Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


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OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.

Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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This is the first disc devoted entirely to the music of Paula Matthusen who as of July is a newly minted associate professor at Wesleyan University where she walks at least partly in the footsteps of emeritus professor Alvin Lucier whose course Music 109 she inherited from him.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Matthusen at Other Minds 18 where she was one of the featured composers.  In our all too brief conversation she was affable and unpretentious but certainly passionate about music.

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Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’ at Other Minds in 2013

 

She holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and PhD. from New York University.  She announced her recent promotion to associate professor on Facebook as is, I suppose, customary for people of her generation.  It is on Facebook that I contacted her to request a review copy of this CD to which she quickly and graciously agreed.

This CD contains 9 tracks representing 8 works.  They range from solo to small ensemble works, some with electronics as well.  Her musical ideas seem to have much in common with her emeritus colleague Alvin Lucier but her sound world is her own despite some similarities in techniques, especially her attention to sonic spaces and her use of electronics to amplify sonic micro-events which might even include her heartbeat.

 

sparrows in supermarkets (2011) for recorder looks at the sound of birds in the acoustic space of a supermarket and their melodic repetition.  It is for recorder (Terri Hron) and electronics

limerance (2008) is another solo work, this time for banjo (James Moore) with electronics.  She says she is working with the concept of reciprocation here but that seems rather a subjective construct.  Like the previous piece this is a contemplative and spare work with some spectral sounds as well.

the days are nouns (2013) is for soprano and percussion ensemble and electronics.  Here she is concerned with resonances within the vibrators of the instruments as well as the acoustics of the room.  It is a dreamy, impressionistic setting of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye whose poem supplies the title but the text is fragments of a Norwegian table prayer.  A very subtle and effective work.

AEG (2011) is represented by two movements (of four?) all of which were written for the Estonian ballet.  It is similarly concerned with resonances and words at times.  Of course it would be interesting to hear those other movements but perhaps another time.

of architecture and accumulation (2012) is the first of two purely acoustic compositions on this disc.  This one is for organ solo (Will Smith) and explores long tones within the acoustic space.  It is a very satisfying work even if one doesn’t go into the underlying complexities.

corpo/Cage (2009) is  the longest and largest work here and is the second purely acoustic piece on this recording.  It has echoes of Stravinsky at and it is an enticing example of Matthusen’s writing for orchestra.  This reviewer certainly looks forward to hearing more of this composer’s works for larger ensembles.  Very effective writing.

in absentia (2008) is the earliest work here.  It is written for violin, piano, glasses and miniature electronics (not quite sure what that means).  Like many of the works on this disc the concern or focus seems to be on small events and sounds.  This is a rather contemplative piece that nicely rounds out the recording.

Matthusen resembles Lucier in some of her techniques and focus on small sounds otherwise missed and she certainly owes a debt to people like Pauline Oliveros.  But in truth she sounds like no one as much as Paula Matthusen.  The composer presents a strong and intelligent voice and one wishes for more from this interesting artist.  Thank you for the opportunity to review this.

Pounding on History: Joseph Bertolozzi Literally Plays the Eiffel Tower


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I recall a video from the 90s featuring percussionist David van Tieghem manically going down a street in Manhattan playing pretty much every object in his reach (fire plugs, phone booths, etc.) and that serves to create my mindset for the understanding the present recording.  Now this recording is more site specific and all music is site specific in the sense that each performance is unique by virtue of the acoustics, the time/day of the performance, the audience, etc. but this recording is pretty unique.  I mean, this band can’t travel.

Following in the spirit of R. Murray Schaefer’s huge environmental concepts, Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening ideas and even inspiration from David van Tieghem and perhaps the wild energy of Han Benink as well this is album is actually a sort of sequel to a previous effort, 2009’s Bridge Music (written for/on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge).  I have not heard the former album but the compositional techniques appear to have been similar in both the former and present album.  He explores the sounds he can make with various mallets and samples them into a computer for later use.

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What prevents this Tower Music from becoming ordinary is the extraordinary inventiveness of his Bertolozzi‘s compositions.  This is not just a catalog of “where I’ve banged the tower” but rather a loving sound portrait derived from the sonic possibilities of a major architectural landmark making creative use of the famed tower’s utterances unleashed by the composer/performer’s experiments.  Having found and extracted a huge catalog of tuned and untuned sounds from months of experimentation and recording the composer has assembled a very interesting set of pieces that hold the attention well.

