The Spectral Piano
From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age
By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt
Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)
By Christian Carey
Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.
Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.
As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.
In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.
On Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, directed by Louis Karchin along with conductor David Fulmer, will present a program of works by Arvo Pärt, Fred Lerdahl, Lisa Bielawa, and Sheree Clement (a new piece commissioned by League of Composers/ISCM) at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Tickets are $25/$15 for students/seniors
Below is my program note for the concert, which should supply some background in advance of the concert.
Program note: Season Finale: Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM
By Christian Carey
One of the fundamental ways in which the League of Composers fulfills its mission is by programming a diverse selection of music. As with past “season finale” concerts given by the League’s orchestra, tonight’s program encompasses works from the United States and abroad in a variety of styles. Commissioning and highlighting new work is a particular focus; the concert includes a world premiere (written by Sheree Clement and commissioned by the League).
The concert begins with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s important first forays into the tintinnabuli style for which he has become best known. The composer’s style has often been described as minimalism (“holy minimalism” by opportunistic broadcasters and less-than-kind critics), but this strand of repetition-based composition is quite different from American varieties. Rather than being based primarily on unfolding repetitive processes, like the approach taken early on in music by Glass and Reich, or being based on the omnipresent ostinatos of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, Pärt’s approach is based on melodic formulations: canon and monodic stepwise melodies set against bell-like triadic sonorities. While the materials themselves are simple, they are variously combined in an accumulation of gestures that is anything but.
Whereas Pärt’s piece doesn’t include a single accidental, Sheree Clement’s Stories I Cannot Tell You, revels in a labyrinthine chromaticism. There is also significant attention paid to timbre: a panoply of orchestral combinations and colors supply this work with still more intricacy and mystery. The portentous quality of repeated notes from a bass drum delineates and unifies the piece’s three connected movements. While the composer avows that Stories is not specifically programmatic, her program note is filled with visceral images and powerful emotions – which are equaled by the music’s expressionist quality – descended from Schoenberg yet firmly on 21st century footing.
Originally composed for American Composers’ Orchestra and the pianist Anton Armstrong (who also performs the work on this program), Lisa Bielawa’s Start is the last section of The Right Weather, a four-part work whose movement titles derive from the key words of a quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Roam, Wait, Beckon, Start. It is not a minimal work per se, although it shares some features with minimalist compositions. Start uses the aforementioned trope of American minimalism – the ostinato – as the motor in a variegated postmodern atmosphere. In addition to local ostinatos, there is an overarching repetitive process at work as well, a fascinating structural device that starts as a repeated single note in the slow section midway through the piece. Gradually, this “big beat” accumulates more and more pitches until it is a rearticulated chord and then – in one of the piece’s culminating gestures – an emphatically presented cluster. In a craftily enigmatic close, we are treated to an echo – a triad with a split third – presenting both major and minor in countervailing tension.
Fred Lerdahl supplies his own 21st century reset of a 20th century style; in this case, neoclassicism. Composed for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Time and Again is a lithely scored but powerfully articulate piece. Initially, this music was sketched for truly Spartan resources: as a duo for violin and cello called Give and Take. While there is an element of “theme and variations” here, the material isn’t exactly reiterated. Rather, continual transformations, particularly in the rhythmic domain, take place. Three large sections of development speed and slow the material in myriad ways, creating an unpredictable whorl of gestures. The coda builds a sustained unison to a cadence that is deflected by one final, puckish flourish.
Composer Christian Carey is an Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He edits the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (christianbarey.com).
Geoff Nuttall is looking for a few good rocks. One for each hand of 60 random patrons who show up at Charleston’s Dock Street Theater this Friday at 11 am or 1 pm for the first 2017 concert of Spoleto Festival USA’s immensely popular Bank of America Chamber Music Series. The rocks will be there for a piece called Trans for Percussion Solo and Audience, written by composer Lei Liang. The percussion solo will be performed by the legendary percussionist Steven Schick; the audience part will be performed by the 60 patrons who have been armed with rocks. The same program opens with Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor and closes with Glinka’s Divertimento Brilliante from themes from Bellini’s La sonnambula, with another modern piece by this year’s composer-in-residence Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, sandwiched in between.
“I am not really that thematic in approach to programming,” Nuttall says. “You want the individual pieces to work together but you also want each of them to be distinctive and stand out on their own.” He favors, what the architect Robert Venturi, once described as “a messy vitality over obvious unity.”
Nuttall is a consummate showman who has shown up just about every year with a different hair style—ranging from wavy to spiky to blond, Marcello Mastroionni to Gomer Pyle in length. Audiences love it.
But, don’t be fooled, the Spoleto chamber music schedule is a demanding one. Eleven programs, each played three times, over a 16-day period. “Not for the faint of heart,” Nuttall says.
The opening program is a typical day at the office for the always surprising Nuttall, first violinist and co-founder of the improbably still-cool-after-28-years St. Lawrence String Quartet, lecturer and Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, and Artistic Director of the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series, a post he inherited in 2009 from–and with the blessing of–the venerable pianist Charles Wadsworth, who guided the program for three decades (not to mention his leadership of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for many years.)
It was an inspired choice. Nuttall is one of those rare people who can explain complex music in a way that is engaging, entertaining and often downright funny. The New York Times labeled him the “John Stewart of classical music”, in fact, his comedic style is closer to that of Charleston native Stephen Colbert.
Born in College Park, Texas, Nuttall’s family soon moved to London, Ontario, Canada where he spent a few happy years skating on ponds and playing hockey until someone discovered he had violin talent and packed him off–at the age eight, while he still had his fingers and teeth–to Lorand Fenyves at The Banff Centre. He went on to the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto, where he received his bachelor of arts.
Among the guest artists, Nuttall has scheduled this year are percussionist Steven Schick, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, pianists Pedja Muzijevic and Stephen Prutsman composer/cellist Joshua Roman, Swiss-born pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and the Rolston String Quartet, a young Canadian ensemble that won the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition—an award won by the St. Lawrence many years ago.
Nuttall admits his programming choices are often influenced by the guest musicians who he chooses to perform.
“I’ve wanted to feature a percussionist for awhile now and when Steve Schick, who is one of my favorite musicians, agreed to do it, I started looking for pieces that would work. But the repertory for percussion is so specific, there’s only so much to pick from. And because it is so specific there has to be a certain balance in the rest of the concert. That’s why I chose the Iannis Xenakis contemporary solo percussion piece “Rebonds” for the first concert—to really showcase Steve’s outstanding musicianship. But then it’s balanced out with Vivaldi.”
Another modern piece on the program this year was written specifically for Schick by composer Gustavo Aguilar and is called Wendell’s History for Steve: Part I. It’s a solo work in which Schick improvises on various percussion instruments while reciting poems by the cow patty poet Wendell Berry.
There’s lots of Vivaldi on the program this year which require the talents of counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo but also provides an occasion for what looks to be an entertaining bit of fun. On June 10 and 11, Costanzo will sing “Crying,” a song written and famously performed the counter tenor Roy Orbison.
“I learned that Roy’s widow had once asked Anthony to perform it at a benefit and I said ‘We’ve got to do that.” Steve Prutzman put together a dynamite arrangement and it’s going to be great.”
That’s the kind of surprising programming that has made the Chamber Music Series the most consistently popular and enduring element of Spoleto Festival USA.
“I am amazed at the dedication of Charleston chamber music fans,” Nuttall says. “The Dock Theater seats about 450 people. We perform to 33 different audiences during the Festival and there is rarely an empty seat during any of the concerts. I don’t know any other city in the world—big cities included—where that would happen.”
Populist Records CD PR012
Jeremy Kerner, electric guitar; Isaura String Quartet; Corral, music box and laptop
LA-based Populist Records has released another treasure trove of unusual ambience. Daniel Corral’s Refractions, featuring the composer on music box laptop alongside electric guitarist Jeremy Kerner and the Isaura String Quartet, captures a compelling ambient composition. Delicate strains from guitar and strings are offset by bell-like interjections from Corral’s music box and swaths of sustained sounds from his laptop. The piece begins with all of these various textures and gradually is winnowed down to the music box, supplying minimal punctuations and offset repetitions in a slow ritardando until the piece’s delicate denouement and eventual close. Given the deliberate limitation of resources and lassitude of pacing, this slowly evolving piece of music is spellbinding in its execution. Rather than foregrounding the incremental shifts of material, the listener is encouraged to bask in a wash of sounds, varied and lovely timbres that are deployed with enough independence to seem to have minds of their own.
On May 6, 2017 Populist Records presented a CD release concert at Automata in Los Angeles featuring Refractions, a new album by Daniel Corral. The Koan String Quartet and guitarist Jeremy Kerner joined Corral playing music box and laptop to perform the entire album. A full house was in attendance on a chilly but otherwise quiet Saturday night in Chinatown.
