The Piano is Calling Me: Nicolas Horvath’s New Music Pilgrimages


Nicolas Horvath Lyon

Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces.  That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.

Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions.  He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.

His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass.  He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.

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The artist standing in one of his installations.

We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014.  I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep.  But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”.  What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.”  It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage.  The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.

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Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)

Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning.  He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.

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Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.

Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977.  He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École  Normale de Musique de Paris.  At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.

In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs.  He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine.  Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified.  Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work.  He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.

Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music.  He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005),  some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted  in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold.  Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.

Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds.  Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances.  Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience.  He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score.  It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm.  At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.

His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog.  And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.

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The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra.  His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution.  This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm.  The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.

His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012.  It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer.  This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works.  It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes.  (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.).   He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos.  At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released.  He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.

I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive.  He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects.  And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself.  Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.

A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works.  Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height.  Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents.  His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.

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Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

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Hortus Records 100 (2012)

A very unusual choice for a debut recording.  Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work.  He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions.  One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.

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Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.

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Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall.  These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.

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Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres.  Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.

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Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.

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Demerara Records (2016)

Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

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Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music.  Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..

Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music  while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire.  The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls.  He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B.  Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.

Pictures at a Post-Minimalist Exhibition: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye


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Eighth Blackbird is Chicago’s more than adequate answer to New York’s Bang on a Can and this album is solid proof of that.  The liner notes tell us that this is “a collection inspired by a collection” and these 9 tracks are sonic impressions by the individual composers of an art exhibit.  The end result is very much like the romantic/impressionistic Mussourgsky gem updated to the post-minimalist era.

It is well worth your time to check out the artwork which inspired this music (here) and this writer imagines that this piece could really work well as a film score, a DVD perhaps of these images.  The music invokes various minimalist and post-minimalist composers and styles.  It is almost a sonic tour of post-minimalism.  And apparently there are plans for a multimedia tour of this piece as well.  Sounds like a wonderful idea.

This album is the work of a composer’s collective called Sleeping Giant and consists of Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Robert Honstein, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne and Jacob Cooper.  Each has chosen a selection of art to which they wrote a piece of music providing their musical impressions.  The result is a remarkably coherent set of pieces which, while each different, seem to flow into a unity.

Casual listeners may be familiar with the names of Timo Andres or Andrew Norman but all these composers are basically new to these ears and it appears to be a talented lot that deserves some serious attention as they may very well be THE ones to watch/listen to in the coming years. They utilize a variety of techniques in their compositions but there is never a feeling of this being experimental or tentative.  These are fully fleshed out works by master composers.

The music is appealing immediately upon first listen.  One hears the influences of Terry Riley here, John Adams there, David Lang, etc.  In short these pieces are informed by the preceding generations of minimalists much as they also address their debt and do honor to their mentors.  It has some of the character of Lang’s “Child” in that this is essentially a suite of pieces of post-minimalist chamber music (though this music has an almost symphonic quality at times).

The recording is superb and up to the high standards of Cedille releases and the musicianship, as always, is superb.  The liner notes by Sleeping Giant along with Tim Munro are lucid and the album design by Karl Jensen is eye-poppingly psychedelic.  This project was funded by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Andrew W. Mellon and the Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated


In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre.  I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues.  This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.

Dag in de Branding 11 - Frederic Rzewski

Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series.  The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens.  Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music.  He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes.  Some of those other works  will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist.  He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it.  Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums.  They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes.  The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo ...

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani.  Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries.  Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.

This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each.  In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme.  In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.

Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.  She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.

The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.

Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007).  The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.

Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher,  I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.

Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.

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Other Minds 21, the Dawn of a New Chapter and the Raising of the Dead


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Charles Amirkhanian with the composers of OM 21

Much needed rain pummeled the city by the bay on all three days of OM 21 dampening, perhaps, some attendance but not the enthusiasm of the audience or the performers.  In most ways this concert was a continuation of the celebration begun last year commemorating 20 years of this festival.  Returning this year were Gavin Bryars (OM7) and Meredith Monk (OM1).

Until last year no composer had appeared more than once at this series.  For those unfamiliar with OM it is worth noting that the process has been for the 8-10 selected composers spend a week at the Djerassi Arts Center in Woodside, California sharing and discussing their work before coming to San Francisco for performances of their work.