There are ten tracks in total, the last being an audio tour of the Eiffel Tower (without pounding).  The musical tracks run from 49 seconds to about 11 minutes and all are given fanciful titles sometimes related to the area being played.

In addition to being a set of compositions it is also a sort of sonic portrait unique as DNA to the structure from which it has been extracted and upon which it is played.  One can envision an ongoing project of more such sonic portraits.  It works on both these levels. There are plans for live performances in the works at the time of this recording’s publication..

Leave it to Innova in their ongoing search for the mavericks.  They have found one here. This appears to be a labor of love from it’s conception to it’s recording and presentation here including the package design and liner notes.  And now who knows what other structures are laying about with sonic possibilities yet to be heard?

Warning: Gentle Music, Marti Epstein’s Hypnagogia


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When Marti Epstein kindly sent this disc to me for review she “warned” me that it was gentle music.  In her liner notes she elaborates that her Midwestern roots will always inform her work.  As fellow Midwesterner (I hail originally from Chicago) I have an idea what she means.  There is a certain gentle affability which seems to characterize folks from the Midwest and no doubt this affects artist expression as well.

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Marti Epstein

This disc contains four such gentle compositions ranging from Grand Island (1986) to A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013).  As such it is a cross-section of Epstein’s work though it is hard to say, of course, if it is an accurate picture or overview.

The first piece Hothouse (2000) is a piece for two pianos which works on a couple of levels. It is quite listenable as a concert piece and seems to be a very effective way of using short phrases replaced by silences as a valid compositional technique.  Loosely interlocking phrases are replaced by silences gradually which lull the listener to the conclusion.

The second track is Grand Island (1986) which is the composer’s depiction of a drive to the city of Grand Island in Nebraska.  This piece for piano, two harps and two percussionists is complex enough to require a conductor (Jeffrey Means) but the complexity does not make for difficult listening.  Rather this is an impressionistic audio narrative of the composer’s experience driving through the Midwest as a child.  It has a very similar character to the first piece with silence being very important to the texture which fades to silence as the journey ends and perhaps the restless child has fallen asleep.

A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013), the most recent on the disc, comes in at under two minutes and evokes Copland-like harmonies in a “tiny” piece written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Ludovico Ensemble who perform the music on this disc (the composer plays one of the pianos on Hothouse).  The unusual instrumentation here is flute, clarinet and cimbalom.

Hypnagogia (2009) is the most experimental music here and is very much the star of this release.  It exists only in parts with no unified score and asks the performers to perform as if they were alone.  It is an attempt to depict the state of mind between waking and sleeping.  This piece is more concerned with sound than silence and the mobile-like appearances of the sounds does create a dream-like texture which, as warned, is also very gentle but not without a touch of anxiety at times.  It is perhaps the most substantial (over 45 minutes), striking and successful piece on the disc and brings it to very satisfying conclusion.

The recording has a warmth and presence and the musicians seem well-suited to the tasks at hand.  This writer will be pleased to hear more from these artists in the future.

 

New and Newer Music for Flute and Piano


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New Focus FCR154

This is a curious collection of flute and piano music.  It is framed by two pieces from the late great Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), one by Elliott Carter and a collection of world premiere recordings by composers far less familiar and markedly different in style.

The premieres are all by living composers (Josh Levine, Christopher Dietz, C.R. Kasprzsyk and Sam Pluta).  Now these are all fine compositions but their style is so very different from the Harvey and Carter pieces that it is almost jarring to the listener.  This living set of composers is represented by a far more conservative compositional ethic (please don’t read that as a negative) than the older, more modernist pieces which frame their efforts here.

Of course only time will tell the eventual place of these works in the annals of musical history but the fact here is that we have two towering works by Harvey, a tasty bit of one of Carter’s lesser known works and essentially unheard works from a gaggle of newcomers. The listener just has to be prepared to switch gears.

The performances are beautiful and loving throughout.  The Harvey pieces truly stand out as the masterpieces they are as does the Carter.  Curiously Carter (1908-2012) has been somewhat maligned since his passing for reasons that defy logic but I am glad that this late Carter piece was included.

This is a lovely recording and performance.  The juxtaposition of the modernist pieces framing the neo-romantic pieces by the younger composers is striking but stick with it. The pleasures of this recording are in the loving and committed performances as well as the recording itself which is quite lucid.