The evening began with two improvisational duos in the Persian tradition by Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori who arrived with violins and a recorded drone. The first of these duos began softly with sustained tones in the violin against the calming drone. The second violin entered in counterpoint, and this added to an exotic – but never alien – overall feel. The violins traded off between the sustaining melody and active counterpoint and at length, smoothly beautiful vocals by Baranghoori filled the room. The program notes explained that “The singing will be a poem in Farsi and will be decided upon in the moment – the development of the piece and the mood will dictate the poem.” Although the tones resembled our European major mode the “intonation is different than the even-tempered major scale.” In any event, the result was astonishingly expressive. There was a mournfully stoic and nostalgic wistfulness in the singing that seemed to draw from several thousand years of Persian history – perhaps the cultural memory of some great loss. That both music and poetry were improvised on the spot was all the more impressive given its beguiling effect: this was clearly the product of a very long and sophisticated tradition.
The second improvisation was built around the same recorded drone and was similar in form, but somewhat darker and more dramatic in tone. The string passages were busier and contained a bit of uncertainty while the vocals felt more plaintive and yearning. All of this simply increased the already high level of expression heard throughout this music, adding to the remarkable artistry.
After a short intermission the balance of the evening was given over to a complete performance of Refractions, the new CD by Daniel Corral. The Koan Quartet took their places along with Jeremy Kerner on electric guitar and Corral on music box and laptop. Refractions began with quiet plinking by the music box and soft, wispy sounds from the Koan Quartet as the players moved their bows lightly over the strings, barely intoning the high pitches. There was a nostalgic, wistful feeling to this as the notes from the music box approximated something like a lullaby. This placid feeling was extended by the gentle tones now coming from the strings.
As the piece progressed the passages became shorter and stronger, but somewhat less connected. Pizzicato figures and the guitar added to a more complex texture – and the music box contributed a series of short trills – but the leisurely pace and generally soft dynamics maintained the overall sense of mystical serenity. The electronics morphed into a quiet rattle and eventually the string players joined in, softly rapping and knocking on their instruments. When the arco harmonies occurred, they were especially lovely in contrast. The increasingly sharp percussive effects – and the more disconnected character of the piece by the 35 minute mark – seemed to suggest some contention between the electronics and the strings. Towards the end however, the music box returned to prominence with its lullaby and the soothing chords now heard in the strings restored order at the finish.
The acoustics of the small Automata space seemed to work in favor of this very subdued music. The Isaura String Quartet performed on the CD, and this is more intimate yet – Refractions is clearly the kind of work that benefits from precise mastering in the studio. The live performance, however, did not suffer in any way and the playing throughout was precise and controlled. The cool ambient tranquility of Refractions is a much needed antidote to the raucous confusion that infests our daily lives; this music works to elegantly recharge us in a moment of restorative calm.
Refractions is available directly from Populist Records, in physical CD format or digital download.
The Koan Quartet is:
Eric K.M. Clark, violin
Orin Hidestad, violin
Cassia Streb, viola
Jennifer Bewerse, cello
On Friday, May 5, 2017 wasteLAnd convened at Art Share in downtown Los Angeles for a concert titled Matter/Moving, featuring works by James Tenney, Catherine Lamb, Erik Ulman and Michael Pisaro. A good-sized Cinco de Mayo crowd filled the space to hear performances by Scott Worthington, Matt Barbier and Scott Cazan in a concert characterized by unusual subtlety and sensitivity.
The first piece was Beast, by James Tenney and featured Scott Worthington on double bass. This opened with a series of low, sustained tones – a generally warm droning texture, but with some rough edges. The sound was more or less continuous with no pulse, save for the slight pause during the bowing. The double-stopped chords often changed slightly as they were played – when a tone went up slightly in pitch, there was an added element of tension or uncertainty. When one of the tones went down in pitch, the feeling was often more introspective and profound. The tones were sometimes very close in pitch, but not exactly, and this created something of an unsettled feeling. When the tones fell into a familiar harmonic relationship there was a sense of settled well-being. Beast continued in this way – a series of sustained chords where slight changes in pitch provided the harmonic propulsion for the passage. Although these changes were often slight and subtle, the pleasantly deep register of the double bass kept the listener engaged throughout. One could easily imagine a great beast, sighing and lightly snoring while curled up in a deep slumber. Beast is quintessential James Tenney, played in this performance with quiet authority by Scott Worthington whose ear and technique were flawless.
Matter/Moving, by Catherine Lamb, followed and for this Scott Worthington re-tuned his double bass and was joined by Matt Barbier on trombone and Scott Cazan presiding over the electronics. Matter/Moving began with a thin, high tone from the bass that was matched in pitch by a sine tone from the electronics and followed by silence. This was repeated with the addition of a second note by the bass at the end of the passage. After another short silence, the bass and electronics were joined by Barbier’s muted trombone, with all three sounds very close in pitch.
Matter/Moving proceeded in this way, with the sequential sounding of all three tones and their subsequent interactions derived from slight variations in pitch. In some cases the three pitches were so close as to produce zero-beating. At other times they combined to produce a more comfortable harmonic configuration. The clean sine tone from the electronics seemed to remain steady while the other two instruments worked off of this to create the various harmonic colors. Sometimes the feelings produced were introspective and profound, while at other times more questioning and uncertain. Towards the finish the electronics began to dominate the texture and this produced a somewhat bleak and alien feel. The bass began to climb higher in pitch and this introduced a bit of tension as well, like arriving at an desolate landscape. The playing was precise, disciplined and controlled.
Like the Tenney piece, Matter/Moving has no definite pulse or rhythm. The dynamic of this piece is also subdued – barely reaching mezzo piano – but this allowed the listener to better focus on the interactions of the tones. With an economy of musical materials and its minimal structure and form, Matter/Moving is a surprisingly expressive exploration of the hidden vocabulary of similar pitches.
Following a short intermission Coronation of Sesostris, by wasteLAnd’s featured composer Erik Ulman, was performed by Matt Barbier on solo trombone. This began with a single, loud tone that tapered off over the course a few seconds. After a short silence another was heard at what sounded to be a step higher. This continued with each succeeding pitch, as if moving up a scale. The powerful intonations by Barbier rang out through the space and then slowly decayed with a noticeable loss of energy as it quietly trailed off. The initial feelings of strength and confidence of each note morphed uneasily into a contrasting tentativeness and uncertainty. As the piece proceeded, however, more complex and rapidly-played passages emerged with ever greater variation in tone color and dynamic. The higher and lower registers of the trombone were heard. There was power and there was delicacy. Mutes appeared and were changed with great dexterity. The piece now took on a regal and powerful character – in keeping with the kingly title – before returning to the original single-tone sequences as the piece concluded. Coronation of Sesostris is a vivid portrayal of the uncertainties and ambitions surrounding the assumption of power – and could also be a challenging audition piece for the virtuoso trombonist.
The final work of the evening was No key but a possible movement, by Michael Pisaro. Scott Worthington and his solo double bass returned to center stage, along with a computer and large speaker by way of accompaniment. The piece began with a short pizzicato passage of four notes in the bass followed by answering tones from the speaker. The pre-recorded electronic track was created from processed samples of Worthington’s bass and this blended seamlessly with the live playing. The call-and-response sequence continued, with the pitches between the bass and electronics often closely matched. Eventually Worthington and the recording began conversing in bowed passages and this added a bit of drama. The closely tuned pitches began to interact and there were times when the sustained sounds achieved a distinct zero-beating growl. The low rumbling tones increased to a powerfully swelling roar, almost like standing inside some great machine.
Towards the middle of the piece some quiet was restored and long, sustained tones from the bass and speaker came together into a sweetly sorrowful and beautifully expressive mixture. Nothing touches the feelings like the lower register of a double bass, and this was brilliantly realized in both the playing and recorded accompaniment. The warm, deep sounds filled the room and then gradually subsided. The speaker then began issuing a series of soft rushing sounds, introducing a new sense of motion and activity. This eventually grew to a roar, overwhelming the bass tones entirely before fading to a whisper. At this point Worthington began applying his bow to various unconventional parts of the double bass – the strings below the bridge, the wood of the bridge itself, the purfing and even the tuning pegs. All of this produced a soft, wispy sound, similar to the that heard from electronics just prior. When the bow was again applied to the strings of the double bass, it was with such a light touch that only a quiet scratching resulted. At length these sounds faded into silence, concluding this remarkably expressive work. No key but a possible movement is a masterful exploration of the profoundly moving depths attainable by a double bass in very skilled hands.
It was announced that Wolfgang von Schweinitz will be the featured wasteLAnd composer for the 2017-2018 season, beginning in the fall.
The final wasteLAnd concert of the current season, Air has no residence, will feature the playing of gnarwhallaby and will be given at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood on June 2, 2017.