As it turns out this year’s concert series will be the last to follow that format.  Apparently OM has become the victim of gentrification and has had to move out of its Valencia Street offices and will now opt for various concerts throughout the year as they have done but without the big three-day annual festival and the residency at Djerassi.

The archives of OM are now going to be housed at the University of California Santa Cruz where they will reside along with the Grateful Dead archives.  I do believe that Mr. Amirkhanian lived near Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead when he lived in San Francisco some years ago so it seems fitting that these two archives will peacefully coexist in that space (also coming to UCSC will be OM 21 composer Larry Polansky though not in an archive).

This is certainly a change but this is a festival which has endured various changes in time and venue led throughout by the steady hand of the Bill Graham of contemporary music concerts, Charles Amirkhanian (both men have had a huge impact on music in the bay area as well as elsewhere and it is worth noting that the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have a tribute to Graham this year).

Actually Other Minds traces its provenance to the Telluride, Colorado Composer to Composer festival (also led by Amirkhanian) and later morphed into OM with the leadership of president (now emeritus) Jim Newman back in the early 1990s.  There is a short excellent film describing OM’s history on Vimeo here.

It is the end of a chapter but, as Amirkhanian explained, there are many exciting concerts coming up which will keep Other Minds in the earshot of the astute contemporary music aficionados on the west coast.  Next year, for example, will include several very exciting concerts celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of beloved bay area composer Lou Harrison.

My apologies for the delay in posting which was due to both the richness of the experience and the exigencies of my day job and other responsibilities.  I hope that readers will find this post to have been worth the wait.

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Nordic Voices

Starting our rainy day were the extremely talented singers known as Nordic Voices.  Lasse Thoresen‘s Solbøn ( Sun Prayer) (2012) and Himmelske Fader (Heavenly Father) (2012) both required keen listening and required the use of extended vocal techniques such as multiphonics.  The singing appeared effortless and even fun for the ensemble but that speaks more to their expertise and preparedness than any ease in terms of the score.

It is always difficult to judge a composer’s work by only a small selection from their output  but Thoresen’s virtuosity and subtle use of vocal effects suggests a highly developed artist and it would seem worth one’s time to explore more of this gentleman’s oeuvre.

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Lasse Thoresen takes the stage to acknowledge the applause.

Next was an unusual, humorous/dramatic work by Cecile Ore called Dead Pope on Trial (2015/16) with a libretto by Bibbi Moslet.   This Other Minds commission was given its world premiere at this concert.  The work is based on the story of a medieval pope who was taken from his grave no fewer than six times for various perceived offenses.  It is a mix of irony and humor in a sort of madrigal context.  The work was in English and had the nature of a conversation between the singers.  No doubt a challenging piece, it was sung very well and the composer seemed as pleased with the performance as much as the audience.

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Cecile Ore smiling as she acknowledges the applause for the wonderful premiere performance of her new work, Dead Pope on Trial.

As if in a demonstration of sheer stamina in addition to virtuosity Nordic Voices took the stage again, this time for some Madrigals (2002/2016) by returning artist Gavin Bryars.  Bryars is no stranger to Other Minds or to madrigals and such older musical forms from the renaissance and before.  He has extensively explored vocal writing and medieval harmonies in many previous works.  Though categorized as being a “minimalist”, Bryars actually has produced a huge range of music in all forms including opera, chamber and orchestral music.

His madrigals have been written for the Hilliard Ensemble and each book is distinguished by the madrigals having been written on a specific day of the week.  The first book on Mondays, etc.  They are settings of Petrach’s sonnets and are sung in the original Italian of his day.  On this night we were treated to four madrigals from Book Two and the premiere of a madrigal from Book Four.  That madrigal was dedicated to Benjamin Amirkhanian, the father of Charles Amirkhanian who celebrates his 101st birthday this summer.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with the affable Mr. Bryars.  His generous spirit pervaded our conversation and he spoke very highly of both his visits to Other Minds.  If you don’t know this man’s music you are doing yourself a great disservice.

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A very pleased Gavin Bryars deflects the applause and adulation to the amazing Nordic Voices for their astounding performance of five of his madrigals.

The singers of Nordic Voices sustained a high level of virtuosity as well as sheer stamina as they sang for nearly two hours in the opening pieces of this concert series.  No time was lost setting the stage for the performance of the next piece, another premiere, Algebra of Need (2016) for electronic sampling and string quartet by Bang on a Can member Phil Kline.

