Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Young American Inventions: Music by Steven Ricks


Young American Inventions (New Focus FCR 158)

Young American Inventions
(New Focus FCR 158)

Let me say at the beginning here that this disc contains music of a rather experimental nature.  It has underlying complexities and this is not the kind of CD one would have playing at most parties except perhaps to clear the room.  That being said this is not bad music but it is challenging listening.

I had not been familiar with Steven Ricks (1969- ) or his music prior to receiving this disc for review.   Ricks earned his B.M. in Composition in 1993 from Brigham Young University, and M.M. (also in composition) from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1995, a Certificate of Advanced Musical Studies from King’s College in 2000 and  Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2001.  His teachers have included Morris Rosenzweig, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Bill Brooks, and Michael Hicks.

He is currently on the Board of Advisors of the Barlow Endowment, and an Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at BYU where he also directs the Electronic Music Studio.  His works fall primarily into the realm of the “electroacoustic”.  His training and interests seem to put him into orbits that likely include Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lejaren Hiller and perhaps Salvatore Martirano (all, by my definition, great composers but difficult listening and with electroacoustic outputs primarily).

I must confess that I know relatively little about the forefront of electronic music these days and I am working on catching up on this history (which seems to exist almost completely separate from classical music per se).  Even the hybrid of “electroacoustic” music seems, for this writer at least, to remain rather marginal in terms of its listening audience and its prevalence in the concert hall.

Now, having loaded the reader with these prefaces, apologies and excuses, I move on to the music itself.

I listened numerous times to the tracks on this disc.  Sometimes I listened with direct intention and concentration, other times I listened with this disc playing ambiently (can I use that term here?) whilst pursuing other tasks (not recommended).  The music is assertive and, at times downright intrusive.

I get the feeling overall of a great deal of experimentation and complexity that nearly raises Milton Babbitt’s famous question, “Who cares if you listen?”.  Certainly the composer and performers care but that doesn’t rule out the likelihood that this music may speak to a limited audience who are better trained and more familiar with these techniques/ideas.

What I like about this disc, though, is that bold, experimental, doesn’t matter who is listening approach.  Were it not for such innovation a lot of good musical ideas would never have been expressed.  This music is experimental and perhaps more than a little “inside”, meaning that other composers/scholars might get things that the average listener would probably miss.  Call it an adventure.

Curiously I was/am intrigued by Ricks’ interest in algorithmic composition (an iffy genre as well, I know).  I was pleased to find that he has available for free download on his site a program he wrote called Universal Music Machine and I have been rather entertained by it both as a compositional tool and as a teaching/learning method.   And I promise to post mp3 files of any masterpieces I might generate.

There are 9 separately identified pieces here written between 2001-2014.  Two are multi-movement works and all but two involve electronics in performance to some degree.

The opening track, Ten Short Musical Thoughts (2002) serves well as an introduction.  It makes use of sampling and of algorithmic composition.  Indeed these are short musical ideas with some spoken word comments integrated with the music.

If you are not watching/listening closely you may miss the transition between the opening track and the next, “Young American Inventions” (2007) for solo piano and electronics.  The title, a mashup of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Steve Martland’s “American Inventions” reflects Ricks’ eclectic interests and fascination with both contemporary classical as well as popular culture.  Pianist Scott Holden navigates the challenging keyboard part accompanied by the electronic score.  Here is where Ricks’ work reminds me of Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms” series.

The four movement, “Extended Play” (2007) continues the pop culture references as the composer states that those four movements are intended to mimic or approximate the four tracks which are found on most vinyl EP productions.  The ensemble composition, which is also full of more specific references to both classical and popular music, is executed by Flexible Music and is the most easily accessible work on this disc (to this listener’s ear).

“Ossifying (Keeping us from…) (2012), listed as “electroacoustic” is a piece of sound art like the opening track (no live performers in the concert hall here) and is one of the most experimental pieces on the disc.  It seems both deeply personal and inextricably self-referential.

“Geometria Situs” (2012) is the musical portion of a multimedia work called “WRENCH” which was written for and performed by Hexnut.  Mezzo-soprano Michaela Riener handles the delicate vocal lines with grace and ease.

“Sounded along dove dôve” (1999) is the last of the non-live “electroacoustic” pieces and, like its predecessors, is similarly cryptic and self-referential, a puzzle perhaps, in which the components of language itself are used as determinants of the settings of the texts.

A bit of an “aww” moment occurs with “Waves/Particles” (2008) which is performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble conducted by the composer’s former teacher Morris Rosenzweig.  Rosenzweig founded the ensemble in 1977.  This is both homage and acknowledgement between the two generations of artists.  It is lovingly played.

“Young American Inventions REMIX” (2014) invokes another pop culture metaphor of remixing a song.  This is another iteration/elaboration of the material in the earlier version of this piece.  Scott Holden is the soloist once again with the electronics.

