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.

Paula Matthusen

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.

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A Glorious Other Minds 20th Anniversary


The 20th Other Minds festival completed its three concert run on March 6, 7 and 8 of 2015.  This was the first time in which composers who had appeared before came for a second time.  Ten composers were featured and a total of some 25 or so works were performed.  It also marked the first time that a full symphony orchestra was featured.

Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts Orchestra just fitting on the stage at SF Jazz

Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts Orchestra just fitting on the stage at SF Jazz

The first night opened with the wonderful guitarist David Tanenbaum performing music by the late Peter Sculthorpe who was to have attended this festival.  Sculthorpe sadly passed away in August of 2014.  Tanenbaum played his “From Kakadu” (1993) a suite for guitar in four movements.  This was moving and quite virtuosic music which was performed with passion and ease.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Tanenbaum followed Sculthorpe’s piece with the last composition by the beloved Lou Harrison called Scenes fromNek Chand (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar in just intonation.  As with the Sculthorpe, Tanenbaum displayed his well-known facility in interpretation of new music and left the appreciative audience wanting more.

David Tanenbaum holding his National Steel Guitar as he acknowledges the warm applause

David Tanenbaum holding his National Steel Guitar as he acknowledges the warm applause

Next up was a too rare opportunity to hear a composition by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian.  Bay area violinist Kate Stenberg took the stage to perform the solo violin part with prerecorded tape.  The piece called Rippling the Lamp (2007) is a musical depiction of a visual the composer saw involving the reflection of a lamp in water.  But regardless of the genesis this was a powerful and engaging piece even on a purely musical level.  Stenberg executed her part flawlessly in what was an almost romantic piece at times.

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian's Rippling the Lamp.

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian’s Rippling the Lamp.

Charles Amirkhanian warmly embraces Kate Stenberg following her performance of his piece.

Charles Amirkhanian warmly embraces Kate Stenberg following her performance of his piece.

And the first half concluded with a performance by the Del Sol Quartet of the world premiere of Miya Masaoka‘s Second String Quartet “Tilt” (2014-5).  This was a complex piece requiring a great deal of knowledge of special performance techniques that would be a challenge for any string quartet.  This complex work was difficult to grasp in only one hearing but it was a joy to see how easily these musicians handled the work.

The Del Sol Quartet performing Miya Masaoka's Second String Quartet

The Del Sol Quartet performing Miya Masaoka’s Second String Quartet

Following intermission we came to know what the origami birds were all about.  These along with video projections and a great deal of electronics came together to give utterance to Maja S.K. Ratkje’s Birds and Traces II (2015), another world premiere.  This was by far one of the most complex pieces involving a great deal of media as well as performers Kathy Hinde and accordionist Frode Haltli.  In addition to electronics and voice the musicians used bird whistles, computer controlled slide whistles and animated sculpture along with the projected videos.  This was more of the character of one of Allan Kaprow‘s “happenings” from the 1960s.  Truly a maverick piece in a concert series that prides itself on such.  The audience was clearly entertained.

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

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Three scenes from the video

Three scenes from the video

The first night concluded with a performance of Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 14 “Quamby”(1998) which includes a didjeridu.  Stephen Kent, who played the didjeridu, spoke a warm dedication in memory of the late composer.  The Del Sol Quartet along with Kent gave a deeply emotional reading of this beautiful work (I went a bought a copy of their recording of all of the composer’s string quartets with didjeridu right after this performance).  I had heard that uniquely Australian instrument before but had no idea how expressive it could be.  The audience was clearly moved and this was a fitting deeply felt tribute to the composer.

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The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

I took the opportunity to speak to a few people after this performance and it confirmed for me that this performance affected and moved us all in what I think is the highest achievement of a composer and a performer, that of communicating emotionally with a audience.  We all seemed to share the sadness of Mr. Sculthorpe’s passing but also the joy of his having been with us to make this music which lives on.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Those animated origami sculptures remained (though no longer animated) just above the stage for the remaining two nights and certainly added a bit of unusual flair which distinguished the look of this year’s series.  It is also worth mentioning that the stage management and creative lighting add to the professional and polished look for this series and those commonly unsung heroes deserve credit for their fine work.