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FLUX Quartet playing at SF Jazz, 2016

The Flux Quartet was featured in the next two (and last) works on this long program.  Algebra of Need is Kline’s meditation on the words and the cadences of the iconic writing and voice of the late William S. Burroughs (gone 19 years as of this writing).  The familiar voice seemed to go in and out of clearly audible, at times mixed more closely with the string writing in this intense homage.

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A satisfied looking Phil Kline leans in to embrace the first violin of the Flux Quartet after their premiere of his Algebra of Need.

The Bang on a Can collective was also represented tonight by Michael Gordon.  The Sad Park (2008) for string quartet and electronics put a most decidedly disturbing conclusion on the evening.  This piece, which samples the voices of children (one of them Gordon’s) as they spoke of their experience of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

The effect was, as no doubt intended, harrowing leaving a pretty strange and unsettling feeling as we walked away from the concert into the still rainy night.

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Michael Gordon embraces the FLUX Quartet’s first violin after a stunning performance of The Sad Park.

The rain continued on Saturday but the crowd was noticeably larger for the second night which opened with the usual panel discussion.

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left to right: Meredith Monk, John Oswald, Nicole Lizee, Eliot Simpson, Larry Polansky, Oliver Lake and Charles Amirkhanian in a panel discussion prior to the concert

This evening began with a performance by the wonderful bay area violinist Kate Stenberg of a piece which was a sort of antidote to the somber, The Sad Park from the previous night.  Again the composer was Michael Gordon and the piece was Light is Calling (2004), a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Though hardly a happy piece Light is Calling is perhaps elegiac and the composer seems to achieve some of his stated intent to find some healing in the wake of a disaster to which he was all too close.

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Kate Stenberg plays violin beneath the projection of a Bill Morrison film in Michael Gordon’s, Light is Calling

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Michael Gordon and Kate Stenberg accepting the applause of an appreciative audience.

Next up was John Oswald, a Canadian composer whose career took off in infamy when his Plunderphonic CD, released to radio stations in the early 1980s, became the subject of legal battles over the meaning of copyright law in light of digital sampling.  Fortunately Oswald won the right to publish his work and his Plundrphonics concepts now underlie much of his compositional process.  Until this night I had not heard any but his Plunderphonic CDs so the introduction to his live music was a revelation.

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Pianist and (at least here) multi-instrumentalist Eve Egoyan performing with a Yamaha Disklavier and other instruments.

The first piece she did was called Homonymy (1998/2015) was originally written for chamber orchestra and was then transcribed for Egoyan and her prepared disklavier et al.  It is a piece based on linguistic elements and with a visual component as well.

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Eve Egoyan performing Homonymy with overhead projections.

Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes (2015) was the next piece  and also made use of the projection screen.  The subtitle of the piece indicates it is for “disklavier and glitch”.  Well life imitated art as some sort of glitch prevented the projection from functioning at first but this was rather quickly resolved and we were treated to excerpts of scenes from several David Lynch films with the piano playing some of the rhythms of the dialog in an exchange that puts this writer in the mind of music like Scott Johnson’s “John Somebody” and Steve Reich’s incorporation of speech rhythms in works like, “The Cave”.

Nicole Lizee is a Canadian composer and was the youngest composer on this year’s program.

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Eve Egoyan playing Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes with projected scenes/glitches from Lynch’s films.

The work is one of a series of pieces inspired by films and was executed with apparent ease by pianist Eve Egoyan who played the disklavier (both the keyboard and directly on the strings), a guitar and perhaps other gadgets .  The piece kept her quite busy and the associations I described above sound nothing like this work actually.  These etudes were a unique, typically Other Minds sort of experience, one that expands the definition of musical composition.

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Nicole Lizee (l) with Eve Egoyan absorbing the audience’s appreciation of the David Lynch Etudes.

Two more John Oswald compositions graced the program next.  Palimpia (2016) is a six movement piece for disklavier with pianist playing as well.  Oswald says it is actually his first composition for piano.

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John Oswald embracing pianist Egoyan and enjoying the audience applause for his work.

Well I did say there were two more Oswald pieces but this last one was a masterful plunder by this truly unusual composer.  Here Oswald conjured the playing as well as the image of the late great Glenn Gould who was seen actually playing Invaria (1999) with the disklavier performing along with the film of Gould performing this music.  It was, for this writer, a spellbinding experience.  He has raised the dead in the name of music.  Wow!  It was an amazing and heartfelt homage to a fellow great Canadian musician.

