Steven Kemper’s Mythical Spaces


Ravello Records RR 7980

It is this writer’s opinion that the category “electro-acoustic” carries such a wide range of connotations that it is of limited use to a listener.  This album is so characterized and here simply means that both electronics and acoustic instruments are used.  Even the concept of electronic music is difficult since such a designation. Playlists on Spotify and iTunes usually points the listener to a form of pop/dance music if you search for electronic.  Further complicating things (and I think this is at least in part the point here) the electronics here include fixed media (electronics which does what it is programmed to do and does not interact with the performers or simply plays alone) and robotic electronics as well as electronics which interacts with the performer.  You will have to check the composer’s web page for more information on what exactly the “robotic” media are.

This is cutting edge in the sense that it is experimenting with new media in combination with more traditional media (and simple electronics is now “traditional media” having been superseded by the new fangled).  The actual sound of this music seems to inhabit a rather spare sound world akin perhaps to that of late Morton Feldman but with more brevity. These pieces last from 1.5-10 minutes on average and demand some concentration on the part of the listener.  Think maybe a cross between Feldman, Webern and say Subotnick.

Now one could conceivably play this music at a low volume in the manner of so-called “ambient” music. There are not many dynamic changes here to take you away from that sort of reverie.  But that does not really seem to be the composer’s intention. These are concentrated little essays, each seeming to explore the parameters of its context, fixed media, live instruments, robotic media, and combinations of these.

Steven Kemper is a new name to this writer.  His education and wide interests are available on his web site.  While he has an impressive bibliography with cutting edge research interests in music and sound this appears to be his first CD.

There are 15 tracks which comprise 5 works.  Mythical Spaces (2010) is for percussion with fixed media in 5 separate movements.  Breath (2015) is for fixed media alone in one movement.  Lament (2015) is also in one movement and is scored for flute with interactive media.

The longest single movement comprises In Illo Tempore (2012 rev 2017) is scored for saxophone, bassoon, AMI (automated monochord instrument), and CARI (cylindrical aerophone robotic instrument).  It clocks in at 7:48.

Last but not least is The Seven Stars (2012) for amplified prepared piano in 7 movements.

Live performers include Mark Truesdell, percussion; Wayla Chambo, flute; David Wegenlaupt, saxophone, Dana Jessen, bassoon, and Aurie Hsu, prepared piano.

This is music which requires some serious concentration from the listener.  Hearing/seeing this live might provide some additional aspects due to these strange electronic/robotic instruments but the point here seems to be one of an inner voyage which, if you focus you listening energy, transports you into this composer’s imaginary spaces.  Whether you will enjoy this or not is difficult to say but it is certainly worth the effort.



Leegowoon’s First Piece: Korean Post-Modernism?


OGUN Music JEC- 0253

This review was completed by chance on International Women’s Day.  It is not intended to stand in for all that means but I am pleased to present this woman’s work today.

Lee Go Woon is a composer new to this reviewer.  My friend Joshua Cheek has been sending me occasional shipments of some really hard to find releases from the western edge of the Pacific Rim.  There are some amazing gems being released from Korea, China, Japan, etc. that rarely find distribution in the United States and this is one of those discs.

One thing these discs (classical or popular) seem to have in common is a serious attention to art work and album design.  It is enough to start people like me whining about the loss of the 12 x 12 format of the LP which brought about the genre of album art, something I can never stop lamenting I’m afraid.

Well, it’s not just pretty pictures though.  This is a curious disc by young Korean woman who is familiar with traditional Korean classical music and apparently with other genres as well.  Korean classical is less well known to the general public in America than its analogous counterparts in Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. but it is a fascinating and ancient system of music with its own set of artfully designed instruments.

Cultural appropriation has become a strongly pejorative term these days but what happens if an artist is appropriating their own culture?  What I mean is, for example, the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instruments and idioms in the hybrid pop of Bollywood music or similar such mashups with Chinese or Japanese traditional musics.  These are creative options and, while not necessarily a cherished part of so called “high culture”, are nonetheless acceptable and marketable options.  It is a hybridization or perhaps something like “self appropriative” or simply promoting?

The incorporation of traditional music is akin to the work done by composers like Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Aaron Copland, and that whole late 19th and early 20th century fascination with folk and traditional music spurred on by late romantic nationalisms.  The present disc fits roughly in that tradition, just being done in the 21st century and it does not appear to be about nationalism either.

Lee Go Woon’s first piece is basically a song cycle written for voices (one male, one female) and an orchestra comprised of traditional Korean instruments.  It is not the synthesis of east and west that one finds in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967).  It is not really at all about the west at all.  And it is therein that the real interest lies.