In recent years, saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has frequently collaborated with pianist Matt Mitchell, most notably in Snakeoil, a quartet in which the two are joined by clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith. Thus, Mitchell approaches Berne’s music from a unique and intimate vantage point, one ideal for the first solo interpreter of Berne’s intricate compositions. On FØRAGE, the pianist incorporates Snakeoil tunes as well as other Berne works to craft an imaginative and exhilarating program.
“PÆNË” opens the recording with material from The Shell Game, Berne’s 2001 release for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, on which the saxophonist performed with keyboardist Crag Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey in a trio called Hard Cell. The original rendition of the excerpted composition, “Thin Ice,” opens with spacey synths playing a decidedly angular version of a chord progression in straight quarters. Taborn is joined by an altissimo register sax solo that then moves suddenly downward into a wide-ranging post-bop excursion; all of this is reinforced by Rainey’s questing and aggressively punctuated drumming. Mitchell’s version distills the essence of “Thin Ice,” interpreting its 6/8 section with an imaginative gloss on all three musicians’ approaches from the original recording. Thus, the synthesizer’s chords are put into the middle and upper register of the piano in less rangy spacing. Rainey’s drumming is imitated by syncopated soprano register verticals. What was Berne’s melody glides between these two formidable layers (plus additional comping and bass notes to boot), supplying a gradually revealed essay of considerable interest.
On “TRĀÇĘŚ,” Mitchell reinterprets “Traction,” material from The Sublime And., a 2003 live release by another Berne band called Science Friction, a quartet with guitarist Marc Ducret joining Berne, Taborn, and Rainey. The most relentless cut on the album, it features incendiary lines from Ducret in tandem with a fierce ostinato from Berne that eventually evolves into a mayhem of upper register howls and bristling leaps. It is remarkable how, sans the amplification employed by Ducret and Taborn, Mitchell is able to create such a sizzling version of “Traction.” The pianist’s approach leaves little from the original to the imagination, encompassing a plethora of polyrhythms and unabating riffs as well as pointed soloing of his own. Even though inherently it is repurposed for the solo medium, the intensity of the original crackles here, never more so than in the endless, forceful rearticulations of the coda. “RÄÅY” also interprets music from the Sublime And.: here the piece is “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” a tune that in the original version combines an ebullient romp with passages of mysterious sostenuto. Mitchell employs “Van Gundy’s Retreat” as the latter half of “RÄÅY:” It begins with “Lame 3,” an established Berne composition that is slated for reinterpretation on the next Snakeoil recording. While rhythmically intricate like most of Berne’s work, it demonstrates a melodic delineation that is distinctive and memorable.
Mitchell amply demonstrates that he has made various regions of Berne’s voluminous catalog his own. Crucial as he was to its gestation, it is equally fascinating to hear him reinterpret the Snakeoil material. Both “ÀÄŠ” and “ŒRBS” consist entirely of compositions from the Snakeoil albums on ECM, and “CLØÙDĒ” combines “Spare Parts” from the first (2012) album with a reprise of the aforementioned 6/8 section of “Thin Ice.” In these compositions, one sometimes hears Mitchell channeling his bandmates’ solos and accompaniment, allowing their spirits to be present in his music-making. However, just as often, the pianist takes things in different directions, lingering over a riff or harmony here, inventing a new countermelody there. Thus, Mitchell untethers his playing from the more circumscribed role he undertakes in Snakeoil.
Even Berne aficianados are likely to be stumped by some of the material here, including a previously unrecorded cut, “Huevos Expanded,” the basis for “SÎÏÑ,” a fetching, impressionist tinged ballad that serves as the album’s closer. Here Mitchell fashions undulating ostinatos and deftly pedaled passages to create whorls of colorful harmonies, buoyed by a gentle waft of swing. The piece serves as a reminder that, while at times the thread between them is tenuous, Berne’s work is not solely avant-garde in character; it also evinces connections to the modern jazz tradition.
As a whole, FØRAGE leaves one eager to take a two-pronged approach: first, delving further into Berne’s catalog to reevaluate his music afresh; second, to reacquaint oneself with Mitchell’s own compelling body of work. It is also exciting to learn that more things are afoot with Snakeoil. In the meantime, FØRAGE supplies a potent combination of captivating compositions and abundant musicality. Recommended.
Saturday, April 29, 2017 and Human Resources in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles was the location for the Experimental Music Yearbook concert that featured a new work by Carolyn Chen and a set by the visiting Happy Valley Band. The wide open spaces of Human Resources were just right for the expansive choreography of Ms. Chen’s Signs of Struggle, and a perfect venue for the booming exuberance of David Kant’s amplified Happy Valley Band ensemble.
First up was Signs of Struggle by Carolyn Chen and this began with four players filing silently into the performance space – unoccupied save for a large drum on the floor surrounded by various found objects. Two of the performers were blindfolded, and led out into the open space, turned around several times until disoriented, and then left to wander blindly about. The other pair seated themselves at the drum on the floor.
The wandering pair, no doubt using aural cues, eventually met and began to struggle, as if wrestling. The pair sitting at the drum had a clicker, and when this sounded all movement stopped, resuming again after a second click. The wrestling pair worked their way to the drum, engaging one of the two seated there. The three now wrestled their way back into the open space, each pulling in different directions and constantly engaged, while sliding and crawling along the floor. Eventually all four were drawn into one rolling scrum, each struggling to keep the others from moving in any given direction. The blindfolds had been removed by this point and all were in continuous physical motion with the heavy breathing of the players clearly audible. This contest of strength became almost comical at times, provoking a few scattered laughs among the audience.
At length, all four arrived back at the drum. Here they separated and began heaping found objects on the drum head. With each grabbing the rim of the drum, they began to pull and push, contending for the direction that the drum should take along the floor. The sound that the drum made as a result of these efforts became a remarkably strong metaphor for the physical struggle witnessed just prior to this point in the performance. The objects on the drum head created a swirling roar, punctuated by sharp raps as some of the pieces were thrown upward and fell back. The final contest over the direction of the drum continued for a minute or two before all fell silent at the finish.
We have all heard percussion parts that put us in mind of cannons or hoof beats – but this was much more powerful and vivid even though it was not particularly loud or dramatic. It was as if the physical drama in the first part of the performance prepared our brain to acutely receive the symbolic sounds of the struggle as portrayed by the prepared drum. The choreography of this piece is extensive – Carolyn Chen’s score, performance notes and sketches run to several pages. The physical exertions of the players – Liam Mooney, Erika Bell, Davy Sumner, and John Eagle – were met with extended applause. Signs of Struggle is an enlightening combination of physicality and musical symbolism that surprises the listener with its power of suggestion and stimulation.
After a short intermission, the chairs were rearranged to face the Happy Valley Band, who had arrived from the Bay Area with an impressive array of cables, amplifiers, speakers sound boards, monitors and computers. Along with leader David Kant on saxophone, there was Andrew Smith at the keyboard, Beau Sievers on drum kit, Alexander Dupuis on guitar and Mustafa Walker, bass guitar. In addition, three local players sat in on various pieces during the set: Eric K.M. Clark, violin, Casey Anderson, saxophone and Sam Friedman, harmonica.
The music of the Happy Valley Band is based on transcriptions of popular songs which are highly processed using sophisticated signal analysis software that separates out the component parts. This is a multi-step process that, according to Kant’s website “…determines notes by changes in pitch and amplitude. With adjustable thresholds, it is tuned to the character of the material tracked. If, for instance, the material is rhythmic, amplitude onsets may be weighted more heavily than pitch onsets, and vice versa.”
Ultimately, this data is mined for pitch content and a local pulse, and at this microscopic scale the transcribed result varies greatly from standard temperament and conventional rhythms. “The pitch notation is fully microtonal, notated to the closest twelve-tone equal-tempered pitch and modified with microtonal cent deviation indications. The rhythmic notation is transcribed to the pulse of the song. Rather than transcribing to a constant pulse, the rhythmic notation is transcribed to a map of where the beat actually falls in the recording.”
The goal is to reproduce in performance what the recording machinery has ‘heard’ during the recording process. The result is akin to analyzing the DNA of a popular song and then performing a sort of exploded genetic mutation to produce music that, although very complex and unique, is recognizably related to the original. During the performance the vocal track of the original pop song is heard, and this acts as a guide for the players as well as giving the audience some helpful context.
Hearing the Happy Valley Band play is a bit like standing in front of a blast furnace – the notes pour out at a furious clip, at full rock band intensity. The Human Resources performance space has large flat walls with a hard floor, and this tended to amplify the already powerful sounds, partly at the expense of the recorded vocal track. The first piece began with a loud crash of a chord followed by some complex drumming, and the waves of sound were soon rolling out over the audience. There was no common beat – and the various parts were rapidly played with a highly complex figuration. The playing by the musicians was frantic, and notated pages flew off the music stands gathering in heaps across the floor as the piece progressed. The overall feel, however, was surprisingly organic and cohesive. The harmonic connections to the vocal track were just strong enough to unify the separate streams of sound in the mind of the listener.