Let me also mention that this year’s program booklet surveying the whole of the Other Minds series was chock full of beautiful by resident photographer extraordinaire John Fago.

 

The second concert opened with what was, for this writer, worth the price of admission, that of Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with multi-track tape.  His roles as sort of the Bill Graham of the avant-garde and his previous work as music director at KPFA could satisfy a life’s work just by themselves but he is also an accomplished composer and one of the most interesting and innovative sound poets/artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  So this live performance would have brought me to the theater were it the only thing on the program.

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

The pieces performed, Dumbek Bookache (1986), Ka Himeni Hehena (The Raving Mad Hymn, 1997) and Marathon (1997) all demonstrate the composer’s love of language and sound and, as Mr. Amirkhanian advised, his background as a percussionist.  This is music that seems to fit somewhere between poetry and music and, prior to hearing his work, I didn’t even know that there was a such a space.  His mellifluous voice, no doubt seasoned by years of hosting radio, executed the complex rhythms in sync with the tape flawlessly, just as the composer intended.

There is a humor and playfulness that is engaging as he deconstructs and reconstructs words and sounds (Amirkhanian is possessed of a great sense of humor).  The first and last pieces were plays on English language words and sounds.  The middle piece utilizes Hawaiian native language as its material.  All reflect the composer’s deep understanding and love of the sounds of languages and are intricately constructed musical compositions that deserve to be heard more frequently.  And recorded too.

Wallen performing her birthday song with the captive host of the evening looking on amused.

Wallen performing her birthday song with the captive host of the evening looking on amused.

Next we met Errollyn Wallen who performed 7 songs from her Errollyn Wallen Songbook but before she did that she surprised Mr. Amirkhanian with a newly composed song for his 70th birthday and for Other Minds 20th.  He sat, captive but appreciative as she rolled out the surreptitiously rehearsed dittie in which she called him “Charlesey” in a clearly affectionate tribute.

Errollyn Wallen at the piano with the Del Sol String Quartet.

Errollyn Wallen at the piano with the Del Sol String Quartet.

Wallen, in her set, sang first at the piano, then standing at a stage mic accompanied by the ever versatile Del Sol Quartet.  She sings a difficult to describe type of song that owes as much to jazz and pop and it does to classical and seems to have as much fun with language in song and Amirkhanian has with spoken words.  Wallen is a skilled and virtuosic performer and, as I found later when I chatted with her in the lobby during intermission, a delightful conversationalist.  Her performance left the audience wanting more but it was time for intermission and, after a grateful bow, she exited the stage.

This is the first time that this writer had heard her work and I can tell you that its friendly melodies and rhythms combined with her facility with lyrics make for a really compelling experience.

Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros' Twins Peeking at Koto (2014)

Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014)

After intermission we were treated to another world premiere from the great Pauline Oliveros.  Pauline, a beloved teacher and performer in the bay area, is based now in Kingston, New York but, as she acknowledges, she maintains ties with the bay area through performances, teaching, composing and now apparently through leaving her archive to Mills College where she was one of the founders of the Mills Tape Music Center (now the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Mr. Amirkhanian referred to her as the “Dean of American Composers”, a title once given to Aaron Copland, but equally suitable for this major composer/theorist/teacher/performer whose very presence adds to the auspicious nature of this series of concerts.

Her score is a written set of instructions for a sort of controlled improvisation that is common in her output.  Pauline’s warm personality and sense of humor are a part of this work which references the San Francisco landmark Twin Peaks and punningly refers to twin accordions as they peek at the koto which was played by Miya Masaoka.  Frode Haltli, who had performed yesterday did double duty as the second accordion in this work which requires, as does most of Oliveros’ work, close listening by performers as they execute the instructions creating the piece.  The most important lesson Oliveros has taught is the active nature of listening and that includes the performers as well as the audience because listening is itself a creative act.  And all who participated in active listening as the performers clearly did came to experience her wonderful view of the world of sound.

