The Next Chapter of East Meets West, John Pitts’ Raags for Piano



I recall with nostalgia my first hearing of Yehudi Menuhin’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar titled, “East Meets West”.  I was in high school and had not yet heard the exotic sound of the sitar.  Menuhin’s ability to grasp and communicate world music to an audience schooled in the Western European classical traditions is a treasured part of his legacy.

Along comes composer pianist John Pitts (1976- ) who encountered raga scales and Hindustani classical forms during a “gap year” in his musical studies in 1995.  This encounter subsequently spurred him to write the present book, a seemingly obvious idea but one that has not been attempted in quite this way as far as I can determine.  Pitts is a highly skilled pianist and composer.

This book assumes no more than a basic grounding in western classical music and at least a modicum of skill at the keyboard.  With that and the present text the interested reader/player will be brought to a fine introduction to Hindustani scales and forms and have a method by which at least some of these ideas can be applied to the ubiquitous piano thereby providing another perspective.

Of course the microtonal aspects of this music cannot be reproduced on a piano but the basic concepts of the scales and the improvisational methodology will surely enhance the imagination and skills of any interested musician.  The book introduces these concepts in a lucid manner and provides notation and methods enabling one to play a variety of ragas at the keyboard in a fairly short time.

I have lived with this book for several weeks now and find it endlessly fascinating.  Even with my limited keyboard skills I have been able to scratch the surface and begin to explore some of the essence of this ancient musical system.  Very likely this text will do much to enhance the compositional imagination as well as one’s keyboard skills.  Some may recall, for example, that Philip Glass developed his mature compositional style after his encounter with this musical system in his work with the same Ravi Shankar whose mastery inspired Sir Yehudi Menuhin to bring this music to a western audience.

Recordings have made so much world music with its varied scales, rhythmic structures and tuning systems available to a much wider audience but much less has been done to provide interested musicians with a more hands on experience.  This book does much to address this gap.  It does not pretend to be a definitive exposition of this musical system nor does it attempt to create more than a basic pedagogy which will encourage further exploration.  This book is very much a continuation of the interest begun by Menuhin, Glass and their followers.

Bravo, Mr. Pitts!

His very useful and interesting website can be accessed at: http://www.johnpitts.co.uk/

C’mon, There’s at Least Twenty Saints in There: A fine new recording of the Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts


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This recording is a fine example why I have come to love the work of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  The scope of his musical choices ranges from intelligently selected new music projects by living composers and a fabulous survey of music by older composers that he considers worthy of attention again (and sometimes for the first time).  All BMOP recordings (even those on other labels) are consistently of the highest quality and the performances are definitive.  This series now on the orchestra’s own label is rapidly becoming a sort of canon defining modern music, or at least one vital vision of it.

There appear to be only two other recordings of this masterwork.  The first is a cobbled together mono version released on RCA with the composer conducting most of it and Leopold Stokowski conducting some numbers in this abridged performance.  The second is the very fine 1981 version by the Orchestra of Our Time under the able direction of Joel Thome.

The differences between these recordings is far less important than the fact that we now have three versions of this American operatic masterpiece for our listening enjoyment.  The BMOP recording is up to their usual high standards with wonderful sound and fine interpretation and musicianship.  

This 1934 opera premiered in Hartford, Connecticut and then opened on Broadway (yes, in New York) with an all black cast and ran for a record 48 performances.  Black music pioneer Eva Jessye conducted her choir and the production was directed by a young John Houseman who had just begun to turn his talents to the theater.

The libretto is by Gertrude Stein who later collaborated with Thomson on The Mother of Us All.  Her word play is more about sound than grammar (or mathematics for that matter).  It is in four acts and features more than four saints.  The music is classic Americana with the essences of folk musics and spirituals.

This is a gorgeous and fun piece which deserves to be in the canon of great American operas.  Want to make America great and celebrate Black History Month?  Then grab this recording and sit back for a wonderful listening experience.

 

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

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.

 

Of Mourning and Unity, 2016


 

oliverosolstice20160075Every year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice, there is a rather unique concert event in which musicians from the Bay Area and beyond gather in celebratory splendor in the sacred space of the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.  The chapel is a columbarium  (a resting place for cremated remains) and a mausoleum.  The space is in part the work of famed California architect Julia Morgan.