The more recognizable pieces with the strongest vocal lines tended to be the most effective: songs by Phil Collins, Elvis Presley and James Brown being perhaps the most memorable. It’s a Man’s World by James Brown had the best balance between the vocal track and the instruments, the band having dialed back a bit on the volume. A fine sax solo by David Kant a added to the close-knit feeling with the original. As the set continued, different players rotated in and out. In one piece, the amplified harmonica of Sam Friedman rose to the top of a swirling texture to dominate in a most pleasing way. There were crisp violin solos, saxophone licks and many artfully played passages that quickly materialized and just as quickly disappeared. The spirited ensemble and high intensity dynamics, however, did not overwhelm the intrinsic connection of the transcribed playing to the original piece. This charm of this music is that it is like hearing an old, familiar tune – from the inside out. The Happy Valley Band continues to experiment at the ragged edge, tinkering with the genetics of popular songs to produce powerfully unique music.
A new album by the Happy Valley Band, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is now available as a vinyl LP and by digital download at Indexical.
Linda Catlin Smith
Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet
Another Timbre at105X2
Born in the US and residing in Canada for more than a quarter century, Linda Catlin Smith has become a fixture on that country’s cultural radar. She has been welcomed and feted as one of Canada’s own. For instance, she is only the second woman to win the Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music and has had a long association with the ensemble ArrayMusic, whom she served as Artistic Director. Several recordings have been released of her music, but last year’s Dirt Road won her critical acclaim and belated notice in the United States, ending up on many critics’ “best of year” lists (mine included). Released by Another Timbre, Dirt Road was merely a foretaste of that label’s commitment to Canadian music. Another Timbre has recently released a set of five recordings in its Canadian Composers series (another batch of five is due later this year). Catlin Smith features prominently, with the double disc Drifter serving as Volume 1 in the series. Other composers include Martin Arnold, Isiah Ceccarelli, Chlyoko Szlavnics, and Marc Sabat.
Drifter’s program is performed by two chamber groups: Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet. The “drifting” in question is not itinerant hitchhiking, but rather the placid tempo pathways frequently chosen by Catlin Smith. The piano trio Far from Shore, played here by Philip Thomas, Anton Lukiszevieze, and Mira Benjamin, is a case in point. Slow, soft music for the trio, often reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s approach (one that Catlin Smith acknowledges as a signature influence on her work) abides alongside passages of colorful piano chords. The spectrum moves from inexorably repeated constrained sets of pitches, to chromatic counterpoint, to whole washes of sound. The intuitive sensibility that Catlin Smith claims as her approach in preference to any dogmatic systemization clearly allows her to move through constantly changing musical terrain, all the while maintaining an organic sense of each piece. How does she manage this? An interview in the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers set quotes her as saying,”Listening. Lots of listening.” One could do worse as a composer in any style to listen as carefully as Catlin Smith does.
Cantelina (2013) for viola and vibraphone, played by Emma Richards and Simon Limbrick, presents another of the composer’s interests, one in heterogenous instrumental pairings. Both here and in the Piano Quintet ( 2014), another of Catlin Smith’s predilections, exploring tightly knit counterpoint in close registral positions, is featured. The overlapping in Cantilena is quite fetching (it is a combination that should be explored by more composers and one I’ll keep in my own hip pocket) and it is equally affecting when writ large in the quintet. The title work is also for a seemingly challenging combination, piano and classical guitar, played by Philip Thomas and Diego Castro Magas, but Catlin Smith’s gentle daubs of coloristic harmony and unequal ostinatos work beautifully in this duo context as well. Mon Qui Tremblais (1999), played by Thomas, Benjamin, and Limbrick, has a pulse-driven piano part that is joined by sustained violin and bowed pitched percussion. An interesting notational device is used: rather than writing out all the notes and rhythms, the composer specifies that the musicians silently read a Rimbaud poem and use its speech rhythms to shape the musical work (for instance, the percussionist gets his attack points from the accented French syllables).
Bozzini Quartet appears in two string quartets by Catlin Smith. Folkestone (1999) pits a persistently high violin line against blocks of slow articulated, syncopated chords played by the other three members (these have an almost accordion-like quality in their spacing). Gradually, other lines emerge from the texture, with the cello playing a poignant solo dissonant with the rest of the harmony. The chordal passages begin registrally to disperse, bringing the locus of activity closer to the violin’s sustained flautando melody. Mid-register lines now break free and the chords move in double time for a brief stretch before ceding the terrain to widely spaced and again slowly articulated harmonies. This alternation of patterns includes still more elements to be introduced: pizzicatos, duets, flashes of quartal harmonic brilliance, and a bass-register cello melody made truly weighty by the registers it has balanced against before. Clocking in at more than 32 minutes, Folkestone is a substantial and thoroughly captivating composition. Gondola involves members of the quartet coming in and out of unison and a gentle boat-rocking pacing that Catlin Smith describes thus:”The title loosely refers to its slight undulation or floating qualities – a subtle motion or disturbance of the surface, like trailing the hand in water.”
Evocative imagery for truly evocative music-making. Drifter is an album (a double-album at that) worth savoring.
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Photos: Karli Cadel
Ensemble Signal Plays Johannes Maria Staud
Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre
April 8, 2017
NEW YORK – Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud was given a prominent residency with the Cleveland Orchestra back in 2008-’10. Apart from this, he has not gained nearly as much notoriety in the United States as he deserves. His is one of the most fluent and and multi-faceted of the European “Second Modern” school of composition. A recent Composer Portrait concert, given at Miller Theatre by Ensemble Signal, demonstrated at least part of Staud’s considerable range as a composer. As usual, Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, were most persuasive advocates, consummately well-prepared for every challenging turn that confronted them.
Syndenham Music – Composed for the “Debussy trio” of flute, harp, and viola, this piece was both inspired by the Debussy sonata for that combination and by the artwork of Pisarro. The latter catalyst was acquired during Staud’s time living in England; he stayed in Syndenham, in the London suburbs, where Pisarro painted, and wrote Syndenham Music for the Aldeburgh festival. Bent notes, percussive attacks, and microtonal inflections, especially prevalent in the harp, are balanced by soaring flute lines and harp glissandos straight out of the Impressionists’ playbook.
Black Moon – With close to a dozen music stands spread across the stage, one knew that this would be an involved and extensive piece. Bass clarinetist Adrián Sandí handled the myriad extended techniques – multiphonic passages, glissandos, microtones, percussive sounds, and altissimo wails – with poise and suavity. His performance embodied a seeming effortlessness that belied the endurance test supplied by the score.
Towards a Brighter Hue – Written for solo violin, this piece had its own long line of music stands (Ensemble Signal might consider iPads for their soloists). Olivia de Prato played Towards a Brighter Hue with impressive intensity and relentless energy. As it was the most aggressive of the pieces on offer, this was just what the composer ordered. However, after the hyperkinetic slashes of the coda, a curt altissimo gesture also afforded this piece a little wink at its conclusion; it seemed designed to afford the listener a sigh of relief (and, in this audience, a few chuckles) to alleviate the tension.
Wheat, Not Oats Dear, I’m Afraid – The famous line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem provides Staud with the title for a septet with a bit of sly levity. Thus, typical gestures of post-Lachenmann modernity are paired with exaggerated exhalations from the entire ensemble, as well as more than a few microtonal chords and bent notes from the winds that provide a kind of analog to maudlin bluesiness.
Par Ici! – Written during a residency at IRCAM, the culminating work on the program is based on Le Voyage, a Baudelaire poem. Twelve notes on the piano are retuned a quarter tone high (so that’s why none of the previous works included it!) to create a sound spectra that is then replicated by most of the rest of the ensemble. A tension between pitched percussion, which doesn’t use the quarter tones from the spectra, and piano, creates a suppleness of harmony that blurs the edges of the proceedings. Rather than levity, here we are treated to an earnest approach, with a muscular catalog of gestures: one that Staud takes in many of his larger pieces. In Par Ici!, his focus on technical and instrumental combinations creates attractive gestural and textural palettes that are deftly deployed.