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Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

Don Byron, backed by veterans double bassist Cameron Brown and drummer John Betsch along with a young and interesting Cuban pianist, Aruán Ortiz.  In addition to some amazing work on clarinet (playing sometimes inside the piano) the peripatetic Byron crooned a cover of a blues song in his unique vocal style announcing the disclaimer  that it was a “cover and this was supposed to be all new music but what the hell”.  Byron’s good humor, stage presence and eclecticism was supported well by his quartet who were given some nice opportunities to show off their chops.  A very satisfying set leaving the audience and this writer once again aching for more.

Tigran Mansurian singing an Armenian tune and accompanying himself at the piano.

Tigran Mansurian singing an Armenian tune and accompanying himself at the piano.

The last concert of OM 20 took place uncharacteristically in a matinee performance at 4PM.  This concert, also uncharacteristically, was given a political theme.  Sunday’s concert was dedicated in memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide which took place 100 years ago at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, a fact recognized by most countries but not, unfortunately, by the Turkish government.

This last concert occurred on what would have been the 104th birthday of famed Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness and this was acknowledged as well.  In the pre-concert discussion we learned that Mr. Mansurian had met Mr. Hovhaness and very much liked his music.  Then, in what I learned was a spontaneous decision, Charles Amirkhanian asked Mr. Mansurian to play some music by Komitas, an Armenian composer who collected Armenian folk songs and wrote music based on those distinctive tunes.  Komitas stopped composing after the 1915 genocide as he saw these atrocities and had much of his research destroyed.  Tigran Mansurian seemed almost to jump at the opportunity and he immediately went to the piano and gave a very focused rendition of one of his favorite tunes.

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

Opening Sunday afternoon’s concert was another opportunity to hear one Mr. Amirkhanian’s major musical creations.  This one, Miatsoom (1994-7), a word meaning, appropriately for this year’s festival, Reunion was, he said, about the only trip he ever took to Armenia accompanied by his father (born in 1915) to visit relatives in that country.  The piece is a sonic travelogue about that trip.  It features the voice of the composer’s father Benjamin and various sounds and voices from that visit.  Clearly this trip and this piece are very personal and cherished  things close to the composer’s heart.  Bringing the sounds of Armenia and its people into the concert space seemed like a wonderful way to set the tone for this concert as both celebration and memorial.  And isn’t the key to a memorial the act of memory, of remembering?

SOTA orchestral string with piano to accompany soprano Hasmik Papian in Mansurian's Canti Paralleli.

SOTA orchestral string with piano to accompany soprano Hasmik Papian in Mansurian’s Canti Paralleli.

The Canti Paralleli (2007-8) by Tigran Mansurian were written in memory of his late wife who by coincidence had also been one of the soprano soloist’s teachers.  These settings of Armenian poetry were lovingly delivered by Ms. Papian.  Her beautiful voice filled the hall with what seemed to be an air of sadness.  The SOTA orchestra with a pretty accomplished young pianist rendered these somber tunes poignantly in this U.S. premiere.

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The triumphant soloist and conductor accept the gratitude of the audience, the producers and the composer.

The triumphant soloist and conductor accept the gratitude of the audience, the producers and the composer.

Following intermission we were treated to an even more recent work by Mr. Mansurian, the 2011 Romance for Violin and Strings, also in a U.S. premiere.  The violin was played with both passion and virtuosity by the Armenian-American violinist Movses Pogossian.  The orchestra seemed to rally behind him nicely accompanying him in what was a beautiful, almost romantic piece that would no doubt please any concert audience.