“Stilling” (1997, rev. 2011) is a piece for solo piano.  This is described by the composer as being an impressionistic piece, perhaps a sort of tone poem.  The language is thorny and modern.  The very capable pianist here is Keith Kirchoff.

The lucid liner notes are by Jeremy Grimshaw.  The New Focus recording is clean and clear.  So if you enjoy adventures in experimental/electroacoustic music this is your disc.

 

 

 

 

 

Manhattan in Charcoal, a chamber opera by Gene Pritsker


Manhattan in Charcoal  COMCON 0021

Manhattan in Charcoal
COMCON 0021

The efforts to establish a new and functional role for opera in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have produced a wide variety of styles.  One can certainly see the 1976 Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach as a landmark in these efforts in the conventional opera house but the development of chamber opera pioneered composers like recent National Medal of Arts winner Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman (both of whom created innovative works in this genre before Einstein) deserve attention as well.

This recording appears to fit into that tradition of chamber opera.  Manhattan in Charcoal (2014) by Gene Pritsker with libretto by poet Jacob Miller requires six singers and a narrator along with a chamber ensemble of about a dozen musicians.  I don’t know much about how this piece has been staged but it works well as theater for the ears.

I knew little of Pritsker’s work prior to receiving this disc for review and I read that his repertoire of techniques range rather widely from classical, to jazz, rock and rap influences.  So I embarked on a bit of a learning mission.  Fortunately I found his You Tube channel here.  I found his web site a bit too busy and distracting even if it does seem quite comprehensive.  (I dare you to try to sleep after confronting his oeuvre.)

Here is a man born in Russia, moved to Brooklyn at age 8 and attended the Manhattan School of Music graduating in 1994.  While there he teamed up with conductor Kristjan Järvi to create the Absolute Ensemble.   He counts approximately 500 compositions ranging from solo pieces to orchestral and vocal works.  My journey of learning left my head spinning but it was not an unpleasant spin.  Pritsker’s work incorporates jazz, rap, beat boxing and eclectic instrumentation as well.  He has been active in the Manhattan downtown scene and may very well be the next generation of musical magicians to successfully grace that hotbed of musical eclecticism.

His style is mostly tonal and any experiments appear to have been done prior to the composition of the present work.  I must say that his eclecticism and embrace of a wide variety of musical devices puts me in the mind of some of Stravinsky’s work at  times.  But Pritsker is not derivative, rather he wields a large pallete.

What we have here is a form of cabaret, well suited to small venues and friendly to audiences.  It is well within the style and practice of such music and this piece is a good example of the updating of those traditions with contemporary instruments, music and modern performance practice.

The story is not unlike that of La Bohéme and, though hardly Puccini from a musical perspective, is as much a reworking of that old gem as West Side  Story was a reworking of Romeo and Juliet.  Here, however, we don’t see the romantic guise of Puccini but rather the unnecessary tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet beset not by family rivalries but by economic and social realities and perhaps by the inability to see them for what they really are.

This is apparently the first opera (of six) by Pritsker for which he did not write the libretto.  I’m not sure what impact that has had on his overall effort but his ability to set the English language to music is admirable.  All in all a thoroughly satisfying little drama which leaves the audience questioning these issues much as the protagonist has done.

ICE in Iceland, Music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir


In the Light of Air Sono Luminus DSL 92192

In the Light of Air
(Sono Luminus DSL 92192)

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.

End of an Era and a Summation: In the Mood for Food Dinner/Concert Series


Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland's Chapel of the Chimes.

Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.

For a variety of reasons I have not been able to spend any time with this blog for the last month or two but recent events tell me that I must find the time to get back online and publish.  My apologies to all who are awaiting reviews and such.  They will now be forthcoming.

This past Saturday night June 27, 2015 is among the last of this East Bay series which has been with us for the last 10 years.  Philip Gelb, vegan chef extraordinaire, shakuhachi player and teacher has announced that he will be relocating to New York in the next few months.

I personally discovered this series shortly after I moved to the bay area.  In a nondescript West Oakland neighborhood in a modest loft live/work space I found a vegan dinner which also featured a performance by Bay Area composer/performer Pamela Z.  One concert/dinner and I was hooked.   The opportunity to meet and hear many wonderful musicians and enjoy the amazing culinary magic was just too much to resist.  I have been a regular attendee at many of these concerts and they all are valued memories.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Phil, who studied music, ethnomusicology and shakuhachi has been a familiar performer in the Bay Area.  In addition to performing and teaching the Japanese bamboo flute, Phil has run a vegan catering business and began this series some ten years ago modeled on a creative music series founded in part by the late Sam Rivers.  As a musician Phil has gotten to know many talented and creative musicians who performed on his series.  Phil is a friendly, unpretentious man with great talents which he successfully combined here.

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Phil and sous chef Cori preparing the evening’s feast.

