On April 4, 2017, New York multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells celebrated the release of her new album "In the Hot" with a live solo performance at Le Poisson Rouge.
Since 1999, Wells has released ten full-length albums and collaborated with musicians including Questlove and film composer Clint Mansell. Much of her Wells' music is built around her violin, voice and percussion which she layers through loop pedals to create the effect of a one-woman minimalist chamber ensemble.
The evening focused largely on "In the Hot" but also included selections from "Mama" (2012), "Promise" (2016) and "The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties."
"Don’t Look Yet"
"In the Hot"
"Mama’s Gonna Give You Love"
"Put It Down On Me"
"Pack of Nobodies"
"In My Time Of Dyin’"
"What’s Better Than Understanding?"
"Don’t Use Me Up"
"Hymn for the New World"
Listen to the full performance at the top of this page, and check out the following interview with Wells and New Sounds host John Schaefer from February 2016 below:
Though under-recognized in his own time, the influence of composer, songwriter and cellist Arthur Russell has reached everyone from Talking Heads' frontman David Byrne to art-R&B artist Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) to fast-rising composer Missy Mazzoli, and it continues to grow. Russell would have celebrated his 66th birthday on May 21st, had he not died of AIDS in April, 1992.
Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa in 1951, Russell moved to San Francisco after high school and began studying Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. While in California, he met the poet Allen Ginsberg, and began accompanying the poet on cello during readings. The two would eventually live in the same apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Listen: "Ballad of the Lights" with Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Russell, recorded in 1977.
Russell moved to New York City and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music in 1973, but was discouraged by the confines and attitude of academia — as noted in the Village Voice, his teacher, the then-serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, declared Russell's open-ended composition City Park “the most unattractive thing I've ever heard.” Russell dropped out after guitarist-composer Rhys Chatham invited him to take over as the musical director of experimental music at the performance venue The Kitchen.
Russell became entrenched in the New Wave and Downtown classical scenes of New York, performing with members of The Talking Heads and Philip Glass Ensemble, briefly drumming for Laurie Anderson and frequenting artistic breeding grounds like CBGB and Max's Kansas City. He raised eyebrows when he programmed the Modern Lovers at The Kitchen, sending a signal that “pop” music could be held to the same artistic and experimental standards of the inclusive New York avant-garde.
Watch: David Byrne, Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg discuss the music and creativity of Arthur Russell.
In his own music, he also drew increasingly from the sounds of the downtown disco scene. He formed the funk-disco bands Dinosaur and, later, Loose Joint and co-founded Sleeping Bag Records, a dance and hip-hop label.
Listen: Arthur Russell's "24→24 Music," recorded live at The Kitchen in 1979, incorporates elements of funk, disco and classical minimalism.
In 1983, Philip Glass invited Russell to contribute incidental music to Robert Wilson's staging of Medea. His contribution was later replaced by music of Gavin Bryars, but Tower of Meaning was given a small pressing on Glass's private label.
Listen: Arthur Russell's 1983 "Tower of Meaning," composed for "Medea" and conducted here by Julius Eastman.
Russell only released one solo album in his lifetime — 1986's mildly-received (turned cult classic) World of Echo — but his strange marriage of Downtown minimalism, disco and folk music has been cited as an major influence for artists including LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry and onetime Talking Head David Byrne. A 2014 AIDS benefit album Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell included covers of Russell's songs by Sufjan Stevens and Hot Chip, among many others. And Kanye West sampled Russell's song “Answers Me” on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.
Listen: Arthur Russell's "Answers Me" from 1986's "The World of Echo." The song was sampled for Kanye West's "30 Hours" from 2016's The Life of Pablo.
Russell died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992 at the age of 40. His album Instrumentals was released posthumously in early 2017. He was also the subject of a two month-long exhibition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which closed last week.
Listen: composer Missy Mazzoli's "A Song for Arthur Russell."
