On Thursday, September 7, 2017 the Soundwave Concert Series in Santa Monica presented music from Trajectories, the new CD from Michael Vincent Waller released this month on the Recital label. Pianist R. Andrew Lee, in town from Denver, and cellist Seth Parker Woods from Chicago were on hand to perform, having recorded the album in Kansas City last year. A good-sized crowd assembled in the Martin Luther King Auditorium to hear this latest release from the New York-based Waller.
by itself (2016), for solo piano, was first up on the program and the album notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny state that this piece “…describes a quiescent state of solitude but leaves the specific image to the mind of the listener.” The opening notes fall quietly from a simple chord and have that gentle, inward-looking feel so characteristic of Waller’s music. No heavy-handed chords or bold declarative statements disturbed the smoothly tranquil texture. Subtle and almost nostalgic in prospect, the economy of musical materials and the Lydian mode scale combined to agreeably invoke a state of quiet contemplation. The acoustics in the hall complimented the playing by R. Andrew Lee, who perfectly realized the understated essence of the score. Not quite six minutes long, by itself carries the listener on an inward journey so intriguing that time seems to be in suspension.
Visages (2015) followed, a piano solo in eight short sections and on this occasion five were selected for performance. Each of the sections offered a different musical visage and these were variously flowing, animated and purposeful, dance-like, questioning or quietly introspective. As with by itself, Visages is typically quiet and reserved, but there are the familiar elements of strong melody, repeating chords and counterpoint that serve to set the tone and color of each of the sections. The sections are typically brief – just a few minutes in length – but always long enough to establish a particular point of view about the subject. The sensitive playing of R. Andrew Lee was always in complete control of the delicate contours and balance of each section.
Cellist Seth Parker Woods joined R. Andrew Lee for Lines (2016), a duo that also included a video by Richard Garet projected on the screen at the rear of the stage. This opens with a rich cello line and simple piano accompaniment; the video was filled with scenes of various East Coast watery places. The music is restful and nostalgic – like pleasant memories floating by – and perfectly complimented the images on the screen. The cello line dominated for most of the piece and this was confidently played, yet sensitive and expressive. A short pizzicato section changed the mood slightly, but the return to arco phrasing served only to increase the sense of underlying longing. In the final minutes the mood turned remorseful, enhanced by some lovely playing by Woods in the lower registers of the cello. The piece finished on a beautifully shaped low cello note followed by a softly echoing piano arpeggio. Lines is wonderfully interior music, made from thoughts and memories as much as by notes and sound.
Breathing Trajectories (2016) followed, a piece in three parts for solo piano. Part I begins with a series of simple phrases consisting of single notes – typically starting with an open fifth or octave – and completed with a dissonant tone. All of this is softly subdued, focusing the listener’s attention on the interaction of the sounds in each phrase. The effect of the third tone on the sustained ringing sound of the first two adds an element of uncertainty and as this pattern is repeated, a kind of question and answer conversation ensues. There is no other form or structure, yet these sequences of solitary notes are quietly thought provoking.
Part II extends this concept, this time with chord arpeggios that are allowed to ring out so that their component colors refract into the listener’s imagination. The interactions of the tones again drive the perceived feelings, and these are generally warm and reassuring, but also distant or uncertain. A series of slow trills and rapid melodic lines brighten the mood before slowing again to a peaceful finish. Part III opens with stronger and more substantial chords, firmly grounded in the lower registers. Rapid arpeggios follow and this adds a bit of dynamism and grandeur. The texture is not as spare here, flowing more easily, with the melody and harmony interweaving into familiar patterns that feel like the logical outcome of the preceding parts.
The final piece on the program was Laziness (2015), a cello and piano duo in three parts. According to the CD liner notes the ‘laziness’ refers to “…the dispirited state of confusion brought on by mixed emotions..” This is manifested in Part I by a series of quiet chords in the opening that sometimes vary from major to minor modes within a given phrase. Combined with the expansive cello line, a sense of disquiet is established. Part I ends with three ominous notes in the deep piano register – not unlike a knock of fate. Part II begins with a much more optimistic feeling, a moving piano line filled with bright sunshine and a warm cello accompaniment that carries a sense of renewed purpose. However this soon turns gloomy and a bit portentous as the tempo slows and the cello line descends downward. Minor key phrases appear at times and a feeling of uncertainty and agitation persist to the end.
Part III begins with repeating piano phrases, uptempo and full of movement and determination. The sustained cello line floats below, content to let the piano dominate. About midway through, the piano and cello engage in a kind of conversation that is full of briskly intertwining notes and repeating figures. Slower phrases enter and exit, adding a certain ambiguity to the initial sense of ambition and heightening the sense of mixed emotions. Laziness pivots nicely back and forth between confidence and doubt, leaving the listener to decide which path to take.
Overall, Trajectories is music for the interior imagination. Sometimes music comes to us in a great symphonic fury, sometimes in bold declarative statements or in bright, vivid colors. The music of Trajectories comes to us quietly – almost as if we are hearing our private thoughts – and is all the more engaging as a result.