On December 19th Sarah Cahill with New Music Bay Area secured permission to use this space for four hours from 11AM to 3PM.  She invited many musicians who had been involved in one way or another with Pauline Oliveros whose death preceded by a week or two the tragic “Ghost Ship Fire” as it’s become known.  The idea was to pay homage to both this wonderful theorist, composer, performer and teacher and also to pay homage and to mourn the losses of some 36 young artists who will now never realize their ambitions.

What follows here is a simple photo essay of my personal impressions of this event.  The slant of the winter light added a dimension to those beautiful spaces as a large roster of musicians played pieces by and about Pauline Oliveros.  It was a lovely and reverent experience.

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The angle of the winter light adds its dimension.

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OM202022

Huang Ruo: Red Rain, a New Generation From the East Makes Itself Known


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This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended.  Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time.  This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways.  He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.

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Huang Ruo (1976- )

(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him.  His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores.  I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)

The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty.  What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease.  This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately.  What a powerful piece!

After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”.  But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context.  At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work.  Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen.  It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.

In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo.  Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.

Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally).  This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention.  It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng.  Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times.  There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.

Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements.  Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time).  These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves.  The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present.  Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.

In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows…  Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image.  The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”.   In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.

The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well.  He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style.  He is a composer, conductor and vocalist.  His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.

Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy.  He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.

David Rakowski: Stolen Moments, Fabulous New Orchestral Music


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BMOP 1048

The spirit of jazz and, in particular, that of Duke Ellington and perhaps George Gershwin seem ever present in this recent release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  David Rakowski (1958- ) is a new voice to these ears but clearly a highly developed one well schooled in writing for large orchestra and for piano solo within that context as well.

Two works are presented here, the four movement Stolen Moments (2008/2010) and Piano Concerto No.2 (2011).  Both are large, colorful works in a basically tonal/romantic context but with clear modernist influence.  Nothing experimental here, just sumptuous orchestral writing and a challenging and interesting work for piano and orchestra.  It was only from reading the useful liner notes that I learned Rakowski had been a student of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a composer famous for his hard nosed complexity.  In fact Rakowski actually quotes from Babbitt and this music is a tribute to the education received from this man (keep in mind that Babbitt also taught harmony to Stephen Sondheim).

It is as difficult to grasp that Rakowski was taught by Babbitt as it is to believe that, by his own assertion, he knows very little about jazz.  The first work seems to channel the spirits of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin more than Babbitt for sure.  This four movement orchestral suite, in it’s many moods, is melodic, jazzy and engaging in a way that can’t fail to entertain.

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Amy Briggs (image from the artist’s web site)

Amy Briggs has long been a collaborator with Rakowski and is an artist who has successfully made her career exclusively playing contemporary music.  This second of Rakowski’s concertos for this instrument was written for her and she plays it magnificently.  She clearly has a feel for the jazz rhythms and handles the virtuosic writing as though it were second nature.

The concerto ventures into a variety of moods and provides ample opportunities for many BMOP soloists to have their moments.  It is basically a classical three movement structure with multiple subdivisions within each movement.  These large movements come in at nearly 15 minutes each and are practically works unto themselves though they clearly adhere to the same basic vision.  The second movement is dedicated in memory of Rakowski’s teacher Milton Babbitt.  I’m sure he would have approved.

This is in fact the second time that Gil Rose and his massively talented musicians have chosen to survey some of Rakowski’s music.  That alone should be enough to clue listeners in to a potentially good listen.  Rose has been amassing a catalog of music by modern composers whose work deserves attention and, while this is an example of some pretty recent music, Rose and BMOP have done a fine job of giving attention to composers who have been unjustly neglected as well.   They seem to have a fine ear for quality music and this reviewer will listen to anything they choose to record.

As usual with BMOP, the recording is bright and lucid allowing the listener to hear the fantastic details in these big and intricate but entertaining works.  The production is by Gil Rose himself with recording and post-production by Joel Gordon.  Another great volume in the growing BMOP canon.