When conservatories and music departments finally awake from their (irresponsible) slumber to the reality that they should be teaching new music in earnest, they would do well to ink Mariel Roberts at or near the top of their list of cello professor candidates.
Ms. Roberts first head-butted her way into my consciousness in 2012 with the exceptional Nonextraneous Sounds record, and as with her debut release, I fully anticipate that 2017’s Cartography will remain in my annual Top 10 across the next seven months. The technique is superlative here, but this album is also a feat of inspired and divergent programming, and the technique tends to evaporate behind the poetry of the performances.
Imagine that Walter White’s most habitual customer gets his hands on a stack of Nancarrow and Reich LPs and spends a three-day bender composing a feverish homage. You’re starting to get the picture of Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen Am Spinnrade. Like the Schubert from which it takes its title, the piece is a frenzy of cyclic motives — it’s just that in this case the sonic mania involves microtonal tuning and fingernail pizzicati at eighth-note=132 bpm. String players, and listeners in general, may feel their shoulders anxiously pulling toward their ears as Roberts scales these inhumane licks, but subsequent passes through the track reveal opulent harmonies and a perverse, ultimately savory groove, not to mention Wubbles’s piano playing making an unassailable case for tossing out the term “accompanist,” forever. This is not music one writes hoping for the best. It is written with a specific talent in mind.
The utter loneliness captured in Cenk Ergün’s Aman sits in stark contrast at track 2. Parameters involving percussive elements and harmonic pressure create a dry landscape which Ergün then compellingly processes live with an organic quality that heightens, but never overshadows the cello. It plays as music for our current socio-political predicament, to this reviewer at least, when hope retreats, and its abrupt end offers no tidy conclusions.
If Aman lives in a certain, darker corner of the mind, George Lewis’s Spinner bounces capriciously around the rest of the cranial cavity. The piece lives the longest in what might be considered the traditional tuning and techniques of the cello, a superball-on-the-varnish rhythmic breakdown notwithstanding, and Roberts’ rich tone and fingerboard-leaping abilities are on full display. Lewis’ recent scores find that elusive seam between the organization of the extemporaneous and the organization of the premeditated, and Roberts infuses both the instinctual and the intellectual angles of this music with equal surety.
Davíð Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time closes out the proceedings, dipping in and out of white noise, sculpting long tones that seem to make it all the way to the horizon. Delicious bass expands outward and eventually glitches into silence as harmonics glisten and compete and fold back in on themselves. The fourth of four distinct entries, The Cartography of Time aptly deposits the listener many, many miles from where he began at the top of this exquisite album.
Born in 1931 in Nashua, New Hampshire, electronic music pioneer Alvin Lucier has delighted audiences for over half a century with provocative works that deftly move within traditions of notated music, acoustical experimentation and performance art. His 1969 masterpiece of sound art, I am sitting a room, harnessed the natural resonance of physical space through layering and dissolving the recorded playback of a recited text, and was ultimately enshrined in 20th-century music through purchase by the Museum of Modern Art.
Lucier has also inspired a vanguard of new, young voices through over 40 years as a professor of music at Wesleyan University. In 2011, upon his retirement, Wesleyan honored his contributions with a three-day festival of his music.
In this charming, wide-ranging talk at the 2017 Red Bull Music Academy, Lucier recalls revelations borne from playing in marching bands, heated arguments over the music of John Cage between composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and cultural historian Theodor Adorno during his student days in Italy, and the rewards of not changing his art to reach a larger audience.
For today’s Bonus Track, we’re thrilled to bring you the world-premiere recording of Bryce Dessner’s Wires, performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain!
Last week, we dug into a particularly contentious moment in classical music’s history. This week, however, we’re looking at where we are NOW, a place of, well… niceness.
“I think right now is a really good time to be a composer,” says composer John Adams. “And I tell young composers that. They don't believe me, but they don't know how difficult it was back when I was in my 20s and 30s.”