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Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

I haven’t yet mentioned our young conductor for this evening.  Bradley Hogarth is a trumpet player and an accomplished conductor who leads this wonderful youth orchestra.  Their ability to fit on stage in the final work requiring some 60 musicians was in doubt but fit they did.  And their performance of Michael Nyman’s Second Symphony (2014), another U.S. premiere was nothing short of amazing.

 

Mr. Nyman, who was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness, began writing symphonies in 2014 and has of the time of this writing written no fewer than 11 such works.  This second symphony was written for a youth orchestra in Mexico where it received its world premiere.  The four movement work traverses familiar territory with Nyman’s characteristic driving rhythms.  It is hard to imagine that he actually had a youth orchestra in mind because this work for strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, percussion and harp was anything but simple or easy to play.  Nonetheless the orchestra under Hogarth’s direction discharged their duties in an electrifying performance that brought the audience to its feet with appreciation.

All in all a very successful and satisfying set of concerts, a successful 20th anniversary.  Time to look forward to OM 21.  It would be hard to top this but I am sure that Other Minds will give its all to do so.  Thanks to all who composed, performed, supported and attended.  And, yes, that’s me sporting the OM 20 t-shirt with Mr. Amirkhanian.  See you next year if not sooner.

New music buff gets a photo-op with Charles Amirkhanian.

New music buff gets a photo-op with Charles Amirkhanian.

Final Culmination of a Long Collaboration: Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston


Starkland's Alcatraz DVD

Starkland’s Alcatraz DVD

The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father.  The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno.  Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies.  He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments.  But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style.  Very difficult to describe in words alone.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer.  He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups.  He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.

Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army.  His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from  ECM.  His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.

JimBengston in studio 2009 crop1107

Jim Bengston in his studio 2009

Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production.  Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.

Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object.  The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music.  But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show.  It is not didactic and only incidentally linear.  It is not just a piece of music for listening either.  The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).

Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece.  It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound.   Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston.  There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany.  Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac  music.

The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985.  According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively.  They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time  and the quality of their collaboration is apparent.  And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.

The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments.  Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay.  The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks.  Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.

The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures.  It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo.  These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone.  And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions.  One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’.  It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.

Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways.  The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs.  Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cisterci...

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This disc works on many levels.  You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by.  But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object.  One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone.  This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.

The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus.  Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design.  Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.

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Guitar Gods Go Classical? Give them a ‘Secret Rose’


Cover of "Crimson Grail"

Cover of Crimson Grail

The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.

Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.

Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’sMr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.

From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)

Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.

Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.

So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.

Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of ...

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.

Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977).   And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.

Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.

Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.

Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).

This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space.  Hope to see you there.

 

Music 109, Alvin Lucier’s personal view of the post 50s avant garde


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This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.

In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).

What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.

This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.

Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?

Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.

Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

OM 18 has been my fifth experience at the Other Minds festival.  The most amazing thing about Other Minds is their ability to find new music by casting a wide net in the search for new, unusual and always interesting music.  As I said in my preview blog for these concerts this year’s selection of composers was largely unfamiliar to me.  Now I am no expert but my own listening interests casts a pretty wide net.  Well this year I had the pleasure of being introduced to many of these composers and performers with no introduction save for the little research I did just before writing the preview blog (part of my motivation for doing the preview blog was to learn something about what I was soon to hear).

Gáman

Danish folk trio Gáman

The first night of the series consisted of what is generally classified as “folk” or “traditional” music.  Not surprisingly these terms fail to describe what the audience heard on Thursday night.

First up was the Danish folk trio ‘Gáman’ consisting of violin, accordion and recorder.  This is not a typical folk trio but rather one which uses the creative forces of three virtuosic musicians arranging traditional musics for this unusual ensemble.  On recorder was Bolette Roed who played various sizes of recorders from sopranino to bass recorder.  Andreas Borregaard played accordion.  And Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was on violin.

The first piece, ‘Brestiskvædi’ was their rendering of this traditional song from the Faroe Islands (a group of islands which is under the general administration of Denmark but which has its own identity and a significant degree of independence).  It struck my ears as similar in sound to the music of Scotland and Ireland, lilting beautiful melodies with a curiously nostalgic quality.