The CD has been carefully mastered and edited so that all the nuance and detail of the music has been precisely preserved. Credit for this is due to Sean McCann of Recital, Denis Blackham of Skye Mastering and Ryan Streber of Oktaven Studios. The CD cover booklet features photography by Phill Niblock.
There are certain concerts where there is a new piece which is clearly not the main item on the program. Sometimes a visiting orchestra will include a work by a composer from its country; sometimes it seems to be more or less an afterthought; sometimes a more integral part of the program, but still not the most important or central part. The earlier Prom on August 30, presented by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, began with the first UK performance of Liguria by Andrea Tarrodi, which clearly fell into the first category. Liguria commemorates a visit its composer made to the “Cinque Terre,” five villages on the Ligurian coast of Italy. She describes the work as a ‘walking tour’ of them. The work is very attractive; far from the least of its impressive and appealing aspects being the expert and highly polished orchestration; its notes are not at all bad, either. Despite the composer’s description, the work had very little local color. It could just as well, from the sound of it, have been about a place in Sweden. The titles of its six sections, which follow on each other without a break, are generic (Waves, Horizon, Blue Path, Colors, Mountains, Stars), rather than geographically specific. Neither the shaping of the sections nor the articulation of their ends is very clear. The first two or three have the same material, so it’s not easy to follow the progress of the whole work. The character of the music changes at one point, but it’s not completely clear which movement it might be. In the end, Virgil Thomson’s pronouncement on the Egmont Overture could apply to Tarrodi’s Liguria: It was “the classic hors d’oeuvre. Nobody’s digestion was ever spoiled by it and no latecomer has ever lost much by missing it.” In the case of this concert, the main event was Renée Fleming who sang Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber as well and as movingly as the great recordings by Eleanor Steber and Eileen Farrell. The concert also included the Transformation Scene from Daphne by Stauss, also with Flemming, and the Nielsen Symphony No. 2.
The main event of the Prom presented by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati was either the magisterial and beautiful performance of the Berg Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff or the Schumann Third Symphony, but it also included the first UK performance of Nocturne–Insomnia by Thomas Larcher. Larcher is a very accomplished, to say the least, composer whose music is polished, meticulously composed, and beautifully heard–every thing about it is completely beyond reproach. This piece does absolutely everything that one would imagine that a piece called Insomnia would do, and does it with great style and expression, but nothing that one might not have thought of. Larcher’s program notes make statements about ‘tonal music,’ ‘the newer tonal music,’ and ‘tonal threads’ as though absolutely everybody knows exactly what he means. The piece itself makes Larcher’s meanings of some of these statements manifest.
Beethoven (Leonora Overture No. 3 and Symphony No. 5) seemed to be the big draw for the completely packed Prom on August 21, which was presented by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, but it also included the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, played with elegance and vigor by Leila Josefowicz, who also played, as an encore, Lachen verlernt by Esa-Pekka Salonen, which is a very snappy and appealing piece, as well as the first performance of Canada! by Gerald Barry, which was a BBC commission, with vocal soloist (both speaking and singing) Allan Clayton.
Clearing security at the Toronto airport on his way back to Dublin where he lives, the text of The Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio by Beethoven, came into Barry’s mind (…What joy in the open air! Breathing freely again! Only here is life! Only here!). Those words, in English, French, and German, proceeded by the name Canada! are the bulk of the text of his work, which is, in the orchestra, a sort of frenetic and wacky set of folk dances from some imaginary country (probably not the Canada of real life, but possibly of his imaginary Canada). For a long stretch of the work the word Canada is deconstructed into its component syllables by the soloist and then repeated many times until it has no meaning at all. Finally the members of the orchestra, shouting and then, at the prompting of the soloist, repeating quieter and quieter, join in proclaiming Canada!, finally admonished by the soloist, “Speak softly! We are watched with eyes and ears.” The work is some combination deadpan humor and dead serious earnestness which is compellingly engaging and lingers strongly in the memory. Both Clayton and the orchestra performed the piece meticulously and brilliantly.
On August 26, one of the Proms away from the Albert Hall, was presented at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, a disused Sainsbury car park (multi-storied) in Peckham which has been transformed into a community arts center, and the home base of The Multi-Story Orchestra. After the opening piece, Granville Bantock’s orchestration of Bach’s chorale prelude on “Wachet auf” BWV645, the orchestra, joined by the Multi-Story Youth Choir, comprised of local young people aged 8-12, in its inaugural performance, presented the first performance of I am I say by Kate Whitley, who with Christopher Stark, the orchestra’s conductor, is one of the founders of the orchestra. I am I say concerns itself with the valuing and protection of the world around us, setting a text by Sabrina Mahfouz with an additional stanza written by the choir. The choir sang clearly and beautifully, with perfect diction, which was not quite equaled by that of the two adult soloists, Ruby Hughes soprano and Michael Sumuel bass-baritone, although they were given music to sing which made clarity of diction a great deal harder to accomplish. Whitley’s music is in a sunny and handsome post-modernish style, and the work was convincing and enjoyable. It was followed by one of founding post-modern, maximal post-minimalist works, Harmonielehre by John Adams. The orchestra’s performance of this very intricate and difficult piece was committed and compelling and benefitted from and added to the sense of occasion and the beautiful sunny day. All the way through the concert there was a noise that also enhanced somehow, rather than distracted from, the performance. After a while I realized that it was the sound of passing trains on the very near tracks.
