Ken Thomson’s Restless: a Feast of New Chamber Music


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Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive.  Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.

The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument.  This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.

The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano.  It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development.  It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas.  The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano).  This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.

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Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)

The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys.  Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.

More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation.  It is pretty clear and very effective music.  This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.

Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


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I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer.  Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist.  I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album.  I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.

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Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002).  This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).

The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation.  The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier.  And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well.  Can you say eclectic?

The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.

In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas.  One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though.  The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.

The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect.  The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011).  The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.

I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing.  Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse.  I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues.  I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming.  It is as though this is too much for a single release.

Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well.  The Sonata seems to be the highlight here.   It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.

There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone.  The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what.  This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.

The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets.  Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well.  Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming.  This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.

 

 

 

Alberto Ginastera at 100


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Let me start by saying that the only thing wrong with this album is that it is only one CD. Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is without doubt one of the finest composers of the twentieth century.  Stylistically he holds much in common with composers like his contemporaries Aaron Copland (with whom he studied), Carlos Chavez, Leonard Bernstein and others who incorporated the spirit if not always the literal music of his homeland’s folk culture into his music.  In additional to these nationalist works he wrote a substantial amount of traditional concert music which touched on the edges of modernistic trends.

He wrote three operas, two ballets. two piano concertos, two cello concertos, a harp concerto, three string quartets, a bevy of piano music and sundry other items.  It is simply not possible to contain a fair representation of his work on a single CD.  Despite that this disc is not a bad retrospective.  It is lovingly played and recorded and if it does not represent the whole of Ginastera’s oeuvre it is a nice sampling.

The disc begins with the wonderful Harp Concerto Op. 25 (1956, rev. 1968).  Though originally commissioned by Edna Phillips (principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra) she had retired before she could perform it and it was premiered in 1965 by the amazing Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.  This three movement work is certainly one of the composer’s finest works and is beautifully played by Yolanda Kondonassis with the Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jiménez.  This piece is one of the finest modern harp concertos and is representative of the composer’s international style with perhaps just a taste of modernism.

Next up is the single movement Pampeana Op. 16 (1947) with the great Gil Shaham on violin and his sister Orli Shaham on piano.  This is a sort of window on Ginastera’s earliest nationalist style full of melody and virtuosity.

The next work is the Sonata for Guitar Op. 47 (1976) played by Grammy winning virtuoso Jason Vieaux.  I had not heard this work and my first hearing was indeed a revelation.  This is a major work for guitar and a wonderful sonata in the classical form.  I gave these four tracks a few listens in an attempt to digest some of their beauty and complexity and I will doubtless give them many more listens.  This is a major piece that belongs in the repertory.

And, finally, we move to the earliest utterance here with the Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 (1937) in an exciting and dedicated performance from Orli Shaham.

The sound is wonderful and there are a geekily satisfying set of liner notes which include a useful analysis by James O’Leary, Frederick B. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  All in all a beautiful production and a great introduction to Ginastera’s work but please, don’t stop here.  Make sure you get to hear his other work and perhaps the wonderful folks at Oberlin will consider a volume two?

E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


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Call it world music, call it jazz, call it fusion but whatever the description this is an innovative and fascinating musical journey.  Using traditional Korean instruments as well as the usual keyboards, vocals, and drums this group of young musicians crafts a very interesting and beautiful tapestry of sound.

I have long had an interest in and some appreciation of traditional Korean musics and instruments but my knowledge is rather limited.  I am inclined to compare this group to Oregon, the iconic jazz/new age experimental band of the 1970s but unlike Oregon’s more widely cast net we see young musicians embracing their ancient Korean musical heritage as they seek to express themselves and invoke the wisdom of their ancestors.  This album was sent to me as a gift from a friend but I quickly fell in love with it and I had to write a review.

It seems to me that Korea has, more than many countries, been damaged and stunted by the antics that became known as World War II and the Korean War.  As a result this rich and ancient culture was nearly erased in favor of geographic division and political expediency.  It is heartening to find young artists such as these seeking to communicate with if not actually recover some of this rich past.