Thanks to Miller Theatre and Signal for tantalizing use with a panoply of his chamber works. Dare one hope that some of his orchestral music might be heard in New York next? Paging Jaap van Zweden …
RIAS Kammerchor; Anja Petersen, soprano; Andrew Redmond, baritone;
Münchener Kammerorchester, Alexander Liebreich, conductor
ECM New Series 2508 CD
On the cover of this CD’s booklet is a picture from 1917, 100 years ago, of deportees from Turkey travelling through the desert to Aleppo in Syria. One thinks, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem is written to commemorate victims of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in Turkey from 1915-’17. It is a calamity that affected his own family and one that he has long wanted to address, albeit with some trepidation. In the copious liner notes, which include thoughtful essays both by writer Paul Griffiths and the composer, one learns that the tension of writing a Requiem using liturgical Latin while coming from the tradition of the Orthodox Church proved a significant challenge, both compositionally and culturally. How could Mansurian depict and honor the struggle and emotional condition of the Armenian people while using such decidedly Western material, with the weight of luminaries such as Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi behind it?
The struggle to address this situation has proven well worth it. Mansurian’s solution is ingenious. Like Fauré, he is selective with the text, omitting much of the Dies Irae sequence (what remains is absolutely chilling). Mansurian also realized that the great Requiem masses from the 18-19th centuries often sounded as if their protagonists’ singing was “less like a prayer, more like a demand.” That would not do for depicting the mindset of Armenian Christians. Thus, Mansurian chose to try to reflect the Orthodox tradition in a Latin mass. He did so in two ways. The first was to incorporate melodic material, often modal or synthetic scales, that represent Eastern liturgical and folk music. The second was to include chanting reminiscent of Orthodox monodic singing, but with the Latin words as its textual basis.
These incorporations make the piece timeless in its sound world. Sections of chant, both in the tenors and in alternim sections between men and women’s voices, present haunting scalar passages that resonate with Eastern music. Two brief solos – one for soprano Anja Petersen and the other for baritone Andrew Redmond – are memorable parts of the Tuba Mirum and Domine Jesu Christe movements.
Despite the comparatively modest forces – four-part chorus (with no divisi) and strings – the texture does not rely solely on the spareness of chant. Indeed, there are moments of exceeding richness. Like so many Requiem masses, the key of d-minor, with a number of modal variants and splashes of D-major as well, is prevalent. Polychords press into bare triads (there is even a moment of C major amidst the plethora of minor key successions). The orchestration is particularly vivid, so much so that you don’t mind having strings accompany the “Tuba mirum” sans brass. Conductor Alexander Liebreich leads the combined forces of RIAS Kammerchor and Münchener Kammerorchester in a pitch perfect performance that is austere and emotive in just the right moments.
It is, of course, too soon to tell if Mansurian’s Requiem will be a piece for the ages. It is certainly a deeply touching and sensitive reimagination of a text that some may feel has long since been ossified by its own traditions. Perhaps more importantly, in addressing genocide and refugee crises from a century ago, Mansurian holds up a mirror to our own time and dares us to be unflinching in our gaze. For that alone, it is a work of great value.
Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Time Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Chicago Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen;
Color Field Quartet
Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano
On his latest CD for Yarlung, composer James Matheson presents strong essays in both the concerto and string quartet genres. His String Quartet, played in vibrant fashion by Color Field Quartet, is filled with overlapping scales and glissandos, post-minimal ostinatos, and impressionist harmonic colors. Thus, it presents as a postmodern response both to composers such as Ravel and Debussy and more recent figures such as John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.
There is a similar variety of instrumental color in Matheson’s violin concerto. Its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is described in the liner notes as a great champion of the piece, helping to arrange for its recording (a live tape of the Chicago Symphony). The muscularly motoric violin part, played here by Baird Dodge, is formidable. The violin soloist is required to execute limpid runs clear up into the stratosphere of the instrument’s compass. In addition to its impressive solo part, the concerto’s orchestration has a cinematic sweep that is most engaging. The second movement, Chaconne, features a gradual build by the soloist, with the part starting down near rumbling cellos and basses and concluding within striking distance of high flutes (which seem to mimic gestures from movement one in slow motion). The concerto concludes with Dance, a moto perpetuo in which the violinist faces off with a boisterous orchestra (which ends on the supertonic!).
The songs are idiomatically set, but I was left wishing for a less diffident performance than the one provided here. They were written for Kiera Duffy; perhaps we can hope that she gives them a hearing soon.
Matheson’s musical language is appealing in its variety. He is also a creative orchestrator, parsing multiple threads of activity yet always providing music with a clear surface.
Yo-Yo Ma Premieres Salonen Concerto in New York
March 15, 2017
By Christian Carey
NEW YORK – One of the most eagerly anticipated New York premieres of 2017 was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma. It had been presented shortly before by the Chicago Symphony, and buzz had grown around the piece based on positive reports from the these concerts. At David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic showed that the Chicagoans hadn’t cornered the market: they had much to offer in this engrossing work. Outgoing Music Director Alan Gilbert made a strong impression with a sensitive and detailed reading of the Salonen concerto. The composer was on hand before the performance to give an image-filled talk from the stage.
Opening in a chromatic environment, with stacks of bitonal chords (C+D# diminished noteworthy among them), hazy string tremolos are set against motoric patterns from winds, muted brass, and pitched percussion. The cello solo at first plays along with the cello section, then in counterpoint with it: a mournful melody that starts out in the cello’s medium upper register and works its way down to the open A string. The orchestra part juxtaposes the modernist palette of the opening with post-minimal repetitive gestures: sostenuto interludes from the strings also take part in the proceedings, giving the impression of the cello solo on steroids. The movement ends with the cello wending its way down from its upper register to the lower half of the cello, ending on the G-string. A low D# from bass clarinet and an icy vertical from the strings accompany it into a void where time seems to stop.
After a blazing brass crescendo, the second movement is often placid, with long stretches of fragility and transparency. A noteworthy feature is the concerto’s first (and primary) use of electronics. Loops are employed to project small sections of the cello part throughout the hall, building an army of ghostly apparitions out of the solo part. While there has been much more extensive incorporation of electronics in various pieces for orchestra, the sound of these loops whirring around Geffen Hall was impressive.
The third movement has been called by Salonen a nod to the musicianship Yo-Yo Ma has garnered with the Silk Road ensemble. To create a multi-cultural effect, and to buoy the dance rhythms that populate the closing movement, Philharmonic percussionist Christopher Lamb was on hand to play a vigorous part on bongos and congas. This isn’t the only duet Ma engages in. He is also given stretches of music to interact with other players, such as the contrabassoon and alto flute in movement two. That said, the pairing of percussion and cello brings out an intensity in the solo part. Cadenzas pile up alongside vigorous tutti, until at the last …
There’s “that high note” that is the penultimate gesture in the work (It is followed by electronics – loops from the second movement that burst into activity around the hall). It is a Bb7 (the last B-flat at the very top of the piano). In an interview with Alex Ross in the New Yorker, Salonen said that he originally pitched the note an octave lower, but Yo-Yo Ma said he could go even higher: hence, Bb7.
I was curious: how many other works for cello go this high (or higher)? I’ll admit, I crowdfunded the answer. A quick question on Facebook yielded several responses from friends that the cello has indeed been employed this high and even higher (B7 and C8). Cellist and composer Franklin Cox was kind enough to explain to me that even though the notes are past the end of the fingerboard, by squeezing the string against it, one can elicit these stratospheric pitches. Cox has written them, and Joseph Dangerfield cited Curve With Plateaux, a work by Jonathan Harvey ,that goes all the way up to C8. Andrew Rindfleisch shared JACK’s performance of his second string quartet, in which Jay Campbell plays A7, Bb7, and C8. Pianist Gloria Cheng nominated Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés. Several people mentioned Matthias Pintscher and Salvatore Sciarrino (I haven’t tracked the scores down yet to verify this).
My sometimes curmudgeonly friend Andrew Rudin complained that these composers were trying to make the cello into a violin, but what I heard at David Geffen hall was nothing like the altissimo register of a violin. In some ways, it wasn’t about the extreme highness of the sound; apart from the harmony surrounding it, I don’t think it mattered that the pitch was Bb7 or C8; it seemed eminently attainable – and sustainable – by the soloist. What was remarkable was the long ringing quality it made – like a singing sword on steroids. Here’s hoping that someone – preferably our New Yorkers (while Mr. Gilbert remains with them) records this work ASAP.
The Formosa Quartet, Aleck Karis, piano; Third Coast Percussion, Daniel Schlosberg, piano; Michael Lewanski, conductor; Mark Dresser, contrabass solo; The Palimpsest Ensemble, Steven Schick, percussion, conductor
New World CD
Luminous, composer Lei Liang’s latest CD for New World, is among his most imaginative releases yet. In an email exchange, Liang cited fruitful artistic partnerships as central to his inspiration for the five works on the CD. Percussionist/conductor Steven Schick is central to the project. The percussion solo Trans, written for Schick’s fiftieth birthday also incorporates an effective use of audience participation: 100 or so people were given small pairs of stones to knock together, creating a sheen, like ardent rainfall, that provides a backdrop of sound to Shick’s virtuosic playing of a multi-instrument kit.