We'll hear how David Lang’s group Bang on a Can helped to shape a newfound culture of support and generosity, and how the next generation of composers - including Bryce Dessner - can find creative freedom in this new landscape. Finally, we hear from Bryce what it’s like to write for “the Rolls Royce … of New Music,” with his new piece, Wires, for Ensemble Intercontemporian, led by Matthias Pintscher.
Bryce Dessner's Wires is provided courtesy of Chester Music, part of the Music Sales Group, Ensemble Intercontemportain and SPEDIDAM (Société de Perception et de Répartition des Droits des Artistes-Interprètes.)
Max Richter loves language. “Music,” he says, “is like storytelling.” No wonder, then, that four of his works draw heavily on language and literary sources, including 2004’s The Blue Notebooks featuring texts by Kafka and Czesław Miłosz, and 2005’s Songs from Before with readings of texts by Haruki Murakami. His most recent project, Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works is a musical journey into sound and language. It features music from Richter’s score of the Wayne McGregor ballet Woolf Works, which drew inspiration from a trio of Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.
Richter has written music for the stage and the screen, and to date has put out eight studio releases, including the critically acclaimed Sleep, an eight-hour-long composition based on the concept of nocturnal slumber. Among his soundtrack credits are the 2008 animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, an episode of the anthology series Black Mirror (“Nosedive”) and the 2017 BBC and FX television series Taboo. His music has also been featured in a number of films and television series, including Chef’s Table (“Winter 1” from Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons), and 2016’s Arrival (On the Nature of Daylight).
Earlier this year, Richter came by the studios to discuss Three Worlds, the narrative qualities of music, his appreciation for Woolf, his current musical obsessions — and classical music that just doesn’t quite do it for him (spoiler alert: it’s Bruckner).
We also couldn’t resist traveling into the realm of hypotheticals and posed a few that yielded some delightfully thoughtful answers from Richter. Not all of them are included in the audio above, but here is a condensed and edited transcript of a couple of gems from the interview.
James Bennett II: I want you imagine a song, a piece of music you can’t stand. Maybe it’s a Bruckner Symphony.
Max Richter: All of them!
JB: Alright then, As you may or may not know, there is a helium shortage in the world. You can reverse the effects of the shortage, should you make those Bruckner symphonies your alarm clock every day for eternity. Before you say “absolutely not,” think about all the children’s birthday parties and all the joy you could save with some helium balloons.
MR: Well that I don’t get Bruckner is actually an opportunity to try and understand him. So if I have to listen to him every morning on my alarm clock I’m fine with that. I’d take this on, to grow musically. That’s an opportunity.
JB: Philip Glass and Steve Reich are assembling two squads for a game of pickup basketball. Who ya got? Please explain your reasoning.
MR: Wow. That’s really, really complicated. I’ve had a lengthy history with both of those composers. In my previous life as pianist, I played more than 200 concerts of Reich music, and I love his work. But as a kid, when I was 13 or 14, the milkman on our place was kind of a new music fan. And he heard me practicing the piano, and at a certain point he started delivering Philip Glass records on vinyl, along with the milk. So I was listening to all this stuff as a kid. This is a tough call, I’d probably have to toss a coin.
Paola Prestini is more than a composer. Co-founder of the production company VisionIntoArt (VIA) and its recording offshoot VIA Records, her latest institutional triumph is National Sawdust, the audiophile listening venue in Williamsburg that instantly became Brooklyn's not-just-classical hotspot.
And her new VIA Records release, The Hubble Cantata, is a more than a piece of music. It is a new kind of collaboration: a nexus of art and science.
On the scientific side, the piece features spoken narration by astrophysicist Mario Livio, exploring the place of Earth and its passengers among the stars and generally asking the Big Questions provoked by our view of the heavens. A stereo recording, unfortunately, cannot fully convey the 3D virtual reality sound – designed by Arup, the same firm that created the acoustics of National Sawdust and, among other high-profile projects, New York's new Second Avenue Subway – that accompany live performances of the work, but vestiges of the experience remain in the atmospheric electronic elements of the score.