This band is named after a revered 15th century Korean king and they make liberal use of traditional Korean instruments alongside their drums, keyboards, and vocals.  The album succeeds to some degree in achieving a synthesis (as opposed to a sappy watering down) of traditional music and something like jazz with some rock and pop sensibility.  These are sincere and perceptive artists and if they have not fully succeeded then they have made a significant step toward reviving some of their justly valued history and culture.

In addition to its musical values this is a gorgeously produced album (visually and sonically) and I am sorry to see that only the digital download is available on Amazon.

There are six tracks on the disc and all feature traditional Korean instruments alongside the band’s keyboards, drums and vocals.  There are few vocals but no words as far as I can tell and any program is implied at best.  This is strictly about the music.

The first track, Bird of Oblivion, unfolds like an Indian raga with a meditative slow beginning giving way to a faster section.  It is the most extended work on the disc at 13:51 and it certainly serves to bdraw the listener in.  The remaining tracks range from pop-inflected jazz (track 3) to a little bit of rock .  Throughout the traditional Korean instruments make their presence known but not overwhelmingly.  This album is a pretty successful synthesis of old and new.

E Do consists of:

Kyung-hwa Ryu: chulhyungeum, yanggeum, janggu, kkwaenggwari

Chung Lim: drums, jungju, gong

Min-soo Cho: junggu, Korean drum, Korean fan, percussion

Jung-chul Seo: electronic bass, contrabass

Young-Sup Lee: daegeum, taepyeongso, danso, ocarina

Seung-hwan Yang: keyboards

Tae-young Kim: vocals

Young-goo Lee: daegum

Seek this one out.  And don’t forget to pick up some traditional Korean music as well.  It is well worth your time and, after all, a nod to the fine efforts of this wonderful group.

 

The Musical Mother of Us All: Pauline Oliveros, a Personal Appreciation


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Pauline Oliveros at one of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts in Oakland.  I published this photo on Pauline’s Wikipedia page.

I woke at about 3PM on the day after Thanksgiving (having worked the previous night shift) and I checked my e-mail and then, on Facebook I learned of the passing of theorist, composer, musician, teacher and all round wonderful human being Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). She had died peacefully in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day.  Going over the copious posts and comments I was saddened at her passing but oddly comforted by the fact that these posts honoring her are effectively eclipsing the ones on the obnoxious political issues as well as demonstrating the incredible reach of her influence.  Thankfully, Pauline will not have to endure the regressive politics which now dominate our country and, indeed, the world.

I first encountered Pauline’s work, as many did, through the Columbia Odyssey LP curated by none other than David Behrman in his Music of Our Time series.  There are several composers on the disc including Steve Reich (Come Out), Richard Maxfield (Night Music), and Pauline Oliveros (I of IV).  Over the years I collected and listened to most of her recordings Discogs lists 55 recordings but no doubt there are many more and likely a plethora of unreleased material which will grace our ears for years to come.  Like her older contemporary John Cage it is difficult to identify a “masterpiece” and, also like Cage, she didn’t aspire to such notions because she aspired to learn and subsequently teach the art of listening. Her Deep Listening Institute is based in Kingston, New York.

 

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Stuart Dempster at another of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts. Stuart is one of the members of Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band

I was pleased to be able to see one of the incarnations of the Deep Listening Band in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library.  This concert occurred on the night of the famed “Chicago Flood” (1992) in which a construction mishap diverted thousands of gallons of water from the Chicago River into the disused coal delivery railway tunnels which connect most of the downtown buildings.  I brought along a postcard from her album The Well and the Gentle hoping to get her autograph.  It was my first face to face meeting with this icon of new music.  She graciously took the card into her hand and immediately exclaimed with a smile, “Oh, this is from the Well”.  She quipped that next time they would hold their concert in one of the “deep tunnels” which are a part of the Chicago’s massive flood control rainfall overflow system.  I still treasure that autograph and the memory of my first meeting with Pauline.

