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.

 

Edgy Saxophone, Ryan Muncy’s “ism”


Tundra

This one wins the prize for the most charming and unusual presentation of a review copy that this writer has ever seen.  I received this rather plain looking slip case and contained therein was a little data card glued to a saxophone reed.  Fortunately I have just enough tech skills to find the little data card slot on my laptop and was able to then burn a CDr.

It was well worth the effort.  Ryan Muncy is a saxophone player with the increasingly venerable ICE.  (That is the International Contemporary Ensemble and not the less venerable immigration and customs enforcement by the way.)  He here takes the opportunity to demonstrate his considerable fluency on his instrument.  The deceptively simple cover belies some serious complexity in this release.

Beginning with James Tenney’s too seldom heard Saxony (1978) Muncy decisively lets the listener know that this is a hard core saxophone album with music that demands a level of skills and interpretive ability within the reach of only the finest musicians. Tenney’s piece is a multitracked composition concerned with acoustic phenomena produced by different tunings as do many of his works.  This piece is a species of minimalism, drone, even meditative music.  It’s slow unfolding demands and then rewards patience as it envelops the listener in lovely, trippy sound masses.  At over 20 minutes it is the biggest piece here and alone justifies purchasing this album.

What follows are 5 more tracks of similarly extreme experimental music with various extended techniques albeit on a much smaller scale.  Each is like a little study focusing on one or more extended techniques.  All but one are recent compositions by composers yet unknown to this reviewer.  The last piece is by the late great Lee Hyla (1952-2014) and is from 1979, making it contemporary with the opening Tenney piece.  Muncy demonstrates his facility with tuning, multiphonics and other creative techniques demanded by these composers.

Here is the track list:

James Tenney-Saxony (1978)

Erin Gee-Mouthpiece XXIV (2015)

David Reminick- Gray Faces (2011)

Morgan Krauss- masked by likeness (2014)

Evan Johnson- Largo caligrafico (2012)

Lee Hyla- Pre-Amnesia (1979)

Each of these pieces is seemingly a self contained universe and repeated listenings reveal more than simple experimentalism.

This is a disc for serious saxophone aficianados with an appreciation for free jazz and cutting edge instrumental techniques.  Truly a wonderful release.

Zhang Zhao’s Myths of China 


Rhymoi RMCD- 1067

The strikingly beautiful look of the physical CD and the packaging are practically an indictment of streaming and digital music formats.  Producer Ye Yunchuan is the founder of Rhymoi, an audiophile label dedicated to contemporary Chinese music.  If this release is any indication it would be wise to pay attention his work.  Besides the excellence of the physical product the quality of the recording will please the ears of the staunchest audiophile.

Zhang Zhao is apparently one of China’s best known living composers (at least in China) and said producer favors us with a truly grand release.  Some of Zhang’s piano works are standard test pieces for conservatory students and this recording reveals his unquestionable mastery of orchestral technique and a mastery of a variety of traditional Chinese instruments as well.  Though biographical specifics are sparse this composer has a growing discography and the present disc demonstrates a highly skilled compositional voice.

This ambitious project is essentially a tone poem or series of tone poems (think Smetana’s Ma Vlast) on stories from a collection of Chinese myths called the Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) a large collection of stories dating from the 4th Century B.C.  I don’t know how well these stories are known in contemporary China but this is a vast and rich culture that has deservedly survived its own sociopolitical dynamics and continues to inspire new artistic endeavors from its rich legacies.  It is no wonder that the composer found inspiration here.

The composer has chosen 11 stories from the big 18 chapter work.  The setting is for large orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and at least 21 solo instruments which include both western classical and traditional Chinese instruments.  Such a large and diverse set of instruments poses a challenge by itself but the composer succeeds well due in part to having some of the country’s finest musicians whose mastery of these (to most western ears) obscure instruments is clear.  The orchestral musicians and choruses also demonstrate a high level of skill and commitment.  And the composer succeeds very well in integrating such diverse instruments quite comfortably into the larger mostly western classical fabric.  It is reminiscent of Tan Dun’s large Symphony which incorporated a set of ancient Chinese bells into its texture and similarly pays homage to great traditions.

The 11 sections are beautifully illustrated both by calligraphy and line drawings by Dong Xiaqingqing.   Thankfully there are lucid texts in English by Joshua Cheek and Nicholas Angiers describing the myths and giving some clues to some of the interpretive intentions of the composer’s musical choices.  These greatly enhance the enjoyment for those unfamiliar with this lovely mythology.

The sections are:

1. Pangu Separates Heaven and Earth

2. Yao and Shun Discuss Morality

3. Yu the Great Controls the Floods

4. Chang’ e Flies to the Moon

5. The War on Chiyou

6. The Tears of Xianfei

7. Nuwa Repairs the Sky

8. The Peach Banquet

9. Kuafu Chases the Sun

10. The Goddess of the Luo River

11. Fuxi-Ultumate Harmony

Soloists include:

Qin: Zhao Jiazhen

Erhu: Wang Ying

Guzheng: Chang Jing/Ding Xueer

Pipa: Yu Yuanchun/Dong Xiaolin/Sun Jing

Chinese Harp: Wu Lin

Di/Xiao/Xun: Ding Xiaokui/Li Yue

Ruan: Di Lin/Zhao Yue

Suona: Wang Rongfei/Yao Di/Shang Shuai

Liuquin: Di Yang/Pan Yuechen

Yangquin: Wang YuJue

Hansheng: Shan Chunshen

Lusheng: Yang Shengwen

Khoomei: Li Wenbin

Morin Khuur: Hasibagen

Violin: Zhao Kunyu

Cello: Yang Changying

Brass: Qin Guochen/Zhao Xiu/Jia Hui/Mi Qi

Woodwinds: Cao Lei/Yang Yilin/Xie Hongliang/Ren Biao

Harp: Zhang Xiaoyin

Percussion: Zhang Yangsheng/Tian Wei

Piano: Zhang Zhao

Music Assistant: Li Yongmin

This writer has but a passing familiarity with a few of these traditional instruments but the sonic colors are used to great and sometimes subtle effect.  It is a huge sonic tapestry and the  lush and full sound are the result of the skills of sound engineer Zhang Xiao’an.