And the project's other collaborators are no less – and there is no other word for them – stellar. The libretto is by Royce Vavrek, the wordsmith behind the 21st-century's most acclaimed American operas (Breaking the Waves, Dog Days), and soprano Jessica Rivera's passionate solos transmute the scientific stuff of the text into pure theater. Baritone Nathan Gunn's voice reminds you why he is one of opera's biggest names, and Julian Wachner steers not only his own Washington Chorus and Novus NY but also the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1 through Prestini's shimmering nebulae of sound.
For a piece that explicitly takes as its subject the seeming insignificance of mankind against the sublime and infinite expanses of outer space, The Hubble Cantata's focus is very much on the human. This studio recording is not awash in reverb but as raw and clear as a live recording, allowing us to hear the minutest details of these terrestrial voices as they lead us on a voyage through the stars.
On Monday, Jan. 9 we kicked off the 2017 Ecstatic Music Festival with a live stream of the Bang on a Can All-Stars annual People's Commissioning Fund Concert at Merkin Concert Hall. The evening featured newly-commissioned music by Nico Muhly, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Juan Felipe Waller as well as music by Michael Gordon and Philip Glass.
This live stream was presented in partnership with WNYC's New Sounds and hosted by John Schaefer.
Founded in 1997, the People's Commissioning Fund has presented the music of over 40 composers, including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Caroline Shaw, David Longstreth, Alvin Lucier and Thurston Moore, among many others. 2017 marks Bang on a Can's 30th anniversary.
Listen to performances from previous years of the Ecstatic Music Festival.
Q2 Music is the digital partner of the Kaufman Music Center's 2016 Ecstatic Music Festival.
Listen to the full concert, including the spoken-word text, at the top of the page, and individual pieces below.
David Lang - Sunray
Juan Felipe Waller - Hybrid Ambiguities
Nico Muhly - Comfortable Cruising Altitude
Michael Gordon - Van Gogh: St. Remy
Julia Wolfe - Believing
Philip Glass - Einstein on the Beach: Bed
Philip Glass - Glassworks: Closing
It was composer pitted against composer: uptown vs. downtown, tonal vs. atonal, left brain vs right brain, and these musicians were NOT pulling any punches. Composers were antagonizing each other, questioning each other's validity, and bad-mouthing one another; it was like the second half of the 20th century was when Western Music went through middle school, and it was brutal!
“If you weren't being a constructivist composer, if the music wasn't indeed about its own structure, and its own structure wasn't complicated, then you were a pariah, you were rejected. You didn’t get tenure. You didn’t get a job.” That’s Robert Sirota - Nadia’s Dad - one of many composers who came of age in the midst of this feud and struggled - for years - to find a voice.
On this episode of Meet the Composer, we unravel one of the most contentious periods in classical music’s history. How did this fight begin? How did it play out? Who were the contenders? We hear from composers on both sides of this battle, and discover how, on all ends of the aesthetic spectrum, we can find value in differences.
On May 4th, cellist, TED fellow and viral Bach performer Joshua Roman joined pianist Andrius Žlabys in our studio for performances of music by Žlabys and the iconic Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. The session was hosted by John Schaefer.
On May 13, Roman joins clarinetist Derek Bermel, pianist Conor Hanick and violinist Karen Kim for a performance of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at Brooklyn's National Sawdust.
Andrius Žlabys – Passacaglia
Astor Piazzolla – Grand Tango
Put a stethoscope to the surface of the moon and hear, perhaps, the sounds of Julianna Barwick. The Brooklyn-based artist creates not so much music as tonal atmospheres in which looped voices wade through a hypnotic haze of crescendoing synths, piano and strings. She invokes worlds beyond while remaining wholly personal and often intimate, as though her productions’ celestial pulse and her own were one. Her work is frequently compared to that of Brian Eno and Steve Reich, but, as Barwick has said, was forged in part in the tradition of Enya. Barwick’s sophomore album Nepenthe (2013) brought her to Iceland to collaborate with Alex Somers of Sigur Rós, the string quartet Amiina and the experimental pop group Múm, while her most recent effort, last year’s Will, saw a return to the bare-bones setup of her debut EP The Magic Place (2011) — a microphone, pedal, laptop and her own voice — to chart new universes.
