The Three Black Counter Tenors, An Historic First


The original incarnation of three classical singers with the same range performing as an act was that of the late Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.  I seem to remember a similar act with three Irish tenors that followed on their model.  Well what we have here is a far more unusual and very historically significant collection of three counter tenors, that voice range of male falsettos roughly corresponding to mezzo-soprano in range.  This is certainly one of the least common type of vocal artist but what makes this a unique historical event is that all three are African-Americans (to use the currently politically correct term).  They’re not performing as an act, though.  They are all starring in a single opera which makes this event even more compelling.

Darryl Taylor

Darryl Taylor

This will happen in the context of performances of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera, “Dido and Aeneas” in Los Angeles.  I include this in this new music blog because it is certainly a new occurrence and it fits well with my ongoing survey which has looked at black composers since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Of course this event puts the focus on black performers, an area which I have not attempted to explore.  But is is nice to see this happening in the 50th anniversary year of that landmark legislation.

I only came upon this information when a highly valued friend based in Oakland, Bill Doggett, who is acting as a consultant to the L.A. Opera alerted me to this historic first.  He recently curated a well received exhibition in the Grand Foyer at the San Francisco Opera at the performances of Porgy and Bess.  Bill is a concert producer, strategic marketer, consultant, arts advocate and lecturer whose work promotes black classical artists.  It was he that suggested that this event would fit with the themes developed in my previous blogs.  I did share with Mr. Doggett my experience seeing Mary Zimmerman’s beautiful production of Philip Glass’ Akhenaten in Chicago which featured a black counter tenor named Geoffrey Scott whose name, sadly, seems to have disappeared from the web except for that production.  What was curious about that is that I vividly recall the audience’s reaction when he first came on stage.  It is perhaps more historically accurate to cast a black man as an Egyptian Pharaoh but the audience seemed shocked by his appearance and I didn’t feel that it was just because of his vocal range.

John Holiday

John Holiday

The three singers in this new production include John Holiday, Darryl Taylor and G. Thomas Allen all of whom are making their début performances with L.A. Opera.  Holiday, who will sing the role of the sorceress was the third place winner in this year’s Operalia, a competition founded by  Placido Domingo for singers aged 18-32.  Taylor and Allen will sing the roles of the witches in a production which, as far as I can tell will be the first time three black counter tenors will be appearing on an opera stage  in  the history of the art form.  Taylor is a voice teacher on faculty at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor  and Allen appears to be a rising star whose art we will see at an early point in his career.

Correction: Darryl Taylor is now Associate Professor of voice at Claire Trevor School of the Arts  University of California,Irvine.

G. Thomas Allen

G. Thomas Allen

This performance will be a double bill with the other half of the program being a production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.  The productions will run from October 25th to November 15th.  Below I am sharing the press release of this historic event.  One hopes that this historic first will shed a more sympathetic light in these embattled times where, in spite of such wonderful historic performances, we endure a correspondingly negative series of news events like those in Ferguson, MO, New York and so many other places where the value of black lives seems to be at a very low ebb.3CountertenormediaNEW.doggett

CD Review-Hegarty, Steinbeck and Robles: Time/Space, an atypical jazz trio


HegartySteinbeck-TimeSpace

An old school twelve tone composer, an AACM composer and Julliard composer walked into a bar.  They sat down to play an out came, well, this album. And the bar I am imagining is perhaps a sort of post beat, post bop version of the bar from Star Wars.  I guess I am awash with metaphors here.

Imagine, if you can, a melding of musical styles.  Take a little Milton Babbitt, a little Anthony Davis, a touch of Wadada Leo Smith and perhaps a bit of Oscar Peterson (there is a little bit of a traditional lounge jazz touch here).  I have struggled to characterize this music and struggled perhaps even more to envision its ideal audience but that is not a criticism and is not intended to say anything negative about this album.

To be fair one of the main reasons I think I am struggling to describe this release is that it is a download only release which fortunately is accompanied by some nice cover art by Anna Hegarty and some liner notes which are essentially a  quote from some reviews but contain very useful information about the musicians and their history.  I guess I would feel differently if this had been a physical instead of digital release but perhaps I am just being nostalgic.  Oh, and keep in mind this is a free download.