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Ione (l) doing verbal improvisation while Pauline improvises in parallel on her digital accordion at a memorable dinner concert curated by Philip Gelb.

I can hardly tell you my level of excitement when vegan chef and musician Philip Gelb announced that Pauline with her partner Ione would be appearing at his next dinner concert.  The opportunity for a close encounter with this master was certainly heaven sent. (Pauline later wrote the lovely introduction to Philip’s first vegan cookbook.)

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Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. This vegan chef and cookbook author plays and teaches shakuhachi and curates a wonderful dinner/concert series at his loft in West Oakland.  Philip also appears on several albums with Pauline and others.

Indeed, as I sat across from Pauline no doubt babbling some starstruck nonsense, I encountered in both her and her partner Ione two warm and unpretentious people.  While I knew I was in the presence of genius I was given to feel very welcome as they both engaged me and the other guests in lively conversation at this spectacular vegan meal.  In the pause just before dessert they gave a wonderful performance with Ione speaking improvised and passionate poetic utterances while Oliveros played her quirky improvisations in parallel on her digital accordion.

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Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014) at Other Minds 20 in 2015

I later got to see Pauline as a returning guest composer/performer at Other Minds 20, a series lovingly and painstakingly curated by composer, broadcaster and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian.  I believe this was her last major bay area appearance.

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A clearly happy Pauline Oliveros acknowledges the warm applause of the Other Minds 20 audience after her performance at the SF Jazz Center in 2015.

Every year at the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert the open membership Cornelius Cardew Choir performs Oliveros’ Heart Sutra every year.  The verbal score describes how one enters the singing circle and intones basically the note of their choice with one hand over their heart and the other on the back of another singer.  I screwed up my courage to participate in this ritual a few years ago and it is now an essential part of the beginning of my summer.  Pauline has taught me much and no doubt will continue to teach me through her writings and recordings.  For that I am eternally grateful.

 

 

Dreaming About Making Revolution: Alvin Curran in Conversation


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Charles Amirkhanian (r) and Alvin Curran with the projection screen here showing Curran’s Geologic Conversation.

The David Brower Center in Berkeley, California provided a perfect setting for Other Minds‘ presentation of a conversation with American composer Alvin Curran.  The Brower Center is the new home of the Other Minds organization run by broadcaster, composer and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian.  It is also home to a range of ecologically conscious organizations and is housed in a building renowned for its ecological efficiency. Curran, whose energy and charm belie his age (he turns 79 in December) is a composer with strong ties to the environment both as a concern and as a compositional element.

After a brief intro Curran provided a capsule overview of his evolution as an artist from his beginnings at Yale studying with Elliott Carter to his epiphanies in Berlin and later Rome (where he has made his home since the early 1960s).   He described his decision to drive with fellow composer Joel Chadabe to Rome saying that they were “dreaming about making revolution”.  There he collaborated with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum (among others) in founding the first live electronic improvisation ensemble, Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV).  This was before the general availability of prepackaged synthesizers.

While he does not eschew more traditional classical music much of his work ventures far outside those models and it was a sampling of some of these ventures that were discussed and displayed in this fascinating interactive discussion.

He began by playing a portions of a video of a piece called Geologic Conversation (2000) which involved a large gaggle of musicians peripatetically led by the unbelievably energetic Curran as they all moved (danced?) on the active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily. The performance drew a crowd of some 500 people of varying ages who moved with the musicians as they traversed a path across the sometimes volcanically singed locations.  It was by all appearances an ecstatic performance and not without some danger.

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Curran’s infectious, almost self deprecating humor charmed the audience who, like this writer, sat in rapt attention stunned by the audacity of the composer’s visions.

I had the opportunity to ask him about his relationship to the work of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer whose works seem to echo Curran’s.  “He is more ‘composerly’ than I am” was Curran’s reply  but he did acknowledge some kinship with Schafer’s work.  Indeed Schafer has probably produced more traditional classical concert works than Curran but the parallels of his operas utilizing the sheer vastness of the Canadian landscape are hard to miss.