For all its otherworldliness, the origins of Barwick’s music are mundane. Born in Louisiana to a youth minister, she grew up singing in a cappella church choirs. “I would sing to myself and get so lost in it I would cry,” she told Pitchfork. Choir imparted in her a love of reverb; later, she sought staircases, parking lots, and bathrooms as places to sing and hear the way her voice echoed. Listen to the King’s College Choir, performing “Miserere mei, Deus” by Gregorio Allegri, for a sense of how sound carries in church.
Barwick — often described as a one-woman band — suffuses her music with qualities of her childhood choruses. In the clip below, she performs her song “One Half,” weaving her voice into seemingly endless waves to a light piano and string accompaniment. The effect is booming and endlessly resonant, her open, searching sounds expanding to fill and transcend the recording space.
The music video for “Nebula,” from Will, was filmed in the evening at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. Amidst Barwick’s undulating voices and arpeggios courtesy of the Moog Mother-32, the landmark structure becomes a cathedral, illuminated in pieces before being unveiled by the video’s close in warm twilight.
Like her music, the environment of Barwick’s live sets tend toward the lo-fi. Hear her perform live at FORM Arcosanti, a music festival about 60 miles north of Phoenix. Enrobed in submarine blues, she took the stage at night, her sounds arcing through the darkness.
In this video for WNYC, Barwick reveals the simplicity of her essential materials. From equipment occupying but a quarter of her bed, she siphons a seeming eternity of voices, as only one can who never stopped hearing where she came from.
Henry Threadgill’s music and community can’t be separated; there is no boundary: challenge and failure and growth in music are the same as challenge and failure and growth in life. This Meet the Composer bonus track shares an exclusive performance by Henry Threadgill's Zooid ensemble of I Never, recorded live by Q2 Music at the Village Vanguard on Oct. 2, 2016.
Throughout his career, Threadgill has led countless ensembles with diverse instrumentations and personalities. And in each of them, he finds a way to unearth a type of asymmetry – a blend of unease and transcendence that comes across in his remarkably structured compositions. He unites musicians in the same way as he composes: with affection for the mysterious, embrace of the unexpected, and spontaneity guided by a rigorous intellect. As Threadgill has said, “Improvisation is a way to live your life and solve problems.” Music is one outlet, one way to activate this philosophy, which is something we hear echoed often from his collaborators.
In this recording, we hear the 2016 Pulitzer Prize laureate leading his longest standing chamber ensemble, Zooid, in a live performance inside the legendary New York City underground jazz venue, the Village Vanguard.
Henry Threadgill, alto sax
Liberty Ellman, tres
Christopher Hoffman, cello
José Davila, tuba
Elliot Humberto Kavee, drums, percussion
This live recording was produced by Curtis Macdonald and engineered by Edward Haber (technical director and remix), Irene Trudel, Duke Markos, Bill Moss and Curtis Macdonald.
Q2 Music and Bang on a Can are proud to bring you a livestream of Saturday's Bang on a Can 30th Anniversary Marathon at the Brooklyn Museum.
Starting at 2 pm, the anniversary edition opens with Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, ensembles such as Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Innov Gnawa, Asphalt Orchestra and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble collide and cross-pollinate in eight genre-bending hours of music by artists including Louis Andriessen, Ivo Papasov, Merrill Garbus, David Lang, Amir ElSaffar and many others.
“Thirty years ago we started dreaming of the world we wanted to live in,” write Bang on a Can co-founders Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang. “It would be a kind of utopia for music: all the boundaries between composers would come down, all the boundaries between genres would come down, all the boundaries between musicians and audience would come down. Then we started trying to build it. Building a utopia is a political act — it pushes people to change. It is also an act of resistance to the things that keep us apart.”