The late night Prom on August 30 also featured another admirable local orchestra Chineke!, which was founded to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic musicians. The concert opened with the first performance of The Spark Catchers by Hannah Kendall, which was a BBC Commission. The work takes the title of a poem by Lemn Sissay which commemorates an 1888 strike by women who worked in the factory of the Bryant and May Match Company. (The London Olympic Park is on the site of the factory). It follows an arc from a very lively opening, brimming with irregular nervous energy, through a suspended urgent lyric section, which gradually accumulates faster music, and after a return of a good deal of the earlier material combined, has a slightly inconclusive ending. The Spark Catchers is masterly and effective and Chineke! and their conductor, Kevin John Edusel, gave it a polished and convincing performance. The concert also included Lyric for Strings by George Walker, which is a short and very beautiful work. Following programming tradition of earlier days on the Proms, the program included three short pieces featuring the wonderful soprano Jeanine De Bique and two featuring the astounding young ‘cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; it ended with a performance of Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov. All the playing by the orchestra was first-rate and the concert was, all the way through, wonderful.
All of these performances are available for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player.
Three works on the Proms in August raised issues of authorship and authenticity, among other things. Sir Edward Elgar in the last two years of his life was engaged in the composition of his Third Symphony, which had been encouraged by his friend George Bernard Shaw and commissioned by the BBC. When he died in February of 1934, he left 130 pages of sketches, mostly in short score with few indications of instrumentation, and for many years they were given little attention, and the work considered lost. Anthony Payne, a considerable composer himself, who has had a scholar’s interest in British music of that period, was engaged with the sketches for the Third Symphony starting in 1972, but only in 1993, when he did some work on realizing some of the work for a BBC workshop, did he engage seriously with the project of reconstructing the whole work. In 1996, after some initial resistance, and realizing that the sketches would come into public domain in 2005 anyway, the Elgar family, who controlled the copyright for the sketches, commissioned Payne to do a completion of the work. The completed work, (joining the rank of works such as the Mozart Requiem, completed, and with certain sections composed altogether by Süssmayr), officially called an elaboration, was first performed in 1998. The sketches gave hints of what Elgar’s intentions were for most of the work, but for the last movement, Payne had to more or less compose the bulk of it, and, for that matter, decide what its form was to be (“…I felt that the breadth of the expository material in the sketches pointed towards a sonata form.”). For this listener, the last movement is the least satisfying and, in fact, the least characteristically Elgarian. The orchestration in general seems a little less characteristic than one might expect. I thought at one point in the first movement, feeling that it was a little leaner than it should be, that it in a certain way was a parallel experience to hearing the 1947 version of Petrushka. As with other aspects, whether it might be characteristic of what Elgar might have himself done late in his career is anybody’s guess. In any case, the performance, by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Sakari Oramo, was committed and poetic and was certainly in high Elgarian style. The first half of that concert included Scènes historiques–Suite No. 1 by Sibelius and the Saint Saëns second piano concerto, with soloist Javier Perianes, both very well played, and both leaving me with a feeling that both of those composers were really good.
A different sort of reconstruction was represented by the late night Proms on August 15, presented by The Britten Sinfonia, Anoushka Shankar, Gaurav Mazumdar, Ameen Ali Khan, Nick Able, Ravichandra Kulur, Pirashanna Thevarajah, M. Balachandar, Sanjul Sahal, and Alexa Mason, conducted by Karen Kamensek. They played the first live performance of Passages, a collaboration between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass from 1990. Recorded in a studio directly to disc, the work had never been given a live performance until this one. Each of the collaborators wrote three of the six tracks on the record, although who wrote which wasn’t specified, either on the album of in the program for this concert. The interview with Karen Kamensek quoted in the program speaks of large chunks of the Shankar movements having been re-barred to facilitate performance with a limited rehearsal schedule. The playing of this clearly rhythmically complex and sophisticated music was, all around, effortless and natural and enormously fluent and expressive. The content, to this listener, seemed negligible, if not non-existent.
The Prom on August 24 was focused on/dedicated to the music of Charles Mingus. It was presented by the Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jules Buckley, joined by Shabaka Hutchings, bass clarinet, Bart van Lier, trombone, Leo Pellegrino, baritone saxophone, Christian Scott, trumpet, and Kandace Springs, vocalist. Since jazz musicians are, as Gunther Schuller said, composing performers, the music even that the same players play will be different from performance to performance, and certainly from one performer, or one group of performers to another. So it is not surprising that the performances of Mingus’s works by a 56 piece orchestra, highly produced, mic’d and mixed, would have a different sound and texture and affect than the original recordings (which were certainly not the same as any other performance by the same performers) by Mingus and his, usually 5-7 associates. The end product of these very very fine players, I think, probably told us more about them and their very very fine playing than about Mingus’s music in any sort of faithful to the original way (achieved by the performance of the Glass/Shankar). In this case, of course, that wasn’t the aim. This is not to take anything away from the quality of the players involved or to disparage their playing in any way, but rather to state a perception, if not a fact. In any case, the playing was fine. It sounded beautiful and it swung. The program listed pieces by Mingus to be played in a certain order. At the beginning, Buckley, announced, very quickly and in an offhand manner that the order was going to be different. The program then proceeded without further commentary, so that if one didn’t know the specific Mingus pieces beforehand, and my guess is even if one did, it was difficult, if not impossible to tell which was which.
