduled this year are percussionist Steven Schick, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, pianists Pedja Muzijevic and Stephen Prutsman composer/cellist Joshua Roman, Swiss-born pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and the Rolston String Quartet, a young Canadian ensemble that won the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition—an award won by the St. Lawrence many years ago.
Nuttall admits his programming choices are often influenced by the guest musicians who he chooses to perform.
“I’ve wanted to feature a percussionist for awhile now and when Steve Schick, who is one of my favorite musicians, agreed to do it, I started looking for pieces that would work. But the repertory for percussion is so specific, there’s only so much to pick from. And because it is so specific there has to be a certain balance in the rest of the concert. That’s why I chose the Iannis Xenakis contemporary solo percussion piece “Rebonds” for the first concert—to really showcase Steve’s outstanding musicianship. But then it’s balanced out with Vivaldi.”
Another modern piece on the program this year was written specifically for Schick by composer Gustavo Aguilar and is called Wendell’s History for Steve: Part I. It’s a solo work in which Schick improvises on various percussion instruments while reciting poems by the cow patty poet Wendell Berry.
There’s lots of Vivaldi on the program this year which require the talents of counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo but also provides an occasion for what looks to be an entertaining bit of fun. On June 10 and 11, Costanzo will sing “Crying,” a song written and famously performed the counter tenor Roy Orbison.
“I learned that Roy’s widow had once asked Anthony to perform it at a benefit and I said ‘We’ve got to do that.” Steve Prutzman put together a dynamite arrangement and it’s going to be great.”
That’s the kind of surprising programming that has made the Chamber Music Series the most consistently popular and enduring element of Spoleto Festival USA.
“I am amazed at the dedication of Charleston chamber music fans,” Nuttall says. “The Dock Theater seats about 450 people. We perform to 33 different audiences during the Festival and there is rarely an empty seat during any of the concerts. I don’t know any other city in the world—big cities included—where that would happen.”
Populist Records CD PR012
Jeremy Kerner, electric guitar; Isaura String Quartet; Corral, music box and laptop
LA-based Populist Records has released another treasure trove of unusual ambience. Daniel Corral’s Refractions, featuring the composer on music box laptop alongside electric guitarist Jeremy Kerner and the Isaura String Quartet, captures a compelling ambient composition. Delicate strains from guitar and strings are offset by bell-like interjections from Corral’s music box and swaths of sustained sounds from his laptop. The piece begins with all of these various textures and gradually is winnowed down to the music box, supplying minimal punctuations and offset repetitions in a slow ritardando until the piece’s delicate denouement and eventual close. Given the deliberate limitation of resources and lassitude of pacing, this slowly evolving piece of music is spellbinding in its execution. Rather than foregrounding the incremental shifts of material, the listener is encouraged to bask in a wash of sounds, varied and lovely timbres that are deployed with enough independence to seem to have minds of their own.
On May 6, 2017 Populist Records presented a CD release concert at Automata in Los Angeles featuring Refractions, a new album by Daniel Corral. The Koan String Quartet and guitarist Jeremy Kerner joined Corral playing music box and laptop to perform the entire album. A full house was in attendance on a chilly but otherwise quiet Saturday night in Chinatown.
The evening began with two improvisational duos in the Persian tradition by Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori who arrived with violins and a recorded drone. The first of these duos began softly with sustained tones in the violin against the calming drone. The second violin entered in counterpoint, and this added to an exotic – but never alien – overall feel. The violins traded off between the sustaining melody and active counterpoint and at length, smoothly beautiful vocals by Baranghoori filled the room. The program notes explained that “The singing will be a poem in Farsi and will be decided upon in the moment – the development of the piece and the mood will dictate the poem.” Although the tones resembled our European major mode the “intonation is different than the even-tempered major scale.” In any event, the result was astonishingly expressive. There was a mournfully stoic and nostalgic wistfulness in the singing that seemed to draw from several thousand years of Persian history – perhaps the cultural memory of some great loss. That both music and poetry were improvised on the spot was all the more impressive given its beguiling effect: this was clearly the product of a very long and sophisticated tradition.