For more information on the marathon, visit bangonacan.org.
The video module will be coming soon.
Complete Program (via brooklynmuseum.org):
Bang on a Can All-Stars kick off the show, performing Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer, inspired by the folk ballad.
Experience hypnotic Moroccan grooves by New York City’s very own Innova Gnawa.
Catch a rare solo set by the Kanye West–collaborating, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Caroline Shaw.
The Young People's Chorus of NYC honors the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria with Joan La Barbara’s A Murmuration for Chibok.
Oliver Lake Crash Bang Trio with Bill McClellan and Reggie Nicholson performs works by renowned artist Oliver Lake.
The duo Rabbit Rabbit performs emotional acoustic works by composers Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi.
Indie-guitarist Kaki King presents her exceptional percussive and jazzy melodies.
Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble performs the New York premiere of No Anthem, by Michael Gordon.
New York’s legendary Meredith Monk leads the women of her acclaimed vocal ensemble in a set of shimmering a cappella pieces from her work-in-progress Cellular Songs.
Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble performs Louis Andriessen’s hard-driving masterpiece De Staat, a commentary on music’s relationship to politics.
Amir ElSaffar’s all-star Two Rivers Ensemble blends the maqam music of Iraq with contemporary jazz.
Celebrated contemporary composer and Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang presents the Brooklyn premiere of just (after song of songs).
Composer Kendall Williams directs Brooklyn’s steel pan ensemble Pan in Motion.
Asphalt Orchestra performs Ivo’s Ruchenitsa (arranged by Peter Hess) by Ivo Papasov.
Women's Raga Massive, the all-female arm of Hindustani Brooklyn Raga Massive, headlines a special tribute to A Year of Yes.
On May 1, critically-acclaimed percussionist Chris Graham and pianist Taka Kigawa performed music of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams live at Le Poisson Rouge.
Adams spent much of his career composing on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness, and the evening centered on the composer's "environmentally aware" works. The program included Nunataks, Tukiliit and Among Red Mountains for solo piano and Red Arc/Blue Veil and Four Thousand Holes for piano, percussion and electronics.
Listen to the full program at the top of this page.
Learn more about John Luther Adams by listening to our Meet the Composer episode about the composer's life and music.
Nunataks (Solitary Peaks) (Taka Kigawa, piano)
Among Red Mountains (Taka Kigawa, piano)
Tukiliit (Taka Kigawa, piano)
Red Arc/Blue Veil (Taka Kigawa, piano; Chris Graham, vibes and crotales; and audio playback)
Four Thousand Holes (Taka Kigawa, piano; Chris Graham, vibes and glockenspiel; and audio playback)
Brooklyn piano, bass and drums trio Bearthoven release their debut album Trios this Friday, May 5 on Cantaloupe Records. In their own words, the band creates "new repertoire for a familiar instrumentation by commissioning works from leading young composers."
In advance of the release, watch a video for Anthony Vine's From a Forest of Standing Mirrors, directed by Katy Gilmore. Like the music itself, the visuals emerge as a disorienting series of hazy shapes, as if viewed through curved glass or intoxicated eyes. Pointillistic mallet percussion and gongs bend around piano clusters and unsettling, bowed bass. It's music for nocturnal ruminations, for finding beauty in distorted perception and blurred edges.
Bearthoven is Karl Larson, piano; Pat Swoboda, bass; and Matt Evans, percussion.
1967, Fort Riley, Kansas. Henry Threadgill is 23 years old. Knowing he’s going to be drafted into the military, he joins the Army Concert Band, hoping to focus on his passion: writing music. As he surrounds himself with new ideas, he works his influences into the music that he's arranging. Then one day, the band plays one of his arrangements of a patriotic song for an inauguration of big-wigs, and from the calm of a quietly confused crowd comes a cry from a cardinal in attendance: “Blasphemy!”