The varied backgrounds of these musicians have resulted in a blending of styles creating a unique and enjoyable listening experience.  You can listen to this relatively short pieces as chamber music of a new classical variety but I think that would be missing the point.  This is basically an album of lounge jazz written and performed by some really good musicians who play well together.  Calling it “avant-garde” serves only to add a layer of fear and confusion to what should be a pleasant or at least innocuous experience.   That is why I called these guys an “atypical” jazz trio in the title of this review.

The musicians include James Hegarty on piano, Paul Steinbeck, electric bass and Shane Del Robles on drums.  According to the liner notes these musicians  have a pretty varied experience including free jazz,  AACM jazz, rock and various other projects.  They come together here very well.

In 12 short pieces (a metaphor for serialism?) this album manages to be lyrical and understated.  A few tracks use some studio effect of playing the tape backwards but most of what you hear is just acoustic instruments playing short numbers whose titles may mean more to the musicians than to the music itself but that is consistent with the type of music they are playing.  The music and the musicianship are good and sincere.

I would love to hear these guys play live in a smoky bar while sipping single malt scotch and hobnobbing with some kindred artistic spirits but I’ll have to settle for hearing it on my CD player (you have to hear this on a decent sound system).  I might even try to slip this in to some background music at a party just to see if anyone would notice it as different from whatever other background music might be played.  Very nice album and you can’t beat the price.

My Unexplained Absence Here Explained


20130604-093127.jpg

I thought it would be prudent to let my readers know what has been happening with me.
I haven’t posted anything here since July.
Happily I’ve found that I am still getting hits on my blog.

Well the fact is that I have been rather sidelined by a minor but rather debilitating back injury which has hampered many things in my life recently. But I am happy to report that I am on the mend and will very soon be resuming my posts here on a more regular basis.

Thank you to all who have read and commented in the last month or so. I hope you will find my future posts at least as compelling as the ones which preceded this brief hiatus.

Passing Frames, a new CD by Joel Helander, Happy, Gentle Experiments


Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog.  And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort.  These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.

Joel Helander

Joel Helander

Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website.  I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release.  His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.

His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion.  String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks.  All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.

When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs.  He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive.  The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators.  That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression.  Not program music but little poetic statements.  And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.

On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele.  Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons.  I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:

-Debussy’s String Quartet
-Chopin’s Nocturnes
-Beethoven’s “Archduke”
-Satie’s “Gymnopedies”
-Bill Evans’ “Portrait in Jazz”
-Randy Newman‘s “Sail Away”
-Rufus Wainwright’s “Want”
-Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”
-Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack”
-Van Dyke Parks‘ “Song Cycle”
-John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
-The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”
-Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
-Tom Waits’ “Orphans: Bawlers”
-Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
-Belle and Sebastien‘s “The Life Pursuit,”
-Chet Baker’s “Chet Baker Sings,”
-Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano I and II”
-Brad Mehldau‘s “Highway Rider”
-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.”
This is an interesting and varied list.  I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions.  Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite.  As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect).  There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added.  This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable.  It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas.  He achieves exactly what he intended I think.  That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far.  If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen.  If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.

The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions


This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.

L'ivresse

 

This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

 

 

 

 

He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on electrocd.com and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.

 

 

Black Conductors, a belated addendum


Due to the popularity of my earlier black conductors article I was feeling the need to expand this piece a bit.  Again this is by no means comprehensive and I welcome comments, additions and corrections.

 

The original article was just an occasional piece, far from comprehensive so I have decided to add a few names.  First the black conductors who are no longer with us:

 

-Charles-Richard Lambert (d. 1862)- Born in New York (no date given), settled in New Orleans and was a music teacher and conductor for the Philharmonic Society (the first non-theater orchestra in New Orleans).  He died in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

- Edmond Dédé (1827-1903) Born in New Orléans, he moved to Europe to study music and settled in France where he had a career as a conductor and composer.