It is important to note that this disc does not have an experimental feel but rather utilizes a range of compositional devices whose end result leans toward an easily digestible experience which successfully avoids bland populism while creating a lucid musical experience.  It is music that would doubtless be welcomed in most orchestral programs and contains great depths of invention and descriptive power.  It is grand and perhaps cinematic in scope as are the best works in the tone poem genre.

Ross Feller: X/Winds


feller-x-winds

Innova 911

 

This album is both an auspicious debut and a fine representative sampling of the compositional efforts of Ross Feller.  Feller holds MM and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana, that venerable rural Illinois institution which oversaw some of the most significant early developments in computer technology.  More importantly for the present context it is has been the home of many important composers whose works have incorporated this technology directly or indirectly.  Like similar centers in New York (Columbia-Princeton), Oakland (Mills College), Stanford (CNMAT), Berkeley (CCRMA) among others a distinctive musical thread developed in that rural outpost and it is this provenance that makes this recording of particular interest.  Feller is also an editor at the Computer Music Journal and teaches at Kenyon College.

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

Feller represents the current state of the art whose ancestry includes the likes of Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano, both major innovators in both music and technology.  Martirano was one of his teachers and Martirano’s widow, the fine violinist Dorothy Martirano, performs on this recording.  This writer had the pleasure of hearing the Martiranos in concert some years ago and can attest to the astounding quality of the work of this too little known composer.  Judging by the works on this recording Feller appears to be a worthy successor.

Eight works are represented here ranging from solo to acoustic ensemble to electroacoustic works.  The only thing missing is a purely electronic work and one hopes this will occur in a future release.  Composition dates range from 1994 to 2008 though, properly speaking, the 1994 work was revised in 2006.

Triple Threat (1994, rev 2006) is a sort of mini concerto for three soloists (B flat clarinet, trumpet and violin) and an ensemble of nine.  It is a sort of contemporary concerto grosso in that the soloists are more integrated into the overall texture of the piece.  It is a taught, well organized composition whose technical aspects discussed in the composer’s very useful notes are beyond the scope of this review.  What is well within the scope of this review is the fact that this is a marvelously engaging work in a sort of neo-mid century modernism sort of vein.  The technical aspects which will no doubt entertain theorists function in service of the music and are not an end in themselves.

Still Adrift (2013) is the first of three electroacoustic pieces on the disc.  This is an intense and virtuosic essay ably handled by soloist Adam Tendler.  It is obviously a very personal work evidenced both by its intimate focus and the composer’s own liner notes.  One suspects, however, that something is lost without the visuals and immediacy of seeing a live performance.  Nonetheless this piece easily stands on its own sonic merits.

Bypassing the Ogre (2006) is the first of two tracks for soloist without electronics.  This is perhaps the most experimental of the pieces on this disc.  It is essentially an etude focused on the soloist’s (Peter Evans) formidable improvisatory techniques on the trumpet.  It reminds this reviewer at times of the more experimental work of the justly lauded West Coast composer Robert Erickson (1917-1997) whose work also pioneered developments in electroacoustic musics as well.

Disjecta (2006) for percussion ensemble is actually the most extended work here at 14’10”.  It is sort of a catalog of Feller’s experiments with writing for percussion ensemble using playing techniques and naturally occurring (instead of electronically mediated) acoustic phenomena.  The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s term which he applied to a collection of miscellany.  This one requires close ,multiple listenings to grasp the composer’s intent but it appears to point the way to innovations in writing for percussion.

Sfumato (2006) for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound comes from the same apparently very productive year, 2006, as do three other tracks on this album.  This is the second electroacoustic track here.  As is often the case with electroacoustic compositions it is frequently difficult for the listener to determine whether the sounds heard are acoustic, electronic or some combination of the two without seeing a score or at least seeing the performance.  What is important is the sound and the impact of the music.  Again the music is engaging and satisfying.

Retracing (2009) for violin and electroacoustic sound is related to Still Adrift in that it incorporates gestures as well as textiles and dancers but stands on its sonic merits as a concert piece as well.  This is a very intense essay beautifully handled by Dorothy Martirano.  Even without the visuals there is much to engage the listener.

Glossolalia (2002) is the second of the two unaccompanied solo pieces here.  This one is for cello.  Unlike Bypassing the Ogre this piece seems to have impressionist leanings.  It is certainly filled with a variety of techniques but the end result is a coherent musical narrative.  It is abstract without an obvious narrative so the listener is free to apply their own impressions elicited by this very intense piece.

X/Winds (2008) for symphonic woodwind ensemble is the piece from which the album derives its title.  Here we return to the rich orchestral palette of the opening track.  Feller seems particularly strong in his ability to write meaningful and engaging music for large ensembles.  It left this reviewer wanting more.

These are incredible performances by highly competent and creative musicians of music which is well served by these skills.  Very engaging music very well performed and recorded.  

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


4s3a

BMOP/sound 1049

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.