Another piece that features percussion is Inkscape. Written for a consortium of ensembles, this piano/percussion work is performed here by Third Coast Percussion and pianist Daniel Schlosberg and conducted by Michael Lewanski. The piece moves from a diaphanously mysterious saturation of soft dynamics and textures to a more fragmented, stentorian presentation. Thus, Liang puts two of the most important aspects of any percussion piece – those of texture and dynamics – in opposition, crafting an overall formal design that is quite elegant. The end of the piece takes these juxtapositions and presents them in smaller chunks, allowing the listener moments of reverie only to be thrust again into fortissimo passages.
Verge Quartet is, in part, based on Mongolian folk music, its gestural language as well as its folksongs. That said, it is no pastiche piece. The folk influences are integrated into Liang’s overall compositional approach, not as an East-meets-West hybridization, but in truly organic fashion. One could compare his approach in Verge Quartet to those of Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, Unsuk Chin, and Michael Finnissy, composers who make the incorporation of folk material a seamless yet integral part of their respective musical languages. The Formosa Quartet plays the work with brilliant energy and carefully detailed authenticity.
Alec Karis is an authoritative pianist on the solo work “The Moon is Following Us,” demonstrating the capacity to evoke all manner of dynamic shadings and varied phrasing with nimble accuracy. Starting with brash repeated clusters, the music gradually moves through assorted ostinatos to a shimmering palette of added note chords. Neo-impressionist touches, such as harp-like arpeggiations and quickly unspun treble register melodies, gradually soften the hard-edged modernism of the opening into a more fluid sound world.
The title work is a concerto for double bass, written for the contemporary music virtuoso (in both of notated and creative improvised music) Mark Dresser. Schick conducts the Palimpsest Ensemble, the new music group in residence at University of California San Diego, where both Liang and he teach, in this challenging and ambitious composition. In the album’s liner notes (excellently curated by the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger), Liang writes of Luminosity:
“The instrument’s rich spectra embody ‘voices’ that encompass extreme opposites—lightness and darkness, angels and ghosts, paradise and inferno—unified by a singular vibrating body. The composition explores these voices in a few large sections, starting with bowing on one string that produces multiphonics, double-stop bowing, and pizzicati. It concludes with the threading technique (attaching the bow from beneath the string), which allows the performer to bow multiple strings simultaneously. The last section is subtitled ‘The Answer Questioned’ as an homage to Charles Ives and György Kurtág.”
This summer, Liang’s Gobi Canticle will be premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. I very much forward to hearing it.
In the spirit of, ummm, hope and change, my composer friend Rodney Lister has written a wonderful new song.
On April 4, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk space presented Sarah Cahill in a MicroFest concert titled Happy Birthday Lou Harrison!, marking the centennial year of the influential composer. Aron Kallay, Yuri Inoo and Shalini Vijayan were also on hand as was Bill Alves, who introduced his new book “Harrison – American Musical Maverick.” A capacity crowd gathered to hear Ms. Cahill, currently on an extended tour featuring Harrison’s early work as well as later pieces.
The concert began with 1st Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1959), performed by Yuri Inoo on percussion and violinist Shalini Vijayan. This consisted of three movements, the first of which started off with a strong beat and purposeful violin line. The Asian influence so typical of Harrison’s music are clearly heard in this work, first performed in 1959 but apparently dating back in some form to 1940. The intimate acoustics of the Monk Space amplified every detail, but the playing was always confident and precise. The second movement, Largo, is more sedate, with a flowing violin line and simple percussive beat, it retains the exotic flavor. The final Allegro movement features rapid, syncopated figures in the violin and a strong, driving rhythm. Shalini Vijayan shaped these passages into a smoothly sinuous melody, masterfully drawing out the beauty inherent in this music.
Sarah Cahill next took the stage to perform three early piano pieces dating from 1937. These were found in the Mills College library and are not among Harrison’s published works. Range-Song has a slow and steady feel, augmented by the presence of expressive tone clusters that were a tribute Harrison’s mentor Henry Cowell. Jig has a somewhat faster rhythm, syncopated and dance-like, as well as dense chords that alternate with a simple melody line that effectively heightens the vivid harmonies of this complex, but uncomplicated piece. Dance for Lisa Karon, the last piece in this group, was written specifically for a professional dancer. Harrison, like John Cage, found work at this time playing and composing for dance companies and the original score was recovered only recently. Strong, complex statements mixed with more straightforward sections again serve to enhance emotions powered by the often dense harmonies and thick textures. Although these are early works, all feel fully formed and typically Harrison.
Varied Trio (1986) was next, and for this the happily-named Varied Trio, a Los Angeles-based new music group consisting of Aron Kallay, Yuri Inoo and Shalini Vijayan, took their places. Varied Trio unfolds in five short movements and the first of these nicely showcased Harrison’s esteem of Javanese gamelan forms. A lovely sound rose up from the plucked piano strings and vibraphone to create a delicately beautiful foundation for the soaring violin line. The tranquil atmosphere was enhanced by a simple, steady beat in the percussion and the Asian influence was clearly evident. The second movement was driven by a more animated rhythm in the percussion and supplemented by a sharp pizzicato in the violin. The piano joined in counterpoint, complimenting the precise blend in a texture that was highly active, but always reserved and dignified. The third movement was styled as an elegy and the playing was appropriately solemn and introspective – especially in an expressive violin line that was fittingly sad – but never melancholy. Movement 4 was a rondeau homage to the French painter Fragonard, a favorite of Harrison. While there was no percussion in this movement, the sunny optimism and welcoming feel were augmented by a simple melody and the excellent playing of Aron Kallay on piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. The nostalgic sensibility was warmly sentimental, but never saccharine.
The final movement was clearly a product of Harrison’s time playing for dancers. A swirling feeling of exhilaration was clearly heard in the rapid passages and lively rhythms. There was a detectable Asian flavor to this, but mostly it celebrated invigorating physical movement. The clean playing and fine coordination between the musicians in Varied Trio was rewarded with extended applause.
After intermission, Sarah Cahill returned to the piano to perform Conductus from Suite (1942). As Bill Alves explained, Harrison had moved to Los Angeles specifically to study the 12-tone technique with Arnold Schoenberg. Although Schoenberg was notoriously tough on students who attempted this, Harrison succeeded in making a good impression. Conductus dates from this period and is a surprisingly credible effort in this rigorous style. A complex and lively feel nicely captures the Second Vienna School – the phrasing alternates between well-shaped fast and slow passages, without any sense of forced process. Ms. Cahill performed Conductus with careful attention to detail, reflecting the high level of craftsmanship that Harrison had committed to it.
Omnipotent Chair (1940) was next and violinist Shalini Vijayan took the stage along with Yuri Inoo and Aron Kallay on percussion. The five movements of this piece were varied, but all had that distinctive Asian influence so characteristic of Harrison. The percussion often dominated in busy, complex passages as a strong violin melody arced smoothly overhead – the balance of these opposing elements being carefully maintained in both the score and the playing. By the the third movement, the pace was was slower and simpler – a quiet gong adding a touch of the mystical. The fourth movement had an active dance-like feel. A nice groove developed in the percussion that was taken up by the violin; Harrison was surely in familiar territory here. The last movement returned to a slower tempo and the steady drum beat was nicely complimented by the playing of some light bells, ably handled by Kallay. The blend of percussion and melody was perfect and conjured a bit of mystery as the piece faded to a quiet finish.
The three movements of A Summerfield Set (1988) completed the concert program and for this Sarah Cahill returned to the piano. The opening movement, while rapidly paced and full of repeating phrases, was open and sunny. A slower stretch provided some introspective contrast before returning to a recap of the active opening. The slower second movement was a bit more pensive and uncertain, and there was an echo of Harrison’s 12 tone influences. A nicely balanced melody and counterpoint – expertly played by Ms. Cahill – rounded out this movement. The final movement was faster and brighter – like a breezy day on a sunny beach or like a day of vacation in the country.
A Summerfield Set dates from later in Harrison’s career and is almost conventional in its optimistic sensibility. This made a nice bookend to the earlier works heard, providing an enlightening overview of Harrison’s long career. Ms. Cahill and the Varied Trio were greeted with enthusiastic and extended applause at the conclusion of the program. Hearing the music of Lou Harrison invariably leaves you wanting to hear more – and the performances in this centennial concert powerfully confirmed his greatness.
Sarah Cahill continues her extended tour and is scheduled to perform Harrison’s music in New York, Boston, The Bay Area, Cleveland, and Hawaii.
MicroFest continues the tribute to Lou Harrison with events at UCLA on April 21, Harvey Mudd College on April 23, Boston Court on May 12 and at the Harrison House in Joshua Tree on May 14.