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Glenn Gould playing John Oswald

Larry Polansky (1954- ) is well known as a teacher and as a composer but one is hard pressed to find much in the conventional discography of his work.  The few discs out of his amazing electronic music (and one disc of piano variations) represent only a small fraction of his output and represent only one genre of music which he has mastered.  However the astute listener needs to be advised to look online to look, listen and hear some of the bounty of his creative output.  Check out the following sites: Frog Peak Music (Polansky’s publishing site which includes music and scores by a great many interesting composer in addition to himself and Dartmouth Page (which contains link to various recordings, writings, computer software, etc.

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Giacomo Fiore (left) and Larry Polansky playing Polansky’s ii-v-i (1997)

As an amateur musician who has enough trouble simply tuning a guitar it made my knees weak to watch these musicians effortlessly retune as they played.   Polansky’s experimentation with alternate tunings is an essential part of many of his compositions.

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Fiore and Polansky changing their tunings mid-phrase in a stunning demonstration of virtuosity with pitch changes.

The program then moved from the electric to the acoustic realm with Polansky’s folk song arrangements.  Eliot Simpson, the pedagogical progeny of the great David Tanenbaum (who played these concerts last year at OM 20), played the just intonation National Steel Guitar and sang.

Let me say just two things here.  First, these are not arrangements like Copland’s Old American Songs and second, I will never hear these folk songs quite the same way again.  Polansky’s interest in folk music and Hebrew cantillation along with alternate tunings produces what the ears hear as perhaps a different focus.  In these pieces he did not stray too far from the original (as he does in his Cantillation Studies) but one is left with distinctly different ways of hearing and thinking about this music and the listener is left richer for that.  It is a journey worth taking and Simpson played with both passion and command.

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky's Songs and Toods

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky’s Songs and Toods

Polansky returned to the stage for a performance of his 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) (1995). Again we were treated to the virtuosic use of alternate tunings performed live (and again with live re-tunings) by the composer.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Continuing with the solo performer theme we were privileged to hear the virtuosic jams of Oliver Lake (1942- ) whose long career is legendary in the jazz world.  The “mostly improvised” (according to the composer) Stick was played on two different saxophones in what appeared to be as intense an experience for the performer as it was for the audience.

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

The emotional workout was received warmly by the audience.

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

There was no panel discussion on the third day of OM 21.  This matinée was dedicated entirely to the work of Meredith Monk (1942) who, fittingly was one of the featured artists in the first Other Minds gathering in 1993.  Now a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts this beloved artist returns to OM 21.  Though the rain continued the house appeared to be full.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp in one of her early solo songs.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp and singing in one of her early solo songs.

Monk played a selection of material from various periods in her career in a mostly chronological survey which she called The Soul’s Messenger.  She began with selections from her solo songs and proceeded to her voice and piano music, then to her work with multiple voices and instruments.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Most of the audience seemed to have a comfortable familiarity with the individual works she offered on this night which effectively gave a picture of her career.  Monk was in good voice and appeared to enjoy her performance.

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

The stage was set to allow for the dance/movement that is an essential part of Monk’s works.  She originally trained as a dancer.

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

In addition to the grand piano the stage was set with two electronic keyboards, an essential sound in many of Monk’s works.

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Woodwind player Bodhan Hilash joined the ensemble for the last set of pieces.

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end resulting in 3 curtain calls.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

And the properly prepared artist came back for an encore of her song Details.

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

 

It was a fitting finale to a great OM 21, fitting to have this artist who appeared on the first iteration of Other Minds returning now crowned with a National Medal of the Arts and clearly beloved by the audience.  Her music like her lovely smile fade to the edge of memory like that of the Cheshire Cat on a truly triumphant finale.

And, despite some format changes, who knows what treasures continue to lie in store?  I will be watching/listening and so, apparently will many others.  Keep an eye on www.otherminds.org .  I know I will.

 

ICE Debuts on Starkland: Music by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis


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Starkland is one of those labels whose releases seem to be so carefully chosen that one is pretty much guaranteed a great listening experience even if that experience might challenge the ears sometimes.  If one were to purchase their complete catalog (as I pretty much have over the years) one would have a really impressive and wide-ranging selection of new music.