He next described and played video excerpts of what he calls Living Room Music.  In it he invited various musicians to his apartment in Rome to do “anything they wanted” in exchange for a modest fee and a meal cooked by Curran.  The recorded excerpts of these various performances were later used in a radio sound work for Deutschland Radio.  What is impossible to grasp is how this seemingly banal idea is transformed into a sort of musical tabula rasa which inspired some amazing ideas from the guests he hosted.  His successful facilitation of such seemingly strange, even goofy ideas is a mark of his genius.

Next up was a sort of installation art piece called Gardening with John which involved Curran building a little prefab garden shed (yes, filled with gardening tools) in which he covered the internal walls with quotes from John Cage and played tapes of Cage laughing. The video consisted of an unmoderated conversation between Curran and some of his guests. This installation sat on the grounds of a German museum.  Humor and irony are a part of Curran’s work as much as they are of Cage’s.

Next up was Curran’s own version of Water Music which he calls Maritime Rites. It has been performed in various settings, all on or near water.  This piece involves recordings which Curran made of various maritime sounds across the east coast of the United States as well as notated music to be played by the musicians.

The video he showed was of a performance on the Thames River in London (also the site of the performance of Handel’s Water Music) with the audience gathered on the Millennium Bridge.  Curran and two other musicians played from a barge and members of the London Symphony played on the shore.  The crowd was so large as to suggest that the bridge may be challenged in its ability to accommodate them safely but, thankfully, it did.

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Curran’s wild genius is tempered by an affable inclusiveness and an infectious enthusiasm.

Finally, though the audience was clearly prepared to stay much longer, Curran and Amirkhanian discussed, “Oh for the Brass on the Grass”, a work for some 500 band musicians recruited from surrounding German towns.  These amateur musicians ranging in age from 8 to 80 responded enthusiastically to Curran’s manic conducting (apparently banging a couple of pipes) as they traversed a large grassy field.  At one point Curran turned off the sound and laughed at the specter of his own passionate conducting.

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As if to remind me that I was in the liberal enclave of Berkeley I spied this graffito in the elevator on the way to retrieve my car. I think Curran would have enjoyed the humor and the critique.

Unfortunately there was not time to delve into the many other aspects of this composer’s work which include some traditional concert works and a generous helping of politically charged work.  But Curran warmly greeted his admirers providing autographs and avid conversation.  All in all a lovely evening with a true master musician of our age.  Can’t wait to see what he will do next.

 

 

 

 

Couloir, a Wonderful New Cello and Harp Duo


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This is an beautiful album.  The main attraction is the world premiere recording of Serere (2012) by James B. Maxwell in two versions separated by a shorter piece by Nico Muhly.  Ravello Records brings us a wonderful Canadian duo, Couloir consisting of Ariel Barnes on cello and Heidi Krutzen on harp.

Maxwell, a Canadian composer, is new to this writer but the present work suggests that there is good reason to pay attention to this artist.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of two versions of the same piece on one disc but it does allow for close comparison.  It is basically an intimate and episodic piece of chamber music which is filled out with some electroacoustic material in the second version.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive because this is an engaging and enjoyable listen and a piece which seems to contain a certain depth and wisdom which suggests a well crafted work.  Both versions are clearly challenging from a technical aspect but all seems to be integrated in service of the music and not simply empty effects.  The second version of course has a fuller sound due to the augmentation of the electronics.  Both versions benefit from multiple listens and I certainly don’t intend to set this disc aside for a bit.

This is actually my first encounter with Nico Muhly’s work.  I have certainly heard of him but I am not familiar with any of his other work so I have nothing against which to compare the present piece except in the context of this disc.  Given that, this briefer piece, Clear Music (2003) is also finely wrought and engaging.  Maryliz Smith plays celeste on this track.  It functions basically as an interlude here but it does help clear the palate (so to speak) without taking the listener too far out of the musical context.

The recording from 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia is clear and pleasant and the performances are simply wonderful.