The composer studied piano as a child and later she studied traditional percussion instruments.  She graduated from the Korea National University of Arts in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree and attained a Master’s Degree from the same school in 2016.  She received a Gold Medal in the 31st Korean Traditional Music Competition the same year.

Korea has, perhaps more than many countries, had their traditional culture undermined by military occupations, bombings, forced relocations, etc.  The fact that there have been 31 years of competitions attempting to recover some of their precious musical culture is certainly reason for hope and these first compositions by one of their finest new composers is a reason to listen.

Unfortunately the liner notes in that beautiful booklet are mostly in Korean and I haven’t been able to find someone to impose upon for a translation.  But I can tell you that the album has 5 tracks and that the music is quite listenable.  It would be helpful to know the text of the sung portions but the music speaks pretty well for itself.  The recording is lucid and there is quite a bit of definition to bring out the subtleties of the instruments and the performances are wonderful.

Happily this music can be heard via MP3 downloads on Amazon as well as via various streaming services.  Hopefully there will be more to hear as Korea moves on and recovers more of its rich culture and shares it with the world.



The @realAlvin Curran at the Armory


Alvin Curran performing from his “Fake Book” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 2014

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is  one of the finest of that maverick band of composers who came of age in the 1960s as expatriates in Italy.  Along with musicians like Frederic Rzewski, Carol Plantamura, Richard Teitelbaum, and Allan Bryant among others they formed the world’s first live electronic improvisation ensemble, “Music Elletronica Viva” in 1966.  In this time electronic synthesizers were not generally available and most of their equipment was hand made.  All the musicians have since all gone their own very creative ways but in many ways this ensemble has been their touchstone which continues to underlie their work.

Curran told this writer that it was around this time that he began working on a huge series of compositions of (at least initially) an improvisational nature which he collected under the general title of “Fake Book”.  Musicians will be familiar with the term which is roughly analogous to a cheat sheet enabling musicians easy access to many chord progressions, songs, and other pieces at their fingertips to please a wide range of tastes in their audiences.


Curran’s Fake Book is a huge collection of scores, digital samples (no doubt he began with analog samples) and sketches.  He recently published a hefty selection of this material available on Amazon and is well worth both your time and your money for the insight it provides to this unusual composer.  The composer’s web site is an extremely useful reference but nothing can match hearing and seeing this spirited, kinetic shaman of a performer.  His creativity and sheer joy of music making is infectious and the music he makes is akin to reading diary excerpts, a musical analogy of sorts to the likes of Anais Nin, the famed mega-diarist of a previous generation.

Curran is, at 80, an energetic and endlessly creative musician, a humanist with deep convictions and quite simply an experience not to be missed.  Here is the announcement of this concert which, though this writer is unable to attend, is not to be missed.

Alvin Curran
“The Alvin Curran Fakebook”
on shofar, piano, keyboard, and electronics
at the Veterans Room
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (66th-67th St.)
Wednesday March 14, 2018, at 7.00 pm & 9.00 pm
or call the box office (212) 933-5812 Mon-Fri, 10.00 am-6.00 pm

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.


The Alchemy of Diversity at Sound and Savor



Freshly baked bialys right out of the oven opened the brunch.

This is another in the continuing account of my encounters with Philip Gelb’s underground vegan salon now called Sound and Savor.  For some twelve years now he has hosted a series of dinners, brunches, and cooking classes.  Many of the multi-course meals also feature some of the finest musicians, many from San Francisco and the east bay.

Today’s brunch started with fresh brewed coffee with a dollop of ginger (vegan) ice cream along with fresh baked bialys with cashew cream, pickled red onions, and “carrot lox”.  So we began with a vegan Jewish theme.  Needless to say these were delicious and the coffee helped waken anyone not ready for this 11AM start.


The next course was a similarly delicious borscht (beet soup) with beet pakoras.  And clearly Phil has introduced this traditionally Indian dish which worked remarkably well with that soup.  Again all were hot out of the pot/fryer clearly in our view.

As Phil performed his culinary alchemy in the kitchen we were most attentively served by his assistant for this meal, Letitia, a smiling joy of a woman who seems to have the knowledge and genuine caring of customer service in her blood.  She was equally attentive to all in the crowd of about twenty diners with the usual mix of familiar faces and few new ones.  Indeed the beautifully presented courses came at just the right pace.


The main course in this brunch was a Potato-Onion Tortilla, blood orange salad.  And once again the diversity of cultures mixed to truly savory results as the friendly conversations flowed.  At this point even the hungriest would hope for a pause and that’s exactly what happened.