I recently reviewed a very fine ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) recording of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir here. The present disc is the first appearance on Starkland of this ensemble whose performance skills and repertoire choices show the same depth of understanding as the producers of the label upon which they now appear.

ICE was founded in Chicago in 2001 by executive director and flautist extraordinaire Claire Chase.  The discography on their website now numbers 21 albums including the present release.  The group features some 30+ artists and musicians including a live sound engineer (like the Philip Glass Ensemble) and a lighting designer.  Do yourself a favor and check out the ICE Vimeo page to get some ideas about why having a lighting designer is a good idea.  Their performances are visually as well as musically compelling.  And who knows, perhaps there is a Starkland DVD release in their future.

About half their albums feature music by members of ICE and that is the case with this release.  One always has to wonder at the process that is involved in choosing repertoire to perform and/or record but there is no doubt that this group seems to have good instincts in regards to such decisions as evidenced by the already wild popularity of this disc on WQXR and the positive initial reviews so far.

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Phyllis Chen‘s biographical data is a bit sparse on both the ICE website and her own so I am going to assume that this talented young keyboard player likely began playing at an early age.  Like fellow pioneers Margaret Leng Tan and Jeanne Kirstein before her she has embraced toy pianos and, by extension I suppose, music boxes, and electronics into her performing arsenal.  In addition to being a composer she is one of the regular members of ICE.

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Nathan Davis is a regular percussionist with ICE as well as a composer.  His works range from opera to chamber and solo pieces for various instruments as well as electronics.

The tracks on this release pretty much alternate between these two featured composers.

The first track is Ghostlight (2013) by Nathan Davis, a sort of ragged moto perpetuo for “gently”prepared piano.  This is a good example of how these musicians (pianist Jacob Greenberg in this instance) have really fully integrated what were once exotic extended techniques into a comprehensive catalog of timbral options which are used to expand the palette of creative expression.  This is not a second rate John Cage clone but rather another generation’s incorporation of timbral exploration into their integral canon of sonic options.  This is an exciting and well-written tour de force deftly executed.

The next two tracks take us into the different but complimentary sound world of Phyllis Chen.  Hush (2011) for two pianos, toy pianos, bowls (presumably of the Tibetan singing variety) and music boxes is a playful gamelan-like piece played by the composer along with pianist Cory Smythe.

Chimers (2011) is a similarly playful work requiring the assistance of clarinetist Joshua Rubin, violinist Erik Carlson and Eric Lamb (on tuning forks) along with Chen and Smythe once again.  Again we hear these unusual instruments and timbres not as outliers in the musical soundscape but rather simply as artistic elements that are part of the composer’s vision.

Track number 4 features a work for bassoon and live processing.  Davis’ On Speaking a Hundred Names (2010) is played by Rebekah Heller and again the (to this listener) usually uncomfortable fit of acoustic and electronic are achieved very smoothly.  Music like this gives me hope that some day I will be able to drop the inevitable negative connotations I have associated with the term “electroacoustic”.  This is very convincing music and not just in the “golly gee, see what they’re doing” sense either.  The experimentation here (including the multiphonics) appears to have preceded the composition giving us an integrated and satisfying listening experience.

Chen comes back on track 5 with another successful integration of acoustic and electronic in her, Beneath a Trace of Vapor (2011).  Eric Lamb handles the flute here playing with (or against) the composer’s prepared tape.  This electroacoustic trend continues in the following track (also by Chen) called Mobius (201-) in which Chen, Smythe and Lamb are credited with playing “music boxes and electronics”.  Once again the integration of electric and acoustic speaks of a high level of music making.

The final four tracks are the big work here and the work that lends its name to this disc, On the Nature of Thingness (2011) by Nathan Davis.  Apparently taking its title from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (ca. 1B.C.) the work earlier also inspired Henry Brant in his spatial composition, On the Nature of Things (1956), but the work in this disc does not seem to make any direct reference to that Roman classic poem except perhaps metaphorically.

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Soprano Tony Arnold

The work here is an exploration of language, sound and expression.  This most eclectic and ponderous of the selections is a wonderful opportunity to hear the considerable skills of resident vocalist Tony Arnold who sense of pitch and articulation are incredibly well-suited to this work.  Her performance leaves nothing to be desired and is likely as authoritative as it gets.  The work seems to require a great deal of concentration and coordination on the parts of all involved and ICE takes the opportunity to demonstrate their well-honed skills as they clearly listen to each other and go all out in terms of achieving the subtlety of expression required in this demanding and complex work.