A fourth piece, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which was performed on August 19 by Eva-Maria Westbroek (Tove), Simon O’Neil (Waldemar), Karen Cargil (Wood-Dove), Peter Hoare (Klaus the Fool), Christopher Purves (Peasant), and Thomas Quasthoff (spearker), with the CBSO Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus, Orfeó Català, and the London Symphony Chorus, conducted by Simon Rattle, might be included along with the other three, since, in a certain sense, the Schoenberg who conceived and began the work, in 1901, was not the same Schoenberg who took it up again in 1910 and finished it in 1911, due to the change in his outlook and in the style and character of the music he was writing. In any case the work’s excessiveness, its lusciousness of instrumental sound and harmony, the great craft of its composition, and its singlemindedness in pursuit of its composer’s vision are commonalities in the works of both those Schoenbergs. It is not all that often, due to the length, difficulty, and required forces, that one has a chance to hear Gurrelieder. Any performance of it creates what W. H. Auden called a high holy day of the soul. One as fine and devoted and beautiful as this one raises the level of that attribute even higher.
All of these concerts are available for 30 days after their broadcasts via the BBC Proms website.
Locrian Chamber Players’s mission is clear: they play the very newest contemporary classical fare: selections must have been written in the last decade to be programmed. This time out, the focus is on the music of John Luther Adams, including his setting of the late Alaskan poet John Haines’s “Cosmic Dust,” performed by the group’s regular vocalist, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (Anonymous Four, Ekmeles), and the New York premiere of the string quartet “untouched” (2015). “Fortunate Ones,” by the group’s director, David MacDonald, will receive its world premiere. The program also includes music by Adrienne Albert, Aaron Alter, Caroline Mallonee, and Andrew Lovett. As is Locrian’s custom, you will find out more about these composers, but only if you stick around: program notes aren’t distributed until the end of the show.
Friday, August 25 at 8PM
10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church
490 Riverside Drive,
New York, NY 10027
The concert is free. A reception will follow.
John Luther Adams- Untouched***
John Luther Adams- Cosmic Dust Poem
Adrienne Albert- Daydreams***
Aaron Alter- Introspective Blues No. 1***
Caroline Mallonee- Clock It***
Andrew Lovett- Fortune’s Will
David Macdonald- Fortunate Ones*
* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere
Anna Elashvili and Cyrus Beroukhim, violin; Miranda Sielaff, viola; Greg
Hesselink, cello; Andrew Rehrig, flute; Emily Wong, piano; Jacqueline
Kerrod, harp; Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano
The Prom presented on August 9 by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, featured the first performance of Brian Elias’s Cello Concerto, which was a BBC commission. It was written for and is dedicated to Natalie Clein, who had to withdraw from the concert due to illness. The soloist in her stead was Leonard Elschenbroich, who despite coming late to the party, gave no indication of any kind of lack of preparation. The Cello Concerto is an imposing piece in four continuous movements, lasting twenty five minutes. A grandly rhetorical first movement, is followed by a scampering scherzo in a rotating variation form modeled after that of the poetic form of the sestina, a still and intense slow movement, and a final movement which eventually disappears quietly and somewhat inconclusively into a reminiscence of the very beginning material of the piece in a much higher register. The whole work operates at a quite high level of intensity while incorporating many different moods, speeds, and textures. The orchestration is masterly, and deals completely successfully with the great challenge of writing a piece for ‘cello and orchestra: making sure that the soloist doesn’t get covered up by the orchestra. The soloist in this piece can always be heard, playing just about continuously in many different registers and at many different speeds of figuration. The intensity of the work, along with and despite its considerable variety is what lingers most in the this listener’s mind. The performance by both Mr. Elschenbroich, playing the very difficult solo part, and the orchestra was just about flawless.
The concert began with Britten’s Ballad of Heroes for chorus, in this case the BBC National Chorus of Wales, and tenor soloist Toby Spence. It is an early work, written to honor the British members of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War, setting poems of W. H. Auden and Randall Swingler which give somewhat mixed messages. It may be those mixed messages that, despite its apparent technical flawlessness, make it in the end not completely successful or satisfying. The concert also included an arrangement/orchestration by Elgar of a Purcell anthem, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, in which the orchestra gave full evidence of their complete technical as well as their wonderful expressive abilities.
In continuing a tradition of doing some Proms at locations other than the Albert Hall, the concert in the afternoon of August 12, by the BBC Singers and members of the Nash Ensemble, conducted by David Hill, was presented in Southwark Cathedral. There has been a cathedral building on the site for centuries, although the present building, I’m told by an art historian friend of mine, is mostly Victorian. In any case it is a beautiful building, giving the sense of isolation and quiet despite its being right next to London bridge and surrounded by Borough Market. The program consisted of a Mass (Confitebor tibi, Domine) by Palestrina, the motet by Palestrina to which it is related by text and material, and the first performance of In the Land of Uz, commissioned by the BBC from Judith Weir, continuing her long association with the BBC singers.