Next was a piece by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen.  It was the U.S. premiere of his ‘Accvire’ from 2008, a name derived from the two first letters of the instruments for which it was written (as we learned in the always interesting pre-concert panel).  It was commissioned by this ensemble.  The work reflected the composer’s facility with instrumentation and retained some suggestion of folk roots as well.  It employed a rich harmonic language within a tonal framework in what sounded almost like a post-minimalist piece.  The trio met the challenges of the music and delivered a lucid reading of this music which seemed to satisfy both the musicians and the audience.

The trio followed this with three more folk arrangements, two more from the Faroe Islands and one from Denmark.  Like the first piece they played these had a similar ambience of calm nostalgia.

The Danish folk piece set the stage for the next work, a world premiere by one of Denmark’s best known living composers, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen.  The piece ‘Together or Not’ from 2013 is an Other Minds commission.  The composer, who was not present, wrote to Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian saying, “the title is the program note”.  While the statement was rather cryptic the music was not.  This was less overtly tonal than the Rasmussen work and was filled with extended instrumental techniques and good humor.  Again the instrumentalists demonstrated a comfortable facility with the technical challenges of the music and delivered a fine reading of this entertaining piece.

The nicely framed program continued with two traditional drum songs from Greenland (the violinist, holding his instrument rather like a guitar produced a sort of modified pizzicato technique which played the drum part).  These haunting melodies seemed to evoke the desolate landscape of their origin.

The program ended with a Swedish polka and, in response to a very appreciative audience, an encore of another spirited polka.  These were upbeat dance music that all but got the audience up and dancing.  The audience seemed uplifted by their positive energy.

Sachdev

G.S. Sachdev (left) and Swapan Chaudhuri.

The second half of the first night’s concert consisted of two traditional Hindustani Ragas.  These pieces are structured in aspects of the the music but allow for a great deal of repetition and improvisation in which the musicians bring the music to life.  Hindustani music is deeply rooted in culture and spirituality.  The ragas are associated with yogic chakras, moods and time of day.  Their performance is intended to enhance the audience esthetically and spiritually.

G.S. Sachdev is a bansuri player.  The bansuri is a wooden flute common in this type of music (though Sachdev’s level of mastery is hardly common).  He was accompanied by the familiar tanpura drone produced by digital drone boxes instead of the actual instruments which produce the familiar drone sound that underlies Hindustani music performances.  Swapan Chaudhuri played tabla.  It is difficult to see the tabla as an “accompanying” instrument as much as it is a complementary instruments especially when played by a master such as he.  Chaudhuri is the head of the percussion department at the Ali Akbar Khan school in San Rafael in the north bay.  Sachdev has also taught there.  Both men have ties to the bay area.

The musicians performed Raga Shyam Kalyaan followed by Raga Bahar.  Originally I had thought of trying to describe these ragas in their technical aspects but my knowledge of Hindustani music cannot do justice to such an analysis.  Rather I will focus on the performances.

Raga Shyam Kalyaan was first and received an extended reading.  How long?  Well I’m not sure but this music does create a sort of suspended sense of timelessness when performed well.  Indeed that was the effect on this listener.  The whole performance of both ragas could not have exceeded one hour  but the performances by these master musicians achieved the height of their art in producing riveting performances of this beautiful music.  Sachdev’s mastery certainly has virtuosity but his genius lies in being able to infuse his performance with spirituality from within himself and to impart that spiritual resonance to his audience.  He was ably aided in that endeavor by Chaudhuri who, clearly a master of his instrument and connected with Sachdev, channeled his connection with the infinite.

The audience responded with great warmth and appreciation concluding the first day of the festival.

D. Lee OM18

Composer, performer, designer, shaman Dohee Lee performing her work, ‘ARA’.