As usual the Starkland recording is clear and detailed without the sense of claustrophobia that such detail can take on and the liner notes are useful without extraneous detail.  This is an ensemble to watch/listen for both for the performers and for the music they choose to program.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

A Grand Early Start to Black History Month


 

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The United States (unlike England who use the 31 day month October) has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History  but I have managed to get 30 days to celebrate this year by starting a day early in this leap year.  Basically I cheated, deal with it.

This is the year of the last term of our first black president and, while that is a historically significant fact, so are the facts of the police killings that demands the development of interventions like “Black Lives Matter” to remind society of a fact that should be obvious but clearly is not, that we have a serious human rights crisis here.  However, rather than getting into yet another acknowledgement of our racist society, I am interested in sharing a wonderful positive experience that I hope will provide as much inspiration to my readers as it did to the fortunate folks who attended this night’s festivities.

Friend and colleague Bill Doggett kindly made arrangements for me to attend this annual fundraising event at the Eastside College Preparatory School and sponnsored by the African American Composer Initiative  and the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.  The featured guest was composer/pianist Valerie Capers (1935- ) a Julliard trained pianist and composer. She was joined by a wealth of highly skilled musicians in a fascinating program of music and arrangements by Capers, John Robinson and several others.

The well attended evening began with a couple of vocal numbers done by the Eastside Preparatory School Choir followed by the playing of the beginning of a documentary film about Ms. Capers (Dr. Valerie Capers: Dream Big, 2015).  In the excerpt she talks about her life, losing her sight and the importance of music to her.  She is a delightfully positive, optimistic and energetic person and, as we saw later, a powerful and inspiring musician. This became even more evident when we were treated to the live interview conducted from the stage by LaDoris Cordelle, herself an accomplished pianist and singer as well as a respected lawyer, judge and activist.

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LaDoris Cordelle (left) interviewing Valerie Capers

Participating this evening were the Eastside Preparatory School Choir conducted by David Chaidez, soprano Yolanda Rhodes, vocalists/pianists LaDoris Cordell and Deanne Tucker, pianist Josephine Gandolfi, violinist Susan C. Brown, cellist Victoria Ehrlich, and clarinetist Carol Somersille along with guest artists Valerie Capers, John Robinson (bass, composer), Jim Kassis (percussion), Rufus Olivier (bassoon), Stephanie McNab (flute), John Monroe (trombone), John Worley (trumpet) and Lauren Sibley (narrator in “Ruby”).  I must say that the musicians this evening were truly spectacular and seemed to work even harder in their homage to guest of honor Valerie Capers.

The musical program properly began with the performance of John Robinson’s Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman (2015).  The work whose title echoes Aaron Copland’s populist Fanfare for the Common Man (1941) and was written in honor of Ms. Capers.  This was followed by several of Capers’ Portraits in Jazz (1976) compositions and her take (not at all like Vivaldi’s) on the four seasons in her, Song of the Seasons (1987).

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Valerie Capers with John Robinson acknowledging the grateful applause.

The first half of the program concluded with Capers’ Winter Love, her gloss on Wagner and her arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”.

The second half began with Bird Alone, an Abbey Lincoln song arranged by Capers.  This was followed by another composition from Mr. Robinson, “Tarantella with a Twist of Lime” (2015), a catchy somewhat humorous piece, and then “Doodlin'” by Horace Silver.

Next up was a work in a genre of great interest to this reviewer, that of a political classical piece written to express political ideas.  Ruby (2013) with text and music by Valerie Capers is a work for narrator, vocalists and ensemble that tells the story of Ruby Bridges who, in 1960, became the first black child admitted to the the all white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She had to be accompanied by Federal Marshals under orders from then President Eisenhower.  Bridges was the only black student and was taught by the only teacher willing to teach a black student, Barbara Henry who remained Bridges teacher for the entire year and there were no other students in that classroom though some white families did eventually send their children back to the school where they were taught in their accustomed segregated fashion (ironic here too because New Orleans had had the beginnings of an integrated school system prior to the civil war). Bridges and her family suffered many indignities as a result of her participation in this landmark event, a critical step in the Civil Rights Movement. This was a powerful and touching piece performed with reverence, sympathy driven by the hindsight of the accomplishment itself as well as the frustration and sadness that even some 50 years later the struggle still continues.