In the Land of Uz is a thirty-five minute work for chorus, tenor solo, and narrator, setting big chunks of and telling the story of the book of Job. Weir describes it as a “dramatic reading” of the text. The story is a contemplation of God’s ways to man, in which God, apparently for reasons of vanity mostly, allows Satan to subject Job to psychological and, eventually, physical distress, and then when Job complains, basically says, “Who do you think you are;” then, when Job repents of complaining, restores his health and fortune. In Weir’s work the singing and speaking is accompanied by a rather unusual ensemble consisting of organ with viola, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, and tuba. The instrumentation might be in the tradition of the Schutz Kleine geistliche Konzerte, although the sound of the saxophone and some of the viola writing seemed to evoke, either intentionally or unintentionally, Vaughan Williams’s Job. In any case the organ is the constant and dominant instrumental sonority, the other instruments being used occasionally and never all at the same time–-the saxophone, for instance, appears in conjunction with Job’s friends (as in the Vaughan Williams), the trumpet with the voice out of the whirlwind, and the viola in association with Job, whose words are sung both by the tenor and the chorus. Both the Weir and the Palestrina made full use of the acoustic of the cathedral, and received excellent performances.
The Prom on August 14, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kazushi Ono, included, along with the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, the first European performance of Hibiki by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Although commissioned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Hibiki, whose title means ‘resonance’ or ‘echo’ in Japanese, became a commemoration of the offshore earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. It is a substantial piece, in seven movements, scored for two female singers, children’s chorus, and large orchestra, and lasting fifty minutes. The first two movements, whose titles, Iwate and Miyagi, are the names of the two coastal prefectures struck by the tsunami, are for orchestra alone. The first consists of fast music made of a texture of syncopated fragments layered on top of each other, the second features slow brooding music interrupted by an increasing number of brutal tutti chords. The third and fourth movements introduce the singers, the two soloists singing a translation of a poem by Sō Sakon called ‘Running’ which describes the poet’s escape as a child in 1945 from an incendiary bombing raid on Tokyo in which his mother, who fell behind, was killed; followed by the children’s choir singing a setting of a translation into Japanese of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Those are followed by another orchestral movement, ‘Suntory Dance’, and then two other vocal movements, the first for mezzo-soprano, setting ‘On the Water’s Surface,’an English translation of a poem by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and the concluding movement with all the forces whose text is the word ‘Fukushima” repeated many times.
Turnage is certainly a master of orchestration and orchestral writing and his great skill is abundantly clear and always impressive throughout Hibiki. There are some points, though, about which one might quibble: In the third movement, the poem implies a contrast between the frenetic activity of the running away from the bomb and a more slow-motion internal state, and the music of the setting acknowledges that a little towards the end, but could have benefitted by its being more central to the concept of the movement, and more immediately so early on in the piece. There are some places, the ‘Suntory Dance’ being the most obvious, where orchestration and texture seem to be being used to build intensity and energy, but without a corresponding harmonic movement, causing it to have a sense of staticness which I think was probably not what was intended. The last movement, which seems to evoke both the end of Das Lied von der Erde and the end of the Britten War Requiem, with the many repetitions of the single word, is, for this listener, the least successful. It’s a little hard to tell how well the piece works as a complete span, since Kazushi Ono pretty clearly took no pains at all, despite producing an otherwiese exemplary performance, to make any connections, dramatic or otherwise, from one movement to the next. Still, these are only quibbles. Hibiki is big expressive statement which keeps one interested and engaged through its entire length, as well as impressed by the masterly skill of its composer.
Since 1998 the BBC has, in connection with the Proms and at other times during the year, a program for pre-college composers which is called Inspire. Each summer during the Proms there is a concert of music by the winners of an annual competition. For the last few years, as was the case this year on August 14, the performances have been by the Aurora Orchestra, whose conductor, Nicholas Collon, introduces the works and their composers. This year’s winners were Chelsea Becker, age 13, Juiana Niu, age 17, Rebecca Farthing, age 17, Will Harmer, age 17, and Sarah Jenkins, age 19. In addition, the three of the winners from 2016 to write pieces for this concert. They were Jack Robinson, Sam Rudd-Jones, and Alex Jones. All of the composers on the concert, whose pieces received brilliant, lovingly prepared, and sympathetic performances, displayed a very impressive command of instrumental writing .
The extraordinary jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, has died at the age of 72. A player equally comfortable in acoustic and electric settings and in the roles of leader and accompanist, Abercrombie played in a variety of styles, encompassing free jazz, fusion, and standards. He was a consummately versatile, tasteful, and imaginative musician.
A large body of his work was recorded, from 1974, by ECM Records. His last release, Up and Coming, playing in his regular quartet with Marc Copland, Joey Baron, Drew Gress, was released earlier this year by the label. Other prominent collaborations include his Gateway trio recordings with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, duo recordings with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, and his appearance on Charles Lloyd’s recording “The Water is Wide.”