Pianist Sarah Cahill appears at LPR on April 6th at 7 PM as part of her tour celebrating the music and birth centenary of composer Lou Harrison. She and I touched base earlier this week as she was preparing for her trip to the Northeast.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking time to talk with Sequenza 21. Which was the first Lou Harrison piece you played? When were you first aware of his music?
I don’t remember the first piece I played, but I became interested in him because of my fascination with Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford and that circle of early 20th century American experimentalist composers. And in the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a profound affection and devotion to Lou Harrison everywhere. He taught at Mills College for many years, and lived fairly close by, in Aptos, and worked with many musicians I’m close to, including Larry Polansky, Robert Hughes, Jody Diamond, Willie Winant, Phil Collins, Julie Steinberg, and many others.
What was it like working with Harrison on his pieces? Tell us about the piece that you premiered.
I premiered a piece called Festival Dance for two pianos, with the pianist Aki Takahashi, at Cooper Union in 1998. It’s a piece Lou Harrison wrote in the 60s and had never been played. He was such a gracious person, always kind-hearted and relaxed. He wanted us to emphasize the melodic line.
At LPR, you will be playing ‘Party Pieces.’ What was the collaborative process like in this composition – how did the “exquisite corpse” concept play out in the musical domain?
Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Henry Cowell met frequently in Lou Harrison’s loft on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in about 1944 or 1945. Lou Harrison explains it best: “Each composer present would write a measure, fold the paper at the bar line and, on the new fresh sheet, put only two notes to guide the next composer in his connection. The next composer would write a bar, fold at the bar line and leave two more black spots and so on. It seems to me that we would begin simultaneously and pass them along in rotation in a sort of surrealist assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.” Last month I visited the Lou Harrison archives at UC Santa Cruz, with Lou’s great friend, composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, and made copies of some of the manuscripts with my cell phone. I’ll give copies to the audience at my concert on Thursday evening.
What are some of the other pieces you are playing at LPR?
I’m starting with two unpublished Lou Harrison pieces, Range-Song and Jig, that pay homage to his teacher and friend Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time, with Cowell’s famous chord clusters. Then a movement of Cowell’s own Rhythmicana, dedicated to Johanna Beyer, so then I’ll play a short piece from Beyer’s Dissonant Counterpoint. That will lead to the Conductus from Harrison’s Suite which he wrote while studying with Schoenberg (with a twelve-tone row). Then a short piece by James Cleghorn, who was Harrison’s friend who suggested he take classes from Henry Cowell. His son Peter Cleghorn will be in the audience to introduce that piece. Then a pair of pieces, both composed in 1946 for a performance by the choreographer Jean Erdman: Lou Harrison’s The Changing Moment, not heard in New York since 1946, and John Cage’s Ophelia. Both compositions reveal some of the emotional disturbance and identity crisis that affected both composers at the time. Then a movement of Frank Wigglesworth’s Sonatina, and ending with the wonderful Summerfield Set that Harrison composed in 1988. At LPR I have to stick to a sixty-minute program– otherwise I could go on and on and on with Lou Harrison and his circle, because there are lots of fascinating connections.
Tell us about the concerto? What was Harrison’s approach to orchestration in this piece primarily Western in conception, or does it incorporate non-Western instruments/allusions/tuning, etc.?
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos of the 20th century. It’s gorgeous and epic and should be played a lot more often. The piano is retuned in a Kirnberger tuning, as are sections of the orchestra. There’s a great battery of percussion.
What else is going on for you this season?
Later in the year I’m playing Lou Harrison’s great Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan at MIT and at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and also playing a program of his piano works on three different instruments– equal tempered piano, tack piano, and piano in Werckmeister 3– in Tokyo and Fukuoka, at the invitation of the extraordinary composer Mamoru Fujieda. I’m learning Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for next year, and Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream (Say Sea, Take Me!) to perform at Interlochen in July. And next month I’ll get to play Lou Harrison on Maui and the Big Island, along with Tania Leon, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and many others, at the invitation of a marvelous composer, Robert Pollock, who runs a concert series there.
Sarah Cahill’s April-May 2017 Lou Harrison Tour Schedule
(Fall 2017 Lou Harrison tour dates will be announced in May 2017)
Solo Recital | Le Poisson Rouge | NYC
April 6, 2017 at 7pm
MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017
At National Sawdust on Friday April 7th at 7 PM, Opera Cabal presents the premiere of Ken Ueno’s new opera Aeolus. Joined by vocalist Majel Connery and Flux Quartet, Ueno performs throughout the opera. His fascinating blend of vocal techniques includes microtonal inflections, megaphone-amplified directives, and throat-singing. Electronics, video projections, and an architecturally conceived set design converge to make Aeolus a potent multimedia concoction. I recently caught up with Ken as he was in the thick of preparations for the opera.
Hi Ken. Thanks for taking the time to talk with Sequenza 21.
Why are you calling this an opera instead of some other genre? As you well know, multimedia theater pieces are called all sorts of things…
Following the examples of Monteverdi, Mozart, and especially Nono, “opera” seems to be an open enough label, if we need a label, so I hope it’s appropriate for this piece. But you’re right – I don’t really know what to call it. It doesn’t have a regular narrative. It features two voices that are in distinct contrast to bel canto singing. But I am attached to the possibilities Prometeo opens up, so if Nono’s is an opera, then, Aeolus, can be an opera too, right? Aeolus does feature a suoni mobili (Nono calls the movement of sound the main drama in Prometeo) characteristic in that, in the guise of Aeolus (the ruler of the winds), I move around the hall, directing my non-semantic vocalizations with a megaphone to articulate the architecture, the space, as an instrument.
You’ve mentioned that there are autobiographical elements in the libretto. Since it is fairly nonlinear in terms of narrativity, would you like to share how some of your own history fits in?
Memory is non-linear. Spaces between texts and texts in memory become islands in search of a place in time, an ostensible home, which the idea of a Penelope represents. My biographical circumstance is that my family moved around so much during my formative years that I don’t have a normative sensation of a home. So, the idea of a home is a mythic space for me, one I’ve also begun to associate with not only a place, but also specific people with whom I shared lived in those spaces that felt like places to which I belonged. That’s also, I think, why James Joyce resonates so powerfully in me. If there is a main narrative in Aeolus, it’s the counterpoint between the semantic and non-semantic in search of a home.
If I may, here’s an excerpt of a draft I’m writing for something else, which elaborates on this:
My own language acquisition parallels Dedalus’ in that the trajectory from babbling to fluency did filter out a palette of sounds that were extraneous to language. As a baby, I remember understanding language before I could actually speak. I remember both the frustration of not being able to communicate, as well as the tiny victories when I somehow managed to reach out and get through – sometimes purely through the inflections of non-semantic vocalizations, maybe combined with clear physical gestures like pointing or shaking my head.
When I was four, my family moved to Switzerland, and apart from speaking Japanese with my family I was a mute child again, unable to speak the local French. The burgeoning richness of my internal life was frustrated by this communication setback. Around that time, I was given a portable Aiwa tape recorder and started to make non-linear musique concrète, playing with snippets of sounds of my little world in exile. Listening to those recordings now, through auto-archaeology, I discover not only that I was vocalizing non-semantically, but that I was singing multiphonics. I was babbling, testing the limits of my vocal repertoire, expanding the repertoire of sounds my body could make. Unhinged from semantic obligation, I was freely playing at making sounds for the pure sake of making sounds, developing a series of dexterous moves ancillary to spoken language – to logos. I remember how it felt. The complex vibrations of the multiphonics reverberated in my body, shaking my bones. It was soothing. I learned to make a variety of sounds that registered different feelings. They felt like different weights of the world. Not being able to speak the local language, not having any friends, I was performing, rehearsing for my future self. The future will rationalize the past. When I read James Joyce as a teenager, the tropes of alienation and exile, and the distance between language as sound and language as semantic medium, all resonated with me.
Tell us about your collaborators.
Majel Connery is my singer. Though classically trained, she has a beautiful lyrical voice, that reminds me of Elena Tonra from Daughter or Beth Gibbons of Portishead. But that’s really unfair. I should not be naming names or comparing her to anyone else – she has a great voice, she is a primary referent in her own right. When I heard her voice and imagined what it was capable of, I knew I wanted to write songs for her. Songs that would carry the semantic exposition in Aeolus. She’s been very generous with me in trying out sketches of my songs in different keys, etc., so that we can get to the right voice/word combination to get to the pathos that I want to express. Majel is also a brilliant project leader. She is Opera Cabal. She is our fearless leader and most responsible for all of this happening. A visionary!
Thomas Tsang is a brilliant architect with whom I have been collaborating for ten years. We met as fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and we’ve collaborated on installations ever since. As an artist, he brings a fully-fledged multidisciplinary edge to architecture. He questions traditional outputs and bravely creates installations, events, workshops that challenge us to rethink the history of specialization in our related fields. The full vision for the opera is to have a space that he designs that is something more than a set or venue, something more integral to the expression of the piece. We are working towards that.