Friday night began with the world premiere of the music theater performance piece, ‘ARA’ by Korean-American artist Dohee Lee.  Continuing with the spiritual tone set by yesterday’s Raga performances Lee introduced her multi-disciplinary art derived from her study of Korean music, dance and shamanism as well as costume design and music performance.

She was aided in her efforts by the unique instrument designed for her by sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist Colin Ernst.  The Eye Harp (seen in the above photo) is an instrument that is played by bowing and plucking strings and is connected to electronics as well.

The art of lighting designer David Robertson, whose work subtly enhanced all the performances, was clearly in evidence here.  This was  a feast for the eyes, ears and souls.  Dohee Lee’s creative costume design was integrated with the visually striking Eye Harp instrument.  And the music with sound design processing her instrument nicely complimented her vocalizations.  All were lit so as to enhance the visual design and create a unified whole of this performance.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

Her performance began slowly with Lee in her beautiful costume took on the role of a modern shaman conjuring glossolalia in shamanic trance along with choreographed movement and accompanied by her Eye Harp and electronic sounds through the theater’s great sound system.   Like the raga performances of the previous night I wasn’t aware of how long this timeless performance lasted (the program said it was 10 minutes) .  But I wished it would have gone on longer.  Even with photographs the experience here is difficult to articulate.  The sound enveloped the audience who viewed the carefully lit stage in the otherwise darkened hall as the sounds communicated a connection with the sacred.

I am still trying to digest what I saw and heard on this Friday night.  I don’t know how most of the audience experienced this piece but they seemed to have connected with it and responded with grateful applause.  She seemed to connect as both artist and shaman.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

Following Dohee Lee were three pieces for an instrument called the Paetzold contrabass recorder (two before intermission and one after).  Paetzold is the manufacturer who specializes in the manufacture of recorders, forerunner of the modern flute.  The square contrabass recorder is a modern design of this woodwind instrument.  However, knowing the sound of the recorder in music of Bach and his contemporaries, gives the listener no useful clues as to what to expect from the unusual looking instrument pictured above.

Anna Petrini is a Swedish recorder virtuoso who specializes in baroque and modern music written for the recorder.  At this performance she played her contrabass instrument augmented variously by modifications, additions of microphones, little speakers and electronic processing.  These pieces were perhaps the most avant-garde and the most abstract music in this festival.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.

The creative stage lighting provided a useful visual counterpoint to the music.  The first piece, ‘Split Rudder’ (2011) by fellow Swede Malin Bang was here given it’s U.S. premiere.  This piece is concerned with the sounds made inside the instrument captured by small microphones inserted into the instrument.  The resulting sounds were unlike any recorder sound that this listener has heard.  The piece created percussive sounds and wind sounds.

The next piece, ‘Seascape’ (1994) by the late Italian composer Fausto Rominelli (1963-2004) used amplification but no electronic processing.  These abstract works were received well by the audience.

‘SinewOod’ (2008) by Mattias Petersson involved introducing sound into the body of the  instrument as well as miking it internally and setting up electronic processing with which the performer interacts.  Like the two pieces that preceded it this was a complex exercise in the interaction between music and technology which is to my ears more opaque and requires repeated listenings to fully appreciate.

Taborn

Craig Taborn performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the 2013

The second concert was brought to its conclusion by the young jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn.  Detroit born, Taborn came under the influence of Roscoe Mitchell (of AACM fame) and began developing his unique style.  Here the term jazz does little to describe what the audience was about to hear.

Taborn sat at the keyboard with a look of intense concentration and began slowly playing rather sparse and disconnected sounding notes.  Gradually his playing became more complex.  I listened searching for a context to help me understand what he was doing.  Am I hearing influences of Cecil Taylor?  Thelonius Monk?  Keith Jarrett maybe?

Well comparisons have their limits.  As Taborn played on his music became more complex and incredibly virtuosic.  He demonstrated a highly acute sense of dynamics and used this to add to his style of playing.  I was unprepared for the density and power of this music. Despite the complexity it never became muddy.  All the lines were distinct and clear.  And despite his powerful and sustained hammering at that keyboard the piano sustained no damage.  But the audience clearly picked up on the raw energy of the performance.