This week, The New York Philharmonic premieres their second commission by composer Julia Adolphe. The first, 2016’s Unearth, Release, was a warmly received viola concerto for Philharmonic Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps. The latest, White Stone, will be premiered July 26th as part of the orchestra’s Bravo! Vail series in Colorado. I recently had a chance to catch up with Adolphe about both of these collaborations, as well as her opera Sylvia.
Who were/are your composition mentors at Cornell and USC? What is something that you’ve learned from each?
I’ve had two incredible mentors who’ve inspired me to become a composer. The first was Steven Stucky, who gave me private composition lessons for four years while I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I arrived at Cornell without any formal training in classical music and was very intimidated by the large group of (all male) doctoral students pursuing composition. Professor Stucky made me feel included and welcome, allowing me to take graduate level courses alongside his other students. Steven Stucky essentially taught me how to compose, to go from nothing on the page to crafting a vocabulary, playing with colors, and communicating ideas through music. At USC, I spent four years studying with Stephen Hartke, who taught me an enormous amount about writing for the orchestra and writing opera. With Professor Hartke, I learned how to write larger forms and develop a musical narrative. Hartke encouraged me to embrace my love of storytelling through my music. Most importantly, both Stucky and Hartke taught me specific compositional techniques and tools while encouraging me to trust and believe in my own voice.
You fashioned both text and music for your opera Sylvia. Tell me a bit about your work as a poet/librettist?
My first musical pieces that I wrote as a child were folk songs comprised of my own original lyrics. I always loved writing lyrics and stories as well as acting in plays and musicals. Opera seems like a natural extension of these early passions. I wrote Sylvia in 2012 and it is based on the real life experiences of my best childhood friend. The opera’s content was deeply personal and I wrote the libretto out of a need to tell Sylvia’s story. I love working with living poets and am currently setting a poem entitled Equinox by Elizabeth Alexander. For my next opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, I will be working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann. I am very excited to have such wonderful collaborators!
I have sung at Bargemusic and it can be a wobbly place to get your bearings. What was it like producing Sylvia there?
It was a lot of fun and an incredibly dramatic, yet intimate venue. I think the surreal setting and off-kilter feeling you experience on the boat fit perfectly with the dreamlike nature of the opera.
There are some great viola concertos in the literature, but the challenges facing composers of them is legendary: balance, orchestration, etc. Was writing for viola and ensemble an upfront part of the commission for Unearth, Release or did you choose to write for these forces?
The New York Philharmonic asked that I compose a viola concerto for their principal violist Cynthia Phelps. I was extremely excited about the challenge: the viola does not possess the same carrying power in terms of volume and brightness as the violin or the cello. It is a subtle instrument with dark tones and fragile qualities. Yet is has a singular expressive beauty. I worked closely with Cynthia, ensuring that every gesture was idiomatic and communicative for her instrument. During the rehearsals of the work’s world premiere with the Eastern Festival Orchestra, I was able to make revisions so that the viola could speak more clearly over the orchestra. Both Alan Gilbert and Jaap Van Zweden gave me feedback throughout the writing and rehearsal process and I learned an incredible amount about the orchestra along the way.
Did you know which pieces were going to be programmed alongside yours in Vail? If so, did that impact your composition of White Stone?
I knew from the beginning that my piece would be premiered alongside Gershwin and Dvořák, but I chose not to think about that. My goal when I write is to express my own voice and be as true to my own emotions, dreams, atmospheres and sounds as possible. Of course I am influenced by a host of composers, but to purposely seek out composers on the same program would make it harder for me to clarify my own thoughts during the writing process.
What else would you like for audience members in Vail to know in advance about the piece?
A white stone is an object that is both unique yet familiar, a jewel and a pebble, emerging from the dirt to become something treasured. The music rises from dark, murky textures, striving towards brightness and clarity. The cello and timpani are the first to surface from the discord, stirring action in other sections of the orchestra. The percussion serves to rally and activate the music, leading the orchestra upwards towards brighter harmonies and unified rhythms. White Stone captures the struggle to be resilient and powerful in the face of overwhelming obstacles and fear of defeat.
Experimental Music Since 1970
By Jennie Gottschalk
From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.
Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.
With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.
These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussion the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989, help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Jean CocteauSung in French and English with English supertitles Caroline H. Hume Hall www.sfcm.org Directed by Brian Staufenbiehl Conducted by Nicole Paiment Pianists : Kevin Korth; Keisuke Nakagoshi; Eva-Maria Zimmerman Choreography: Amy Seiwert Dancers: Steffi Cheong; Brett Conway Singers; Rachel Schutz; Hadleigh Adams; Andre Ramirez; Kindra Scharich www.operaparallele.org
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir
Asko | Schönberg and Netherlands Radio Choir; Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor
ECM Records 3xCD 2505-07
Composer György Kurtág was born in Transylvania, but his many years of association with the Budapest conservatory have identified him as one of the foremost composers of Hungary, heir to Ligeti’s mantle as forward thinker and brilliant creator. ECM has been the label most associated with his music. Their release last decade of his string works was revelatory and one could certainly heap plaudits on the label’s celebration of Kurtág’s eightieth birthday in 2006 with a recording of his brilliant Kafka Fragments.