The 20 seats were sold out for the annual Masumoto Peach dinner.  At the peak of the harvest each year Phil has put together multiple course dinners featuring locally grown organic peaches from the now four generation Masumoto family orchard near Fresno .  In fact a recent film (information on the Masumoto page linked above) has been made about them called, “Changing Seasons” and one of the filmmakers was in attendance.  There was a short discussion with Q and A at one point.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

No music this night but wonderful food and friendly conversations filled the evening.  The meal began with, of course, a taste of the actual peaches.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

The next course, a peach tomato gazpacho.

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Followed by a grilled peach salad with cashew cheese balls, arugula radicchio,, pickled red onions, and a cherry balsamic dressing.

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Oh, yes, a nice Chimay to quench the thirst.

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And then tempeh char siu wontons (from the local Rhizocali Tempeh), flat tofu noodles, a really great hot peach mustard and peach sweet and sour sauce.

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The main course: peach grilled seitan, peach barbecue sauce, roasted corn and peppers, and some crunchy fried okra.

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And, for dessert, peach rosewater cake with peach walnut sorbet.  As is his custom Phil went around offering more of that sorbet which most folks, present writer  included, availed themselves.

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

But, as I said, this tradition is coming to an end.  Not to fear, however.  Phil is in the process of writing a cookbook sharing the secrets of his culinary mastery and the book will also document some of the many musicians whose talents graced many an evening here.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil's loft a few years ago.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil’s loft a few years ago.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

So this little sampling of photos provides some idea of the scope and significance of this series.  Happily it is being documented in a book for which an Indiegogo campaign is presently in process.  You can donate and receive any or many of a variety of perks ranging from a copy of the book for $40 and perks including an invitation to celebratory dinners planned in both New York and Oakland.  My copy and my dinner invite are reserved.

There are 34 days left in the campaign at the time of this writing and the project is now at 106% of its funding goal.  This is a piece of Bay Area music and culinary history that will please music enthusiasts and those who appreciate creative vegan cuisine.

Here is a list of musicians taken from the campaign site to give you an idea of the scope of the series:

Tim Berne – alto saxophone (Brooklyn)

Shay Black – voice, guitar (Berkeley via Ireland)

Cornelius Boots shakuhachi/bass clarinet

Monique Buzzarte – trombone, electronics (NYC)

Chris Caswell (2) – harp (Berkeley)

Stuart Dempster – trombone (Seattle)

Robert Dick (flute) NYC

Mark Dresser (2) – bass (Los Angeles)

Mark Dresser/Jen Shyu duet – bass, voice/dance

Sinan Erdemsel – oud (Istanbul)

Sinan Erdemsel/ Sami Shumay duet – oud, violin

Gianni Gebbia – saxophones (Palermo, Italy)

Vinny Golia- winds (Los Angeles)

Lori Goldston – cello (Seattle)

Frank Gratkowski (2) – clarinets, alto sax (Berlin)

Daniel Hoffman/Jeanette Lewicki duet violin, voice/accordion (Berkeley, Tel Aviv)

Shoko Hikage – koto (Japan-San Francisco)

Yang Jing – pipa (Beijing)

Kaoru Kakizakai (4) – shakuhachi (Tokyo)

Marco Lienhard shakuhachi (Zurich-NYC)

Mari Kimura – violin, electronics (Tokyo-NYC)

Yoshio Kurahashi (5) – shakuhachi (Kyoto)

Joelle Leandre – contrabass (Paris)

Oliver Lake – alto sax (NYC)

Riley Lee (2) shakuhachi (Australia)

Jie Ma – pipa (China, LA)

Thollem Mcdonas Jon Raskin duet piano/sax (wanderer/Berkeley)

Roscoe Mitchell – alto, soprano saxophones (Oakland)

David Murray – tenor sax (Paris)

Michael Manring (5) – electric bass (Oakland)

Hafez Modirzadeh – winds (San Jose)

John Kaizan Neptune – shakuhachi (Japan)

Rich O’Donnell – percussion (St. Louis)

Pauline Oliveros (2) – accordion (NY)

Tim Perkis/John Bischoff duet computers (Berkeley)

Barre Phillips solo and duet with Mark Dresser – contrabass (France)

Alcvin Ramos shakuhachi (Vancouver)

Tim Rayborn/Annette duet oud, strings, recorders (Berkeley/Germany)

Jon Raskin/Liz Albee duet sax/trumpet (Berkeley/Berlin)

Jane Rigler – flute (Colorado)

Gyan Riley (5) – guitar (NYC)

Terry Riley (2) – voice, harmonium (universe)

Diana Rowan (2) – harp (Berkeley/Ireland)

Bon Singer/Shira Kammen duet (voice, violin) (Berkeley)

LaDonna Smith/India Cooke duet (2) violin, viola (Birmingham, AL, Oakland)

Lily Storm/Diana Rowan – voice, harp (Oakland/Ireland)

Lily Storm/Dan Cantrell (2) – voice/accordion (Oakland)

Howard Wiley – tenor Saxophone solo and duet with Faye Carol voice

Theresa Wong/ Ellen Fullman duet

Amy X (3) – voice, electronics (Oakland)

Pamela Z – voice, electronics (San Francisco)