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The Grand Finale

The evening concluded with a group performance of Capers’ arrangement of the iconic spiritual, “Eyes on the Prize” whose strains provided some of the soundtrack of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  It is a hymn which still offers much inspiration.  It was a joyful and optimistic evening much like the times 50 years ago whose struggles now rest on the shoulders of yet another generation hoping, praying, working and performing amidst adversities that seem to never end.  But even a progress measured in inches is still progress.

The reception which followed was catered by apprentices from a group called, “Worth Our Weight” (based in Santa Rosa) which teaches culinary and catering skills to minority students.  Various tasty little sandwiches, meatballs and pastries tended to our palates while we took advantage of the opportunity to meet the performers.

I took the opportunity to meet and talk briefly with Capers whose energy was unabated belying her 80 years as she greeted a wealth of appreciative audience members.  I commented to her that I thought her vocal writing sounded a bit like Mahler  Capers paused oh so briefly before stating with her characteristically good humor and a knowing smile, “I think that’s  compliment.” Indeed it was.

 

 

 

 

ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
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For some years now I have greatly enjoyed the contemporary music coming out of the Nordic countries.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.  But I have also been aware of the truly rich musical culture of neighboring Iceland which, it seems, is less well known for its musical heritage.  Composers such as Jón Leifs and Thorkell Sigurbjornssen (among others) have created some wonderful music in the twentieth century that definitely needs to be heard more often and the present composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is certainly a rising star in the twenty-first century, a proud example of Iceland’s best

Þorvaldsdottir (in Icelandic script) was born in 1977 in Iceland.  She earned a B.A. in music composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2004 and went on to an M.A. and Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, San Diego finishing in 2011.  She has received numerous awards, most recently the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012 for her orchestral work, “Dreaming” (2008).

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Anna Thorvalsdottir accepting the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.

Her music can be found on 8 CD releases of which three, including the present disc, are devoted entirely to her works. The other two discs devoted to her music can be found on Deutsche Grammaphon  and, now only available as a digital download, a disc originally released on Bandcamp and now also available on Innova.  Worth noting is another disc on the Sono Luminus label that contains her chamber work, “Shades of Silence” (2012).  Here her work is presented along with that of several other Icelandic composers placing her in context with her peers.

In the Light of Air (2013-2014) is a five movement suite written for and performed by ICE (The International Contemporary Ensemble).  The work is scored for viola, piano, cello, percussion, fixed electronics and installation. There is an intended visual component here and there is a high definition video of a performance of this work on Vimeo.  It puts this reviewer in the mind of the work of George Crumb some of whose chamber works (Black Angels and Vox Balenae for example) require various stagings that are not conventional in standard chamber music performances.  You can judge for yourself as to whether the staging enhances the work but the music does stand on its own.

The five movements, Luminance, Serenity, Existence, Remembrance and Transitions flow seamlessly into one another evoking a dream-like, even impressionistic feeling.  It would appear that this composer has studied a great deal of compositional techniques and has integrated those most useful to her in her work.  We hear microtones, glissandi, harmonics, alternate tunings, vocalizations, drones, even some spectral passages.  But throughout these techniques do homage to the past by their use in this clearly 21 st Century music.  There is an overall mysterious, somber and meditative tone that seems to evoke the sometimes barren landscapes of the composer’s native Iceland.  She seems  to travel in sound worlds not too distant from Morton Feldman but also Pauline Oliveros with a dash of Debussy perhaps. I don’t know, but quality (and sometimes lack) of light north of the Arctic Circle must certainly affect the way people think and create.  But keep in mind that Iceland consistently makes the top ten lists for happiest countries in the world. Perhaps funding for the arts, such as they provide, contributes to that happiness.  When the result is music like this one can’t help but feel at least hopeful.

ICE executes the performance with their usual virtuosity and care adding another significant work to their large and growing repertoire of contemporary music.  The recording, in keeping with the Sono Luminus mission is lucid and detailed.  (Unfortunately I was unable to evaluate the DVD 5.1 audio which is included in this release.  I have no doubt that this is a great listening experience but that will have to wait until I upgrade my sound system.)

Having heard this disc and some of the excerpts of other works available on the composer’s web page I think this is an artist whose work certainly deserves attention and one whose star will no doubt rise further.   Kudos to Sono Luminus on promoting this music.  Highly recommended.