To celebrate his ninetieth year, just a smidge late, ECM has released a 3 CD set of Kurtág’s Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Even before listening, it is something to behold. ECM rightly has a reputation for lovingly curating their releases, but a number of interviews and essays (including program notes by Paul Griffiths), inclusion of the complete texts in sympathetic translations (no matter how thorny the originals), and many samples of the composer’s handwritten scores and ink drawings make this release a feast for the eyes. As for the ears, it has a remarkable dynamic range, clearly rendering everything from the softest whispers to thunderous bass drum thwacks with a sense of energetic potency.
The variance of dynamics is just one part of the multi-layered structures found in this music. From fragments of instrumental sound and disordered declamation to walls of choral sound and altissimo register vocal climaxes, Kurtág’s work encompasses a wide range of expression. In terms of desire, grief, fear, exhaustion, resiliency, and pain, there seems to be not a shade of emotion missing: his music is a complete catalog of the modernist project. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw elicits each of these emotions and musical demeanors in turn with the surest of hands, drawing consummately detailed performances from the assembled forces. If you make it your business to get one recording of music by Kurtág, this is it.
Aaron Parks Trio
June 16, 2017
By Christian Carey
NEW YORK – Nestled snuggly in the midst of Greenwich Village, Smalls Live is an intimate space, but a vital one for the jazz scene. Over the past decade, the venue has hosted thousands of performances – 11,000 of them are archived on the site for subscription-based streaming. With a nice piano and fastidious sound, it is an enjoyable place to experience live music. “Nestled snuggly,” but comfortably, was how I felt on June 16th, as my partner and I were fortunate to garner two of the last seats. The venue was full of a wide cross section of attendees; seasoned jazz buffs and regulars mingled with a decidedly younger set. If pianist Aaron Parks — and Smalls — can continue to draw such a healthy-sized audience from a similar cross-section of demographics, signs are most encouraging.
Parks was celebrating the release of Find the Way, his second CD as a leader on ECM. He was joined, both on the recording session and at Smalls, by bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, veterans who have played together in various contexts in the past. Find the Way consists of eight originals and one tune by Ian Bernard: the CD’s title track. The live set featured selections from the album, as well as two tunes from elsewhere: an as yet unrecorded Parks original “Isle of Everything” and George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Parks has recorded with Anders Christensen. The first of these vacillated between free tempo bluesy excursions and more incisive post-bop passages. Hart played his cymbals with abandon while Street juxtaposed walking lines with countermelodies high on the neck of his double bass. “Conception” was tightly knit and taken uptempo, demonstrating the pianist’s facility with wide-ranging arpeggios and the rhythm section’s seamless coordination.
The trio sidled into a mid-tempo groove, with a plethora of gestural imitation between them, on the album cut “Melquíades.” “Adrift” included a guest musician: the saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Both Find the Way and Stephens’s Criss Cross recording I’ll Take My Chances feature this composition. Parks and Stephens spurred each other on, creating ebullient soaring lines in some of the most inspired playing of the evening. Not to be outdone, Hart played forcefully and dexterously on “Hold Music,” a piece written by Parks to showcase his colleague’s legendary drumming. The final number of the set was the CD’s title track, which demonstrated the pianist’s impressionist leanings, boasting limpid splashes of harmony redolent of Debussy and Ravel. As we departed, there was a line out the door, eager to hear the trio’s second set. Encouraging signs indeed.
On June 27, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert titled The Flood. A full house gathered on a warm Koreatown evening to hear works by five contemporary Southern California composers as performed by the Brightwork newmusic ensemble.
First up was Kaleidoscope (2014) by William Kraft, who was in attendance. This opened with a series of bright tutti notes that had a vivid luminescence combined with a sense of the mysterious. Some solid duo playing by the bass clarinet and the piccolo was followed by a softer, slower section that contained a lovely flute solo, all adding to the mystical feel. The full ensemble then stoked up the intensity with a series of syncopated tutti passages, while a nicely expressive violin solo down-shifted the emotional color yet again. All of this unfolded before the audience almost without warning. As William Kraft stated in the program notes: “I do like to enjoy the adventure along the way. In that way, the balancing of phrases and events reveal the form, as it is being developed.”
The constantly changing tempos, textures and dynamics required a high level of musicianship from Brightwork, and they delivered with their usual accuracy and flair. The close acoustics of Monk Space brought out every detail of this stimulating piece – Kaleidoscope is well-named. At the conclusion the composer, one of the great eminences of the Los Angeles new music scene, rose to acknowledge the prolonged and sincere applause.
I will learn to love a person (2013) by Chris Cerrone followed, and for this soprano Stacey Fraser joined Brightwork’s Aron Kallay on piano, Brian Walsh on clarinet and percussionist Nick Terry. I will learn to love a person unfurls in five short movements that survey the difficult emotional terrain of a relationship under stress. The opening movement, That night with the green sky, sets the scene with a few tentative notes from the piano that are soon joined by the vibraphone whose deep tones form a sort of musical shadow. The voice enters quietly, full of brief phrases and a questioning feel, all tinged with sadness from the text by Tao Lin: “Why did you want me gone?”