Conor Nelson on flute and Thomas Rosenkranz, piano are new names to me but I will keep them in mind having heard what they have done here.  The ear who made this recording so listenable was Ryan Miller, the recording engineer.

Zenobia Powell Perry, a Lost Thread


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Cambria CD-1235

These artists and this composer have graced these pages twice previously.  First in the wonderful production of Perry’s opera, Tawawa House and some of the musicians appeared in an article on Valerie Capers.  The present disc and the two previously mentioned articles are all indebted to a significant degree to the work of musicologist and composer Jeannie Gayle Pool.  It was she who kindly sent me this disc for review and her scholarship which brought forth the production of the opera (Perry was the subject of her doctoral thesis).

Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004) was an American composer. pianist and teacher who counts R. Nathaniel Dett and Darius Milhaud among her teachers.  Her sound is not far from that of Aaron Copland in her use of basically tonal harmonies and folk elements.  She is, in a sense, a lost populist and quite a gem.

This 25 track disc fills a major gap in the discography of American music in general and music of black Americans in particular.  Perry has roots in African and Native American (Creek) ancestry and Pool’s work may very well have rescued her from total obscurity.  The lost thread of which I refer in my title is to suggest that there is more populist and jazz influenced American music that needs to be brought to light.

Listening to this disc is pure entertainment.  These are undiscovered gems lovingly rendered with love and authority by Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker and (civil rights advocate and retired judge) La Doris Hazzard Cordell.  The entire project seems to be a labor of love and one can only hope that it will not be the last installment in the recorded canon of Perry’s work.

These 25 tracks are all brief pieces.  They range from the 1935 Childhood Capers to the 1985 suite from Tawawa House arranged for piano four hands by Josephine Gandolfi.  The entertainment here ranges from light pieces like the Childhood Capers to some more deeply thoughtful pieces with jazz inflected harmonies.  Some are quite demanding technically, a tribute to Perry’s skills as a pianist.

The Homage to William Levi Dawson on his 90th Birthday, Times Seven, Soliloquy, Nocturne, A Jazz Trifle and Rhapsody seems to be rather substantive works and pique the curiosity as to what else lies undiscovered.  The suite form Tawawa House is great but it will have to hold that place until the full opera can be recorded.  It is worth hearing, especially as one of the few operas dealing with slavery.

The very fine recording done a Bosendorfer piano at Stanford University by engineer Mark Dalrymple.  The production by Pool and Gandolfi leave this writer wanting to hear more.  Kudos!

Sound and Savor, a Phoenix Rises from Hallowed Ashes


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Chef and host Philip Gelb (right) presides as Mark Dresser (left) and Ben Goldberg (center) prepare to play at Sound and Savor

Last year I wrote an article (here) which lamented the demise of a bay area series which I have attended pretty regularly for the last several years.  Well the series is back and it has been renamed and reconstituted.  The West Oakland venue is the same and the ever creative chef has created another incarnation of one of my favorite reasons to be in the East Bay.  I greet the debut of Sound and Savor.

Another absolutely delicious multi-course vegan meal punctuated with a concert by some of the best musicians working today made for an experience that convinces this writer (and eater and listener) that Philip has taken his efforts to a new level.

soundsav5160001The beautiful as well as tasty culinary creations combined with some creative BYOB are as easy on the eyes as they are stimulating to the pallet.

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This meal, a revisioning of Passover featured Phil’s take on traditional Passover fare.

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These seemingly small portions combine to produce a very filling gustatory experience in which the break between the last course and dessert pausing for the musical interlude is a necessary part of the experience.

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And with this main course, featuring the delicious locally made Rhizocali Tempeh we paused to hear the guests for the evening.  Mark Dresser, sporting his beautiful new custom built double bass and Ben Goldberg.  These two musicians know each other but this is their first ever collaboration.  That is the kind of musical magic which accompanies the food on these events.

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Dresser and Goldberg kicked out some serious jams and also participated in some discussion of Passover and its meaning for them, a very personal touch.

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They played several pieces and did so with a passion and understanding that suggested they had been playing together for years.  I spoke with these genial men after their performance and only then did I learn they had never played together.

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Hand made waffle cones and vegan ice cream capped a spectacular evening.  Thank you, Phil.  Looking forward to more.