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)

A Glorious Other Minds 20th Anniversary


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

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

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

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

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

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

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

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

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

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian's Rippling the Lamp.

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian’s Rippling the Lamp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

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Three scenes from the video

Three scenes from the video

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

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The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

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

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

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

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

 

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

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

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

 

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

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

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

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

Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman, a Labor of Love


Labor Records LAB 7094

Labor Records LAB 7094

New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne.  In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.

Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl).  I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist.  He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta.  A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.

He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966.  His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded.  He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s.  In short he is a living treasure of American music.

 

His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more.  He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear.  This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.

Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists.  This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.

Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009.  The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage.  The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes.  We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind.  And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.

 

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques.  She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom.  She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk.  The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds.  Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song.  Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.

The piece is cast in eight movements  suggesting the “rondo” I suppose.  And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors.  But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.

The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today.  This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world.  Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers.  I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers.  Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose).  That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.