The second movement, Eleven page poem part III, is brightly active, starting with a long piano trill that accelerates as fast arpeggios are heard in the clarinet. The vocals here are strongly declarative even as the accompaniment becomes more animated and intense. The feeling stops just short of anger, but is in clear contrast to the unguarded sensitivity of the opening movement. As the piece continued into the later movements, more stridency is heard in the voice which often dominates. The range of expression was impressively negotiated by Ms. Fraser, especially in the higher registers. A slower, more gentle section followed with a distinctly aspirational feel, highlighted by a finely wrought vocal passage set against a helpfully thin instrumental texture. This was followed, however, by darker colors that portrayed the feelings of frustration and helplessness that result as a close relationship comes to a regrettable end. I will learn to love a person is a powerful and intimate look at the many vulnerabilities that surface when personal relationships are in crisis.
Ararat (1995), by Shaun Naidoo, was next and for this the entire Brightwork ensemble returned to the stage. A syncopated, rhythmic passage opens, followed by silence. The opening passage repeats and more extensively syncopated tutti passages follow,adding a layer of complexity to the overall feel. There is also a sense of the exotic – like taking a journey to a strange place – while an active and rhythmic texture contribute a strong sense of motion. Shaun Naidoo is quoted in the program notes: “Although Ararat should not be viewed as an overtly programmatic exercise, there is an undoubted connection between the flood myth and the rhetorical flow of the music.” Mount Ararat is, of course, the place where Noah’s ark first came to rest on solid ground after the flood, and this provides a metaphorical framework for this piece – as well as the concert as a whole. As Ararat progressed, a loud drum solo is followed by the clarinet, flute and violin trading phrases and building a nice groove. At one point the tempo slows and the bass clarinet casts a somewhat darker tone, but the uptempo pace soon returns with a complicated tutti texture that culminates in a long chord and steady drum beat. A series of light piano notes end Ararat, an intriguing and stimulating odyssey, safely grounded at last.
After the intermission, Why Women Weep (IT IS THE QUICKEST WAY TO REJOIN THE OCEAN) (2017), by Pamela Madsen was performed by Brightwork cellist Maggie Parkins. Part of a larger multi-media oratorio, this solo piece also incorporates spoken voice recordings as well as electronics. The program notes state that Why Women Weep “…embodies three selves—the cello, the spoken voice of the performer, and the recorded voice of Anaïs Nin. Anaïs Nin (1903–77), an American writer of Cuban-Spanish and French-Danish descent, is perhaps best known for her close association with Henry Miller, and for her extensive, deeply introspective diary. “
Why Women Weep opens with deep, solemn tones in the cello as spoken words are heard from the electronics. The poignant playing of Ms. Parkins sets a sorrowful mood that turns more dramatic through a series of faster repeating passages with spiky rhythms. As the piece proceeds, the agitation gives way to a lighter sense of optimism for a time before returning to the more subdued feel of the opening. Two sets of voices are heard in the electronics and the cello playing becomes very expressive and quietly emotional, especially in the repeating figure heard as the piece decrescendos to a close. Why Women Weep is a strongly passionate piece, capably served in this performance by the sensitive playing of Ms. Parkins.
The final piece on the concert program was Internal States (2016) by Tom Flaherty. This was commissioned by Brightwork newmusic and the full ensemble returned to perform this three movement work. Doubt, the first movement, began with low tones in the piano and cello, accompanied by an anxious violin passage. Dissonance and repeating figures added to the tension, but this was soon followed by a series of extended and overlapping tones, passed around among the instruments, defusing the anxiety just a bit. A sharply parsed violin solo – nicely played by Tereza Stanislav – ratcheted up the tension once more as the rhythmic activity increased in all the instruments. A tutti crescendo brought the volume up to maximum just before fading at the finish.
Reverie, movement 2, followed and this had a quiet, introspective feel, aided by sustained tones in the bass clarinet and cello at the beginning. Simmering low notes in the vibraphone and a dominating violin passage added to the dreamlike quality. Arpeggios in the flute and clarinet added a slight edge, but the meditative atmosphere was restored with a return of the bass clarinet and flute – very effectively scored – plus some bowed notes from the vibraphone. The feeling became very fluid and dreamy towards the end with tutti chords and runs, all topped off with a solid vibraphone figure at the finish.
Celebration, the final movement, began with a flourish of rapid runs, traded off between the flute and clarinet. The bustling texture from the syncopation and dissonance resulted in a dance-like feel, and everything seemed to be in a state of motion. The whirling tutti texture was most engaging and some well-timed wood block rhythms added to the sense of agile movement. As the piece progressed a syncopated clarinet solo drew the other players in, and this built into a nicely active mix. The tempo then slowed slightly, allowing just a small sense of sadness to creep in, as longer notes prevailed. At the finish, however, the pace accelerated with the percussion loudly dominating, while a series of frantic tutti phrases flooded out from the entire ensemble. The vigor and intensity of Internal States left the audience breathless but energized as Tom Flaherty rose to receive the enthusiastic applause.
Brightwork newmusic is:
Sara Andon – flute
Aron Kallay – piano
Maggie Parkins – cello
Nick Terry – percussion
Tereza Stanislav – violin
Brian Walsh – clarinet.
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.