With a judicious touch of rearranging Phil prepared a performance space for the three musicians who graced us on this beautiful sunny Oakland day.  Jay Ghandi, bansuri (Indian Flute), Sameer Gupta, tablas (a staple of Hindustani music), and David Boyce, saxophone and bass clarinet (need I say a staple of jazz?).  The alchemy of the food would now find an analogy in this jam session.  Boyce and Gupta had played here about a year ago and Ghandi is a frequent collaborator with both musicians.  All three had played yesterday in San Jose and were scheduled to play in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House.  They are touring to promote their recent release A Circle Has No Beginning.  These are just three of the musicians who participated in this crowd sourced disc which is itself worth your attention.

The energy was immediately palpable as seen in this excerpt from one of three pieces they played.

This last excerpt demonstrates the ease of communication between these musicians who blend diverse backgrounds of jazz and Hindustani musics seamlessly into something new and wonderful.  The audience was energized to a level beyond what coffee could do and broke into appreciative applause after each piece.

The brunch ended with a dessert of (again fresh baked) Citrus Semolina Cake and more of that delicious coffee and ice cream.  And, of course, more conversation.

These events have become a regular part of this writer’s recreational time and a real reason to celebrate living in the diverse and creative east bay.  Phil’s judicious blend of cultures in his culinary experiments provide a parallel to his curation of some of the finest musicians with the only purpose in both case to entertain and enlighten.  He achieved both is a big way this day.  Thanks to all who participated.


More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything).  This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.

This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns.  The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.

Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world.  He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland.  The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing.  He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc.  His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.

The first presentation was perhaps the most striking.  Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording.  He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this).  He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing.  When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished.  What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.


Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.

One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason.  The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way.  This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.

Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places.  What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually.  The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.

There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers.  But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition.  Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.

It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world.  Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination.  All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.


Thomas Jefferson Anderson, II: American Composer Turns 90 This Year


T. J. Anderson (1928- )

Born in Coatsville, PA August 17, 1928 Thomas Jefferson Anderson, Jr. is an American composer, conductor and teacher.  He earned a B.A. in music from West Virginia State College in 1950  and an M. Ed. in music education from Pennsylvania State University in 1951.  He studied at the esteemed Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1954 and earned a Ph. D. in music from the University of Iowa in 1958.  He subsequently also studied with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen School of Music in 1964.

I first encountered his name in the American Music series (Volume V) which came out on Nonesuch records.  His work, Variations on a Theme by M. B. Tolson (1969) was paired with works by Anderson’s contemporaries Milton Babbitt and Richard Wernick.  I later encountered his  Squares (1965) for orchestra on volume 8 of the wonderful Black Composers series (released 1975 on Columbia Records) curated by the late great Paul Freeman.  The same disc contained works by Olly Woodrow Wilson and Talib Rasul Hakim.  (That entire 9 volume set remains available on vinyl in a nice box set through the College Music Society and distributed by Amazon for only $55.00)

Anderson was awarded an appointment as composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony beginning in 1968 and ending in 1972.  This coincided with the beginning of Robert Shaw’s tenure as conductor.  Shaw’s affinity for contemporary music (including black composers like Anderson and Alvin Singleton).  Anderson prepared a performing version of Scott Joplin’s only extant opera Treemonisha resulting in the first full staging of that 1911 work (premiered by Shaw with the Atlanta Symphony and broadcast via NPR) during this time and premiered several of his own works with the orchestra along with his educational and outreach duties.

His teaching appointments have included Langston University in Oklahoma, Tennessee State University, Morehouse College, Tufts University, the University of Minnesota, California State University, Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University.  He is as of 2005 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is the recipient of a long list of honors.  Dr. Anderson is the author of numerous academic publications and is the past chairman (1972-76) of the Black Music Caucus which is now known as the National Association for the Study and Performance of African/American Music (NASPAM).

Sadly his discography is rather limited (discogs lists only five) but there is a wonderful set of download links on the composer’s web site where you can download complete recordings of no fewer than 37 of his works as of the time of this writing.  Trust me this is a cornucopia with recordings from about 1974 to as recently as 2006.  Here’s hoping that his large catalog of compositions can get the attention they deserve in the near future.  His works include solo, chamber, orchestral, concerto, choral, art song, opera and other arrangements and orchestrations.


Dr. Anderson lives in Chapel Hill, NC with his family (his son Thomas Jefferson Anderson, III is a poet and professor at Hollins University in Virginia).  He will be turning 90 at the end of this summer.