Exploding Debussy, Kathleen Supové


New Focus FCR 170

Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence.  Kathleen Supové is a fine example.  Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers.  In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.


I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work.  This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master.  Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers.  Only three tracks are for solo piano.  The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.

Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience.  It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review.  (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)

Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.

Here is the track list:

Disc One

1.  Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara

2.  Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks

3.  Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark

4.  What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf

Disc Two

1-4.  Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield

5-7.  Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld

8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper

All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.

So the take away here is as follows:  If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album.  If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album.  It is the second reason the seems the most salient here.  I expect to be listening to this many more times.  Enjoy.

 

Both Homage and Nostalgia for Sergeant Pepper at the UC Theater


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Creative, practical staging and lighting was a unifying factor in this triumph from Undercover Presents.

There was a full house at the UC Theater on this Saturday, June 3rd in Berkeley.  It was the only performance of this homage to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album which was released 50 years ago (actually June 2, 1967).  Most of the performers were not even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this landmark of music came on the scene.  The “Summer of Love” was happening in the Bay Area and this album was unquestionably an influence then.  Tonight’s show demonstrated how that influence continues.

The audience was a mix of aging hippies (and non-hippies) and younger hipsters (is it OK to use that term and have no negative connotation?).  Some, no doubt, came for a bit of nostalgia remembering where they were when they first heard the original.  Some came to hear the creativity of local artists meeting such a challenge.

It would have been easy to simply do average covers of the songs and cater only to the nostalgia but Lyz Luke’s Undercover Presents, as usual, aimed higher than that (and hit their mark).  They, under the direction of guest producer Joe Bagale, curated a show of creative interpretations of each of the 13 tracks utilizing some of the finest of the massive talents that call the Bay Area home.  The end result was a true homage from another generation of marvelously diverse artists who put their stamp on the iconic songs without losing any respect for the power of the originals.

Simple but effective stage design by Bridget Stagnitto was reminiscent of the iconic album cover with creative lighting and functional information integrated into the tableau.  Ryan John and Brendan Dreaper were lead sound engineers.

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As is customary for these shows the bands played the tracks in their original order beginning with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s instrumental cover of the opening track.  Principal trombone Rob Ewing’s arrangement captured the essence of that opening and effectively set the stage for what was to follow.

(Correction:  Per Joe Bagale the opening number was arranged by soprano saxophone player Michael Zilber.)

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Vocalist Dublin sang a bluesy solo version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, those friends being the Jazz Mafia Accomplices

Guitarist Jon Monahan takes responsibility for this arrangement which veered just a bit off of nostalgia to deliver a very effective solo vocal version (the original you may recall had that call and answer thing going on) of this, one of the best known tracks on the album.  Though it was not obvious, perhaps there was some homage intended to the late Joe Cocker who first saw the bluesy potential here when he presented his justly famed version at Woodstock in 1969.

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Raz Kennedy made effective use of backup singers in his soulful take on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  He shared arranging credit with Nick Milo.  The spirit of the Supremes, Gladys Knight (and of course the Pips), and maybe a touch of James Brown seemed to be present in the house and this arrangement got a great review from the audience.  What a voice!

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Eyes on the Shore shared arranging credits in their digital synth inflected take on Getting Better.  They went further afield with the material than some and may have briefly lost the pure nostalgia seekers but the arrangement clearly succeeded in pleasing the crowd. One would expect that psychedelia be transformed by the digital world, right?  And so it was.

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The Avant Jazz Funk duo of Scott Amendola on percussion and Will Blades on Hammond Organ (how’s that for nostalgia?) and Clavinet turned in a very intense and rich improvisational battle in their purely instrumental version of “Fixing a Hole”.  Sometimes the melody was there and sometimes it was transformed in a musically psychedelic way that went quite a distance from the original.  But the use of the Hammond Organ and Clavinet themselves provided reassurance that they wouldn’t go too far.  The performances were blazingly intense and the whole house felt it.

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We again were treated to soul with backup singers as Nino Moschella transformed the innocent ballad of adolescent alienation, “She’s Leaving Home”, into a more darkly hued version that seemed to reflect an understanding of the loss of that innocence that we all must face eventually.  Nothing somber here but clearly a different understanding consistent with the overall mission of having another generation’s way of remembering this material.

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South Asian music and philosophy are inextricably linked to the psychedelic sounds of the mid to late 1960s and nowhere is this more obvious than with the Beatles whose study of Transcendental Meditation with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born Mahesh Prasad Varma 1918-2008) while George Harrison studied sitar with Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012).

Rohan Krishnamurthy (Mridangam, Hadjira frame drum), Prasant Radakrishnan (saxophone), and Colin Hogan (keyboard) share credits for their creative instrumental arrangement of “For Mr. Kite”.  Eschewing lyrics (which are etched in most of the audience’s minds anyway) they performed a stunningly unique rendition of this familiar song. Interestingly these musicians trace their influences to the southern Indian Carnatic tradition (somewhat different from the Hindustani traditions which influenced the Beatles) adding yet another layer of richness to the evening’s goings on.

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Colin Hogan indicts himself yet again in his arrangement of “Within You Without You”, that spacey Hindustani inflected song.  The Hogan Brothers (Steve Hogan, bass; Colin Hogan, accordion; Julian Hogan, drums; Moorea Dickason, vocals; Charlie Gurke, baritone sax) turned in a marvelous world fusion rendition of the tune (lyrics and all) to a hugely appreciative response.