One day later, he’s told to gather his things. Thirty days later, he’s on his way to Vietnam. Fifty years later, he wins the Pulitzer Prize for music composition.
This is only the beginning of the story of how the energy, hunger and curiosity of Henry Threadgill have influenced and changed the people around him. In spite of the failure and rejection he’s faced, Threadgill is perpetually driven toward new ideas, new challenges and new opportunities to pursue and grow stronger in his improvisational creative vision. His music is the product of the community he builds in the moment.
This is the story of Henry Threadgill, told by the people whose lives he has touched.
It’s frequently noted that we are experiencing a golden age of string quartets: witness the Dover, Danish, Escher, and some dozen or more others setting the scene ablaze. Amidst a crowded field, the outstanding Attacca Quartet (amazingly, already in its fifteenth season) distinguishes itself with its headstrong embrace of contemporary fare. Their 2013 release of John Adams’ complete works for string quartet remains one of the most memorable chamber music albums in recent years.
The Attacca’s latest release is another portrait disc: Songlines features six works for quartet by the thirty-two-year-old American composer Michael Ippolito. Throughout the disc, the quartet plays with a bright, forward sound, well-suited to Ippolito’s language, luminous and direct.
The album begins on an evocative note with the title track. Ippolito’s String Quartet No. 3, “Songlines,” constitutes something of a modern-day equivalent to Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, a distillation of Classical sonata form, designed for the edification of Vienna’s musical connoisseurs. In equally pithy fashion, Ippolito’s Songlines compresses a broad spectrum of techniques and ensemble textures into a single ten-minute movement. In the Attaccas’ hands, the work fluidly navigates a broad expressive range, from gravitas to soaring lyricism.
Much of the rest of the album grabs the ear with a similar immediacy and urgency of expression. The ethereal haze of Trace coalesces into a laser show of repeated chords; the breathless optimism of Big Sky, Low Horizon follows, offset by the lazy lilt of Smoke Rings.
The album’s center of gravity is the three-movement String Quartet No. 2, which reveals Ippolito’s incisive awareness of the quartet repertoire tradition. It is a muscular thing, marked by the dramatic vigor of Shostakovich, the taut expression of Bartók. It’s worth noting too that, far from specializing exclusively in new music, the Attacca Quartet can sling Haydn and Beethoven with the best of them. Their performance of Ippolito’s Second Quartet demonstrates, on the part of both composer and ensemble, a craft redolent of the masters, expertly deployed to emote something irrepressibly fresh.
Attacca Quartet | Michael Ippolito: Songlines
Azica | Released Feb. 17
Performers of the minimalist music pioneer, a series of works composed during that year, confront an eclectic shopping list: a fire, a butterfly (but any number will do), a bale of hay and a bucket of water (with which to feed the piano), possibly a whirlpool.
Materials assembled, there is then the matter of what to do with Young’s instructions, one per composition. A few of the compositions are more easily incarnated than others. “Composition #6” requests that the performers sit on the stage, watching the audience as audiences are taught to watch performers.
Some compositions require caution.“Composition #2” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
Others, patience.“Composition #5” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
“Composition #10” is a shrug and a wink.“Composition #10” from La Monte Young’s “Compositions 1960.” (La Monte Young)
#10, like all of the compositions, is open to interpretation. Here is one:
“Composition #7” is perhaps the most popular. It is the only one to require specific musical notes.“Composition #7” from La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960. (La Monte Young)
Here it is performed on a piano:
... and on a few other instruments.
Born in 1935 in a log cabin in Idaho, Young was raised by his father, a Mormon sheepherder. His first memories of sound were of the wind blowing through the cabin and, outside, the grasshoppers, which make an appearance in the composition titled “Piano Piece for David Tudor #3.”“Piano Piece for David Tudor #3.” (La Monte Young)
(Also up for interpretation.)