Edmond Dede

Edmond Dede

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

 

-William Grant Still  (1895-1978)- In addition to being a major American composer and the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major symphony orchestra to have an opera premiered by a major company (Troubled Island, written in 1939 was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949), the first black composer to have an opera broadcast on television (Bayou Legend, 1941, not performed until 1974 and broadcast 1976 by the Mississippi Educational Television Authority) he was also the first black conductor to conduct a major American orchestra in the deep south  (New Orleans Philharmonic, 1955)

Calvin E. Simmons

Calvin E. Simmons

 

-Calvin E. Simmons (1950-1982) The first black conductor to be appointed conductor of a major American orchestra (Philadelphia Orchestra).  He died in a canoeing accident near Lake George in New York.  The Calvin Simmons theater at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, CA is named in his honor.

 

 

 

And now to those who remain on the earthly plane:

 

-Thomas Jefferson Anderson (1928- ) Better known perhaps as a composer is an educator he is also an accomplished conductor, educator and orchestrator.  He is well-known for his orchestration of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (unfortunately this has yet to be recorded).

 

-Leslie B. Dunner (1956- )Born in New York City, he attended the Eastman School of Music, Queen’s College and received a Master’s Degree in 1979 from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  He was the first American (of any color apparently) to win the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition in 1986.  Currently a conductor for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Mr. Dunner has conducted the Chicago Symphony, the Grant Park Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, L A Philharmonic and many others world-wide.

 

Leslie B. Dunner

Leslie B. Dunner

 

William Eddins

William Eddins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

-William Eddins (1964- ) Both a pianist and a conductor, Eddins was a founding member of the New World Symphony in Miami, FL and is currently the principal conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra since 2005.  He regularly performs music by 20th and 21st Century composers and host a podcast called Classical Connections.

 

 

 

-Robert Keith McFerrin, Jr. (1950- ) Better known as “Bobby McFerrin” is a ten time Grammy award winner.  He is also a popular guest conductor with orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Israel Philharmonic and many others.

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

 

As I said this is hardly comprehensive but these omissions have bothered me more each time I see that the original post has been read again.  Hopefully this will assuage my guilt and provide useful information.

 

…of the Adder’s Bite, a new CD release


Back cover of "...of the Adder's Bite"

Back cover of “…of the Adder’s Bite”

A copy of this fine newly released CD was kindly sent  to me for review a few months ago.  First of all I must say that my delay in writing this review is due in large part to my difficulty in attempting to categorize my experience of the music.  This is a very individual statement by a young musician from Greece, Panagiotis Pagonis (1989- )  who goes by the name, ‘Abstractive Noise‘ and whose work seems to be inspired by drone, minimalism, ambient, rock and perhaps classical sources as well as experimental literary narrative.

This is a self-produced concept album created in the composer’s own studio and it can only be properly appreciated over several close listenings. I would categorize this release as “experimental” though not wanting to scare anyone away because this disc makes for a comfortable listening experience, not the cacophonous assault that is sometimes encountered with the term “experimental”.

That said, the music develops slowly and requires some patience to appreciate the logic of its unfolding processes.  The experimental literary narrative which is appended in the liner notes may be useful to some listeners but I did not connect with the mythological romantic fantasy nature of the narrative except that it provides some clue as to the passionate nature of the composer/performer and his inspiration.  But don’t take my lack of connection as a negative critique.  It is merely the personal experience of a fifty something reviewer listening to the product of an emerging young composer.

As you can see in the above photograph of the back cover and the photograph below of the unfolded package the cover art is quite beautiful and does seem to reflect some of the nature of the music within.  It has a dark quality imbued with mystery and perhaps longing.  It is a hybrid of musical styles which flows quite naturally from the composer’s pen (or perhaps more properly, from the composer’s various electronic processing programs which are, for many, replacing the traditional pen and paper).

unfolded view of 'Abstracive Noise's' album

unfolded view of ‘Abstractive Noise’s’ album

 

I am listening to it now as I write this belated review and finding that the music continues to take on deeper dimensions with repeated listens. It can actually work as well in a close listening as one would ideally do with a classical composition or in the background setting a mood.  It is very well recorded with obvious careful thought put into the mastering which definitely adds to the quality of the listening experience.  It is available through the composer’s web site as well as through Bandcamp.

It’s not the sort of CD I would put on my car stereo but it works very well in my living room as an accompaniment to writing or just sitting.

I know very little of this young artist’s background or future plans but I look forward to more from this musician.

Enhanced by Zemanta