The second improvisation was built around the same recorded drone and was similar in form, but somewhat darker and more dramatic in tone. The string passages were busier and contained a bit of uncertainty while the vocals felt more plaintive and yearning. All of this simply increased the already high level of expression heard throughout this music, adding to the remarkable artistry.
After a short intermission the balance of the evening was given over to a complete performance of Refractions, the new CD by Daniel Corral. The Koan Quartet took their places along with Jeremy Kerner on electric guitar and Corral on music box and laptop. Refractions began with quiet plinking by the music box and soft, wispy sounds from the Koan Quartet as the players moved their bows lightly over the strings, barely intoning the high pitches. There was a nostalgic, wistful feeling to this as the notes from the music box approximated something like a lullaby. This placid feeling was extended by the gentle tones now coming from the strings.
As the piece progressed the passages became shorter and stronger, but somewhat less connected. Pizzicato figures and the guitar added to a more complex texture – and the music box contributed a series of short trills – but the leisurely pace and generally soft dynamics maintained the overall sense of mystical serenity. The electronics morphed into a quiet rattle and eventually the string players joined in, softly rapping and knocking on their instruments. When the arco harmonies occurred, they were especially lovely in contrast. The increasingly sharp percussive effects – and the more disconnected character of the piece by the 35 minute mark – seemed to suggest some contention between the electronics and the strings. Towards the end however, the music box returned to prominence with its lullaby and the soothing chords now heard in the strings restored order at the finish.
The acoustics of the small Automata space seemed to work in favor of this very subdued music. The Isaura String Quartet performed on the CD, and this is more intimate yet – Refractions is clearly the kind of work that benefits from precise mastering in the studio. The live performance, however, did not suffer in any way and the playing throughout was precise and controlled. The cool ambient tranquility of Refractions is a much needed antidote to the raucous confusion that infests our daily lives; this music works to elegantly recharge us in a moment of restorative calm.
Refractions is available directly from Populist Records, in physical CD format or digital download.
The Koan Quartet is:
Eric K.M. Clark, violin
Orin Hidestad, violin
Cassia Streb, viola
Jennifer Bewerse, cello
On Friday, May 5, 2017 wasteLAnd convened at Art Share in downtown Los Angeles for a concert titled Matter/Moving, featuring works by James Tenney, Catherine Lamb, Erik Ulman and Michael Pisaro. A good-sized Cinco de Mayo crowd filled the space to hear performances by Scott Worthington, Matt Barbier and Scott Cazan in a concert characterized by unusual subtlety and sensitivity.
The first piece was Beast, by James Tenney and featured Scott Worthington on double bass. This opened with a series of low, sustained tones – a generally warm droning texture, but with some rough edges. The sound was more or less continuous with no pulse, save for the slight pause during the bowing. The double-stopped chords often changed slightly as they were played – when a tone went up slightly in pitch, there was an added element of tension or uncertainty. When one of the tones went down in pitch, the feeling was often more introspective and profound. The tones were sometimes very close in pitch, but not exactly, and this created something of an unsettled feeling. When the tones fell into a familiar harmonic relationship there was a sense of settled well-being. Beast continued in this way – a series of sustained chords where slight changes in pitch provided the harmonic propulsion for the passage. Although these changes were often slight and subtle, the pleasantly deep register of the double bass kept the listener engaged throughout. One could easily imagine a great beast, sighing and lightly snoring while curled up in a deep slumber. Beast is quintessential James Tenney, played in this performance with quiet authority by Scott Worthington whose ear and technique were flawless.
Matter/Moving, by Catherine Lamb, followed and for this Scott Worthington re-tuned his double bass and was joined by Matt Barbier on trombone and Scott Cazan presiding over the electronics. Matter/Moving began with a thin, high tone from the bass that was matched in pitch by a sine tone from the electronics and followed by silence. This was repeated with the addition of a second note by the bass at the end of the passage. After another short silence, the bass and electronics were joined by Barbier’s muted trombone, with all three sounds very close in pitch.