Young’s father and his aunt, a rodeo performer, introduced him to music, and he went on to pursue a graduate degree in composition at UC Berkeley. His formative musical experiences were with jazz, serialism, and Indian classical music. Cage’s philosophy of chance and indeterminacy, which Young learned about in a lecture by pianist and composer David Tudor at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music in 1959, also proved profoundly influential, and jumpstarted his work on Compositions. In a 2003 interview for New Music Box, Young also described Compositions 1960 as a “sociological reaction” against Berkeley, whose academic environment Young found restricting. In 1960, Young flew to New York to study with Cage and Richard Maxfield, and premiered some of the Compositions at Yoko Ono’s loft.
Around this time, he also presented some of his experiments, as well as work by Cage, Maxfield, and others, in a series of noon concerts at Berkeley that “kids were nowhere near prepared for.” “It was at that point ... that I began to realize how easy it is to manipulate an audience,” he concluded. Not all were impressed by his latest explorations: at a later performance of one of his works involving sustained displays of friction — dragging a gong against cement, for instance — his parents wept, devastated at the direction their son’s life was taking. Young had only begun to embark on a career that, as he himself has put it, “changed music forever”; Andy Warhol, Catherine Christer Hennix, and Lou Reed are among the many to have cited Young’s work, especially that involving sustained tones at high volumes, as an influence.
Today, Young lives and works in New York City with his partner, the visual artist and musician Marian Zazeela. His definition-defying work — the most notable of which includes the Well-Tuned Piano and the Trio for Strings, both of which draw on his fascination with drones in exceptionally slow motion — is performed worldwide. With Zazeela, he also opened the Dream House on Church Street, which you can visit on Wednesday through Saturday. Other current projects include the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, founded by Young, Zazeela, and their disciple Jung Hee Choi.
Few recorded examples exist of Compositions 1960, the full list of which is here. Perhaps because, for many of them, you had to be there:
Compositions gets audiences to ask questions. What is a performance? Who is performing for whom? How long is long? What is the piano’s relationship to the player? What is the potential in a grasshopper? (What are the fire safety regulations in this performance venue?) As usual, there are no right answers.
WQXR’s Artist-in-Residence program has hosted the likes of superstar soprano Deborah Voigt and New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill. This year, WQXR has played host to the award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus with three shows in The Greene Space and served as a commissioning partner to Silent Voices — the Chorus' year-long initiative to address issues of social inequality through music-making.
For this chorus, led by conductor Dianne Berkun Menaker, singing is much more than just an after-school hobby; it's an opportunity and a calling.
Before the Chorus' final Greene Space concert this past March — celebrating the release of their first album, Black Mountain Songs — we spoke to a few members of the choir to hear about their individual journeys within the ensemble and how music has changed them.
With their trademark musical versatility, this advanced youth ensemble illuminates the story of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College — a progressive educational environment that housed great thinkers amidst the backdrop of the Jim Crow era. With the Chorus’ emphasis on social awareness and individual empowerment, each member has specific insights into what the music means to them and can mean to society at large.
Watch Q2 Music's album release party for Black Mountain Songs:
Iceland's Nordic Affect is a quartet comprised of violin, viola, cello and harpsichord. It's not-unusual instrumentation for Baroque composers like Telemann and Handel, but as a virtuosic vehicle for modern, field recording-colored music of Iceland's innovative and insular scene of composers, it makes for a sound unlike any other chamber ensemble out there.
Touring on the heels of their latest release Raindamage, the ensemble was recently a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Reykjavík Festival, a celebration of Icelandic composers curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Daniel Bjarnason. We invited Nordic Affect in for intimate in-studio performances of Valgeir Sigurðsson's Raindamage and Úlfur Hansson’s Þýð (pronounced “Theeth”). The latter features an impromptu drone performance from members of the WQXR staff.
Nordic Affect is Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, violin; Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir, viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, cello; Gudrún Óskarsdóttir harpsichord.