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Iranian born Sahba Minikia, steeped in both Iranian and western classical traditions provided a touching arrangement of the classic, “When I’m Sixty Four”.  Featuring Mina Momeni on guitar and vocals (on video) accompanied by the Awesöme Orchestra in a song whose premise looks to the future as far as this evening looked into the past to ponder the endurance of romance.

In retrospect it is almost surprising that the marvelous diversity didn’t generate a presidential tweet of dissatisfaction.  Indeed a woman singing would produce more than a tweet of dissatisfaction in Tehran, birthplace of photographer and singer Momemi who also teaches visual arts in Canada.

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Vocalist Kendra McKinley practically turned “Lovely Rita” into a feminist anthem with some retro pop group choreography and background vocals to boot.  The visuals and the energy of the performance practically had the whole house dancing.

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Soltrón added Latin percussion and energetic dance to the already electrified atmosphere with their arrangement of the raucous “Good Morning”.  Kendra McKinley could be seen and heard tying in her energy from the previous performance as backup singer here.

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Lyz Luke stepped in to introduce the penultimate Sgt Pepper Reprise.

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The dancing energy was carried on by the colorful and energetic dancers of Non-Stop Bhangra.  They accompanied Rohan Krishnamurthy and Otis McDonald in Joe Bagale’s rocking arrangement (replete with lyrics) of the reprise of the opening.  It was like a live action version of the studio executed original performance with a stage filled with ecstatic musicians and dancers.

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Joe Bagale in his Sgt Pepper duds sings the lyrics hoping we’d enjoyed the show.

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The apocalyptic, “A Day in the Life” concluded the mission of homage and nostalgia in a bigger than life tableau of talent and diversity that connected the “there and then” to the “here and now”.  The famous extended last chord crashed in a peak of energetic music making to bring the performances to a close.

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The visuals were strongly reminiscent of the iconic album cover.

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There was no need to encourage the audience to sing along to the encore of “All You Need is Love”.  Fifty years hence we still need it and if we still don’t have it everywhere at least we had it here this night.

 

Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


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Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

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Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

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                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.

 

E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


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Pony Canyon PCSD 01023

Call it world music, call it jazz, call it fusion but whatever the description this is an innovative and fascinating musical journey.  Using traditional Korean instruments as well as the usual keyboards, vocals, and drums this group of young musicians crafts a very interesting and beautiful tapestry of sound.

I have long had an interest in and some appreciation of traditional Korean musics and instruments but my knowledge is rather limited.  I am inclined to compare this group to Oregon, the iconic jazz/new age experimental band of the 1970s but unlike Oregon’s more widely cast net we see young musicians embracing their ancient Korean musical heritage as they seek to express themselves and invoke the wisdom of their ancestors.  This album was sent to me as a gift from a friend but I quickly fell in love with it and I had to write a review.

It seems to me that Korea has, more than many countries, been damaged and stunted by the antics that became known as World War II and the Korean War.  As a result this rich and ancient culture was nearly erased in favor of geographic division and political expediency.  It is heartening to find young artists such as these seeking to communicate with if not actually recover some of this rich past.

This band is named after a revered 15th century Korean king and they make liberal use of traditional Korean instruments alongside their drums, keyboards, and vocals.  The album succeeds to some degree in achieving a synthesis (as opposed to a sappy watering down) of traditional music and something like jazz with some rock and pop sensibility.  These are sincere and perceptive artists and if they have not fully succeeded then they have made a significant step toward reviving some of their justly valued history and culture.

In addition to its musical values this is a gorgeously produced album (visually and sonically) and I am sorry to see that only the digital download is available on Amazon.

There are six tracks on the disc and all feature traditional Korean instruments alongside the band’s keyboards, drums and vocals.  There are few vocals but no words as far as I can tell and any program is implied at best.  This is strictly about the music.

The first track, Bird of Oblivion, unfolds like an Indian raga with a meditative slow beginning giving way to a faster section.  It is the most extended work on the disc at 13:51 and it certainly serves to bdraw the listener in.  The remaining tracks range from pop-inflected jazz (track 3) to a little bit of rock .  Throughout the traditional Korean instruments make their presence known but not overwhelmingly.  This album is a pretty successful synthesis of old and new.

E Do consists of:

Kyung-hwa Ryu: chulhyungeum, yanggeum, janggu, kkwaenggwari

Chung Lim: drums, jungju, gong

Min-soo Cho: junggu, Korean drum, Korean fan, percussion

Jung-chul Seo: electronic bass, contrabass

Young-Sup Lee: daegeum, taepyeongso, danso, ocarina

Seung-hwan Yang: keyboards

Tae-young Kim: vocals

Young-goo Lee: daegum

Seek this one out.  And don’t forget to pick up some traditional Korean music as well.  It is well worth your time and, after all, a nod to the fine efforts of this wonderful group.

 

Discovering and Preserving a Legacy: Tod Dockstader: From the Archives


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Starkland ST-226

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release.  The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history.  Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles.  Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books.  Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb.  It is an amazing disc on many levels.

This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015).  Starkland’s  first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition.  Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing.  He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).

As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015.  He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more.  Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show.  He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions.  The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created.  Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.

Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music.  Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.

Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time.  Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.

Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6.  Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works.  He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015.  There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.

For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal,  a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate.  She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new.  Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading.  She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.

The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces.  They are all dated between 2005 and 2008.  The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer.  One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future).  At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.

The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission.  I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.

The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family.  The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets.  I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy.  Bravo gentlemen!

Release is scheduled for November 18th.  You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.