This is very difficult music to describe except to say that it had power and presence and the performer is a creative virtuoso whose work I intend to follow.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

The final concert on Saturday began with the world premiere of another Other Minds commissioned work, ‘Work Around the World’ (2012) for live voice with looping electronics and percussion ensemble.  This, we learned in the pre-concert panel is another iteration in a series of language based works, this one featuring the word ‘work’ in 12 different languages.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais' 'Work Around the World'.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais’ ‘Work Around the World’.

Language is an essential part of the work of local vocal/techno diva Amy X Neuberg’s compositions and performance work.  With her live looping electronics she was one instrument, if you will, in the orchestra of this rhythmically complex work.  William Winant presided over the complexity leading all successfully in the performance which the musicians appeared to enjoy.  The audience was also apparently pleased with the great musicianship and the novelty of the work.  Its complexities would no doubt reveal more on repeated listenings but the piece definitely spoke to the audience which seemed to have absorbed some of the incredible energy of the performance.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen's 'Vogelstimmung'.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’.

Back to the recorder again but this time to the more familiar instrument if not to more familiar repertoire.  Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri whose work was first made known to the record buying public some years ago is familiar to most (this writer as well) for her fine performances of the baroque repertoire.

Tonight she shared her passion for contemporary music.  First she played Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’ (2011) which he wrote for her.  It was the U.S. premiere of this solo recorder piece.  Vogelstimmung is inspired by pictures of birds and is a technically challenging piece that Petri performed with confidence.  At 17 minutes it was virtually a solo concerto.

And then back to electronics, this time with Paula Matthusen who now teaches at Wesleyan holding the position once held by the now emeritus professor Alvin Lucier.  Her piece for recorder and electronics, ‘sparrows in supermarkets’ (2011) was performed by Ms. Petri with Ms. Matthusen on live electronic processing.  This was a multi-channel work with speakers surrounding the audience immersing all in a complex but not unfriendly soundfield.

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

 

Some technical difficulties plagued the beginning of the first piece after intermission so the always resourceful emcee, Other Minds executive director Charles Amirkhanian took the opportunity to introduce the new Operations Director Michael Straus.  Straus replaces Adam Fong who has gone on to head a new music center elsewhere in San Francisco.

Mr. Amirkhanian also spoke of big plans in the works for the 20th Other Minds concert scheduled for 2015 which will reportedly bring back some of the previous composers in celebration of 20 years of this cutting edge festival.  No doubt Mr. Straus has his work cut out for him in the coming months.

 

Ström, part of the video projection

Ström, part of the video projection

With the difficulties sufficiently resolved it was time to see and hear Mattias Petersson’s ‘Ström’ (2011) for live electronics and interactive video in its U.S. premiere.  Petersson collaborated with video artist Frederik Olofsson to produce this work in which the video responds to the 5 channels of electronics which are manipulated live by the composer and the five lines on the video respond to the sounds made.  The hall was darkened so that just about all the audience could see was the large projected video screen whilst surrounded by the electronic sounds.

The work started at first with silence, then a few scratching sounds, clicks and pops.  By the end the sound was loud and driving and all-encompassing.  It ended rather abruptly.  The audience which was no doubt skeptical at the beginning warmed to the piece and gave an appreciative round of applause.

Paula Matthusen performing her work, '...and believing in...'

Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’

Next up, again in a darkened hall was a piece for solo performer and electronics.  Composer Paula Matthusen came out on stage and assumed the posture in the above photograph all the while holding a stethoscope to her heart.  The details of this work were not given in the program but this appears to be related to the work of Alvin Lucier and his biofeedback work on the 1970s.  Again the sounds surrounded the audience as the lonely crouching figure remained apparently motionless on stage providing a curious visual to accompany the again complex but not unfriendly sounds.  Again the audience was appreciative of this rather meditative piece.