Erin Johnson is a video artist with whom I have been collaborating over the last few years. She’s an all-round creative force. Many of her works thread the line between video art, installation, performance art, curation, and community engagement. She naturally problematizes categories in her artistic output. She curated a work of mine last summer – Fortress Brass, a site-specific piece that took place on boats and then at Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor, in Maine. Erin made videos for four of the scenes in Aeolus, for scenes with voice-overs. Voice-overs take the place of dialogue in Aeolus (a move that I first began to experiment with in my first opera, Gallo). Being pre-recorded, the voice-overs inhabit a different time/place: it serves a distancing function.
I am also lucky to be working with the renown Flux Quartet. Specialists in the extreme demands of new music, breathtaking in their courage and inspiring. I am blessed to have this team.
What are some of the electronic elements in the piece?
Mostly, the electronics are backing tracks for the pop songs. In one scene, I perform with a Max patch that the brilliant designer/composer Ilya Rostovtsev made for me. The patch lets me use my iPhone as a controller for algorithmic drums.
What does lateral bowing sound like? You’ve become a big fan of it … how did you first discover it as a technique?
I like lateral bowing because it sounds like breath – the link between my vocal practice, my body, and the embodied choreography of sounds that I notate for instrumentalists to perform. I first came up with lateral bowing, when I was experimenting on a viola during the composition of my viola concerto, Talus.
What’s next for you?
I’m lucky to have pieces upcoming for talented friends: a piece for five-string baroque cello for Elinor Frey; a solo trumpet + electronics work for Andy Kozar; a solo cello piece for Jason Calloway; a saxophone piece for Vincent Daoud; a trio for Kim Kashkashian; and a long overdue piece for piano for Kathy Supove (and some other things too).
March 26, 2017 brought the opportunity to hear experimental music performed by John Eagle and Emily Call at the wulf @ Coaxial Arts. Since the sale of the former wulf building on Sante Fe Avenue last fall, various venues around town have been used for performances and the latest of these is Coaxial Arts on South Main Street. The space is smallish, but with the brick walls and overhead track lighting, Coaxial feels like a cross between Automata and Monk Space. Almost every chair was occupied as a knowledgeable crowd filed in on a quiet Sunday evening in downtown Los Angeles.
A sound installation, quieting room (2012), by Michael Winter was in progress as people were arriving, and this set the tone for the evening. As the program notes explained, quieting room is “… a very crude genetic algorithm (i.e., a model of Darwinian evolution) attempts to put two signals out of phase and quiet the room.” quieting room begins with moderately loud electronic sounds comprised of what seem to be several frequencies. The algorithm operates on these – adding signals that are out of phase – and with each succeeding generation of sine tones, the quieter ones are favored so that eventually the sound diminishes. What starts out as a complex and robust swirl of sound eventually thins out, as each new generation lowers the intensity and volume. A series of soft, pulsing and beeping tones in the background help to vary the texture. The entire process takes several minutes from start to finish, and then repeats. Always engaging, quieting room is an interesting application of evolutionary natural selection operating on musical processes.
The second piece, necklaces (2014) was also composed by Michael Winter and performed by John Eagle on a specially tuned guitar. As described by Winter in the program notes, the “…score represents all possible unique picking patterns of 4 strings sounding the same pitch. such limited focus accentuates minor variations in tuning, string tension and string gauge.” necklaces unfolds in a continuous stream of steady 8th notes, and with careful listening it is possible to discern minor differences in intonation as different strings are added to the playing sequence. Some strings had a deeply resonant and warm feel while others had more of a twang or a steely sound. It was a bit like listening to a prepared guitar, but much more understated. By focusing attention on these small variations instead of a pitch palette, the brain builds up a sense of rhythm and structure from the repeating patterns and their permutations. After just a few minutes, hearing these subtleties became almost automatic, and were not obscured even when the quieting room sound installation recycled. All of this is more engaging than it might seem and necklaces is an enlightening excursion into the boundaries between music and cognitive perception.
The final piece in the program was tuning #3: I. Ascending (2016) by John Eagle and was performed by Emily Call on violin. According to the program notes, “tuning #3 is comprised of various subsets of the 4-note, justly tuned, chords possible in the violin’s first position. In this subset (Ascending), a basic ‘ascending’ shape is imposed where each finger must be positioned equal to or higher than the last.” An electronic reference tone is sounded for each chord subset and the performer must adjust the intonation of the ascending notes as the piece progresses. The score consists of a series of cells, each containing a chord subset. The performer initiates the reference tone with a foot pedal and then completes the chord, feeling for the best sequence and complementary intonation. The result was a wide-ranging exploration of the many emotions that were present in the chords of each cell. The feelings that emerged were variously, warm and welcoming, soothing, unsettled, questioning, anxious, searching, nostalgic or resolute. This music is always in the moment, and best heard unencumbered by expectation. Each cell brings a new, but fleeting, expressive vocabulary – some fragments were very vivid and others very beautiful. The audience was engaged throughout, listening carefully to catch the next flash of emotional color. The thoroughness of this working out of the chord sequences brought to mind the methods of Tom Johnson, and tuning #3 makes for an intriguing journey, charting less familiar musical territory.
The 40 minute length of this piece makes tuning #3 an exercise in stamina for the soloist. Emily Call proved more than equal to the task, even while constrained by a short pickup cable and the necessity of frequently activating the foot pedal. There was no loss of energy in her tone or hesitation in her intonation, even as she processed how to deal with each of the reference tones. Ms. Call was a model of grace and poise throughout and her efforts were rewarded with extended applause.
Orr Sinay, Jeese Quebbeman and guest composer Stellan Bark from Berlin will appear at the wulf.@ Coaxial Arts at 8:00 PM on April 7, 2010.
Virgil Thomson – Gertrude Stein
Four Saints in Three Acts; Capital Capitals
Charles Blandy, tenor; Simon Dyer, bass; Aaron Engebreth, baritone; Andrew Garland, baritone; Tom McNichols, bass; Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano; Sarah Pelletier, soprano; Deborah Selig, soprano; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Lynn Torgove, mezzo-soprano; Stanley Wilson, tenor;
Boston Modern Orchestra, Gil Rose, conductor
BMOP/Sound 1049 2xCD
Virgil Thomson’s 1934 collaboration with the eminent author Gertrude Stein resulted in their first of two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, has made successful forays into recorded opera before, bringing scores such as Lukas Foss’s Griffelkin and Charles Fussell’s Wilde to life. Their recording of Thomson/Stein’s opera is a very successful addition to the orchestra’s burgeoning catalog of works.
Taking Stein’s use of non-linear narrative in her writing as a cue, Thomson created a score that, for its time, was exceedingly adventurous. At first blush, one might well think of Thomson’s harmonic language – relentlessly tonal – and his borrowing of material from the American vernacular – ranging from hymns and folksongs to popular songs and dances – to be far more conservative than Ives or other contemporaries who mined similar material but with a more dissonant palette. There is also a component of repetition and scalar melismas, even counting that sounds like a cousin of passages in Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, that suggests a proto-minimal approach to Thomson’s design. However, near-constant shifts of texture and demeanor, which mirror Stein’s approach to text, provide their own set of challenges for both musicians and listeners: in essence, how to follow the thread?
Four Saints in Three Acts is a work with a large cast, yet all of the roles in BMOP’s production are populated by fine singers, many of whom are associated with the Boston area’s various operatic ventures. The orchestra’s playing under Rose is also exemplary: this is a score in which frequent changes of instrumentation create a balancing act that could undo a lesser ensemble.
The liner notes are well curated. Given his totemic role as a writer on music, including Thomson’s essay about Four Saints is a particularly nice touch. Thomson scholar Steven Watson contributes his own enlightening essay, underscoring the durability of the opera through many production incarnations, from its original — an all African-American cast (most unusual for its day) — to Robert Wilson’s staging for huge animal costumes.
Capital Capitals is another Thomson/Stein collaboration, this one from 1927, for four male voices and piano. The text discusses the various virtues of “capital cities” — Aix, Arles, Avignon, and Les Baux — in Provence (Stein became acquainted with the region during her tenure as an ambulance driver in the First World War). It is breezier than Four Saints and proves an eminently charming counterpart.
At 8 PM on Friday, March 31st at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, BMOP presents a concert featuring works by John Harbison, Eric Sawyer, Ronald Perera, and the world premiere of BMOP commission Black Noise by David Sanford. Soloists include violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam. At 7 PM, a pre-concert lecture with the composers will be lead by Boston Symphony’s Robert Kirzinger. A repeat performance, this one with the Claremont Trio as soloists, will be at 3 PM on Sunday, April 2nd at Amherst College’s Buckley Recital Hall.