Matter/Moving proceeded in this way, with the sequential sounding of all three tones and their subsequent interactions derived from slight variations in pitch. In some cases the three pitches were so close as to produce zero-beating. At other times they combined to produce a more comfortable harmonic configuration. The clean sine tone from the electronics seemed to remain steady while the other two instruments worked off of this to create the various harmonic colors. Sometimes the feelings produced were introspective and profound, while at other times more questioning and uncertain. Towards the finish the electronics began to dominate the texture and this produced a somewhat bleak and alien feel. The bass began to climb higher in pitch and this introduced a bit of tension as well, like arriving at an desolate landscape. The playing was precise, disciplined and controlled.
Like the Tenney piece, Matter/Moving has no definite pulse or rhythm. The dynamic of this piece is also subdued – barely reaching mezzo piano – but this allowed the listener to better focus on the interactions of the tones. With an economy of musical materials and its minimal structure and form, Matter/Moving is a surprisingly expressive exploration of the hidden vocabulary of similar pitches.
Following a short intermission Coronation of Sesostris, by wasteLAnd’s featured composer Erik Ulman, was performed by Matt Barbier on solo trombone. This began with a single, loud tone that tapered off over the course a few seconds. After a short silence another was heard at what sounded to be a step higher. This continued with each succeeding pitch, as if moving up a scale. The powerful intonations by Barbier rang out through the space and then slowly decayed with a noticeable loss of energy as it quietly trailed off. The initial feelings of strength and confidence of each note morphed uneasily into a contrasting tentativeness and uncertainty. As the piece proceeded, however, more complex and rapidly-played passages emerged with ever greater variation in tone color and dynamic. The higher and lower registers of the trombone were heard. There was power and there was delicacy. Mutes appeared and were changed with great dexterity. The piece now took on a regal and powerful character – in keeping with the kingly title – before returning to the original single-tone sequences as the piece concluded. Coronation of Sesostris is a vivid portrayal of the uncertainties and ambitions surrounding the assumption of power – and could also be a challenging audition piece for the virtuoso trombonist.
The final work of the evening was No key but a possible movement, by Michael Pisaro. Scott Worthington and his solo double bass returned to center stage, along with a computer and large speaker by way of accompaniment. The piece began with a short pizzicato passage of four notes in the bass followed by answering tones from the speaker. The pre-recorded electronic track was created from processed samples of Worthington’s bass and this blended seamlessly with the live playing. The call-and-response sequence continued, with the pitches between the bass and electronics often closely matched. Eventually Worthington and the recording began conversing in bowed passages and this added a bit of drama. The closely tuned pitches began to interact and there were times when the sustained sounds achieved a distinct zero-beating growl. The low rumbling tones increased to a powerfully swelling roar, almost like standing inside some great machine.
Towards the middle of the piece some quiet was restored and long, sustained tones from the bass and speaker came together into a sweetly sorrowful and beautifully expressive mixture. Nothing touches the feelings like the lower register of a double bass, and this was brilliantly realized in both the playing and recorded accompaniment. The warm, deep sounds filled the room and then gradually subsided. The speaker then began issuing a series of soft rushing sounds, introducing a new sense of motion and activity. This eventually grew to a roar, overwhelming the bass tones entirely before fading to a whisper. At this point Worthington began applying his bow to various unconventional parts of the double bass – the strings below the bridge, the wood of the bridge itself, the purfing and even the tuning pegs. All of this produced a soft, wispy sound, similar to the that heard from electronics just prior. When the bow was again applied to the strings of the double bass, it was with such a light touch that only a quiet scratching resulted. At length these sounds faded into silence, concluding this remarkably expressive work. No key but a possible movement is a masterful exploration of the profoundly moving depths attainable by a double bass in very skilled hands.
It was announced that Wolfgang von Schweinitz will be the featured wasteLAnd composer for the 2017-2018 season, beginning in the fall.
The final wasteLAnd concert of the current season, Air has no residence, will feature the playing of gnarwhallaby and will be given at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood on June 2, 2017.