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

Following that Ms. Mathussen joined another bay area singer and electronics diva, Pamela Z for a joint improvisation.  Ms. Z, using her proximity triggered devices and a computer looped her voice creating familiar sounds for those who know her work while the diminutive academic sat at her desk stage right manipulating her electronics.  It was an interesting collaboration which the musicians seemed to enjoy and which the audience also clearly appreciated.

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk's 'Scared Song'

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’

For the finale Pamela Z performed her 2009 arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ 1986) which appeared on a crowd sourced CD curated by another Other Minds alum, DJ Spooky.  Z effectively imitated Monks complex vocalizations and multi-tracked her voice as accompaniment providing a fitting tribute to yet another vocal diva and Other Minds alumnus.  The audience showed their appreciation with long and sustained applause.

All the composers of Other Minds 18

All the composers of Other Minds 18

The Future Was Noise


Luciano Chessa’s book, ‘Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult is as of this writing the only book available about the Italian futurist composer other than the composer’s writings themselves.   I purchased this book with a sense of excitement having read about Russolo (1885-1947) in various references in books on 20th century music and being puzzled as to why this subject had not been dealt with in any real detail.

Well that is now no longer the case.  Chessa’s book, published in March of this year fills this scholarly musicological gap quite well.  The book provides a comprehensive picture of the cultural milieu of the Italian Futurist movement embracing visual as well as musical arts as it developed in the early twentieth century prior to, during and after the first world war and into the second.

The cultural milieu was heavily steeped in the Theosophy movement, an exploration of various ecstatic and esoteric spiritual practices which flourished as the practice of Spiritualism was waning in popularity.  Both practices shared an interest in the after life but Theosophy was perhaps more comprehensive as adherents explored various eastern religions and practices in search of answers about consciousness before, during and after life itself as well as the interactions between the material and the spiritual.  Both Spiritualism and Theosophy along with the immediate thought content philosophical theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) informed the futurists as they, along with the rest of society began to explore the impact and implications of the industrial revolution and discoveries like electric light, recording machines, x-rays and radio.

Having only a slight acquaintance with Theosophy and practically no acquaintance with Italian visual arts in the early twentieth century required a bit of time for me to absorb.  But there is no question that these are essential to understanding the genesis and practice of the ‘art of noises’ as Russolo named it in his 1913 manifesto.

Chessa recounts an era in which this philosophy along with fascism were the formative underpinnings of the futurist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century.  In only 230 pages of text (and 64 pages of notes and references)  he provides a wealth of information most of which was new to this writer and will likely be unfamiliar to the average reader as well.  This book opens virtually a whole new world begging to be researched and understood both for the arts the produced in that era as well as its influence on later developments in both art and music.

The futurists attempted to create new art forms that would more directly express or represent ‘thought forms’ as described by the theosophists and the world of the spirits.  The industrial age, mechanization, new media like recordings and radio transmission, x-rays all held a mystique which resulted in the questioning of philosophy and religion as well as politics much as the atomic bomb and, later, computers would shake beliefs and ideas in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Prior to the publication of this book Chessa had recreated the lost ‘Intonarumori’ which were destroyed and/or lost during the second world war.  Only one sound recording exists of this music and even the scores have been lost but Chessa has essentially resurrected the noise machines, performed with them and has had music written for them as well.  This is music which in 1914 and 1921 that provoked riots comparable to the 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and presaged the work with noise by the likes of George Antheil and later John Cage.

There is no explaining the neglect of this area of art and music history but there is joy in this wonderful book which is both an intriguing tale and a fine reference work for further research.  One wonders if Chessa might now embark on further explorations of this era and perhaps even a biography of Russolo but the essential ground work has been laid here for many researches to come on this fascinating era.

The book is available in hard cover, paperback and kindle editions.  This reviewer downloaded the kindle edition which has been produced with the same care as the print editions.