American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


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Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Words Fail and Music Succeeds: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik


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Politics requires words and indeed fails at times but music very much succeeds in this fine recording.  This charming collection organized loosely around songs without words is the third album by this emerging artist.

The music is largely 20th to 21st century (if you count the date of the transcriptions) but the sound and mood of the album ranges from the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, the post-romantic Mahler, to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev and a dash of modernism from Messiaen, Gandolfi, Andres, and Auerbach.  No words, no politics, just some really beautiful music.

There are 14 tracks of which the Mendelssohn and the Mahler will be the most familiar to listeners.  What is interesting here is a certain unity in these seemingly disparate works which range over nearly 200 years of compositional invention.  In fact this recital program strongly resembles in spirit the justly popular programs of Jascha Heifetz and his acolytes.  That is to say that this is at heart a romantic recital program sure to please any aficionado of the violin and piano genre.

Two of the tracks, those by Michael Gandolfi and Lera Auerbach are for solo violin.  The unaccompanied violin repertoire best represented by J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is a relatively small one and one fraught with difficulties for composers as well as performers.  Fear not though, these pieces are well wrought and represent significant contributions to the solo violin literature.

The Gandolfi (1956- ) Arioso doloroso/Ecstatico (2016) was commissioned by Mr. Kutik and this is the world premiere recording.  The composer utilizes a basically romantic sounding style with clear references to Bach at moments to create a very satisfying piece imbued with depth but eminently listenable.  Gandolfi’s eclectic oeuvre is by itself worthy of further exploration.

Lera Auerbach’s (1973- ) T’Filah (2015) is a reverent (though not excessively somber) prayer written in memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.  Auerbach shares some Russian roots with the soloist and this brief composition will leave most listeners wanting to hear more from this fine and prolific composer.

Timo Andrés (1985- ) plays the piano on the eponymous track Words fail (2015), the second of the two works commissioned by Kutik and premiered on this disc.  He is a skilled composer using a wide variety of compositional and instrumental techniques (which he mentions in his liner notes) to create a sort of modern song without words that fits so well in this program.  Andrés is certainly among the rising stars both as composer and performer.

One should definitely pay attention to the fine work of Kutik’s accompanist John Novacek whose precision and interpretive skill so well compliment the soloist.  The art of the accompanist shines very clearly here.

Overall a great recital disc from a soloist from whom we will doubtless continue to hear great things.

The Musical Mother of Us All: Pauline Oliveros, a Personal Appreciation


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Pauline Oliveros at one of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts in Oakland.  I published this photo on Pauline’s Wikipedia page.

I woke at about 3PM on the day after Thanksgiving (having worked the previous night shift) and I checked my e-mail and then, on Facebook I learned of the passing of theorist, composer, musician, teacher and all round wonderful human being Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). She had died peacefully in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day.  Going over the copious posts and comments I was saddened at her passing but oddly comforted by the fact that these posts honoring her are effectively eclipsing the ones on the obnoxious political issues as well as demonstrating the incredible reach of her influence.  Thankfully, Pauline will not have to endure the regressive politics which now dominate our country and, indeed, the world.

I first encountered Pauline’s work, as many did, through the Columbia Odyssey LP curated by none other than David Behrman in his Music of Our Time series.  There are several composers on the disc including Steve Reich (Come Out), Richard Maxfield (Night Music), and Pauline Oliveros (I of IV).  Over the years I collected and listened to most of her recordings Discogs lists 55 recordings but no doubt there are many more and likely a plethora of unreleased material which will grace our ears for years to come.  Like her older contemporary John Cage it is difficult to identify a “masterpiece” and, also like Cage, she didn’t aspire to such notions because she aspired to learn and subsequently teach the art of listening. Her Deep Listening Institute is based in Kingston, New York.

 

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Stuart Dempster at another of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts. Stuart is one of the members of Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band

I was pleased to be able to see one of the incarnations of the Deep Listening Band in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library.  This concert occurred on the night of the famed “Chicago Flood” (1992) in which a construction mishap diverted thousands of gallons of water from the Chicago River into the disused coal delivery railway tunnels which connect most of the downtown buildings.  I brought along a postcard from her album The Well and the Gentle hoping to get her autograph.  It was my first face to face meeting with this icon of new music.  She graciously took the card into her hand and immediately exclaimed with a smile, “Oh, this is from the Well”.  She quipped that next time they would hold their concert in one of the “deep tunnels” which are a part of the Chicago’s massive flood control rainfall overflow system.  I still treasure that autograph and the memory of my first meeting with Pauline.

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Ione (l) doing verbal improvisation while Pauline improvises in parallel on her digital accordion at a memorable dinner concert curated by Philip Gelb.

I can hardly tell you my level of excitement when vegan chef and musician Philip Gelb announced that Pauline with her partner Ione would be appearing at his next dinner concert.  The opportunity for a close encounter with this master was certainly heaven sent. (Pauline later wrote the lovely introduction to Philip’s first vegan cookbook.)

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Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. This vegan chef and cookbook author plays and teaches shakuhachi and curates a wonderful dinner/concert series at his loft in West Oakland.  Philip also appears on several albums with Pauline and others.

Indeed, as I sat across from Pauline no doubt babbling some starstruck nonsense, I encountered in both her and her partner Ione two warm and unpretentious people.  While I knew I was in the presence of genius I was given to feel very welcome as they both engaged me and the other guests in lively conversation at this spectacular vegan meal.  In the pause just before dessert they gave a wonderful performance with Ione speaking improvised and passionate poetic utterances while Oliveros played her quirky improvisations in parallel on her digital accordion.

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Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014) at Other Minds 20 in 2015

I later got to see Pauline as a returning guest composer/performer at Other Minds 20, a series lovingly and painstakingly curated by composer, broadcaster and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian.  I believe this was her last major bay area appearance.

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A clearly happy Pauline Oliveros acknowledges the warm applause of the Other Minds 20 audience after her performance at the SF Jazz Center in 2015.

Every year at the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert the open membership Cornelius Cardew Choir performs Oliveros’ Heart Sutra every year.  The verbal score describes how one enters the singing circle and intones basically the note of their choice with one hand over their heart and the other on the back of another singer.  I screwed up my courage to participate in this ritual a few years ago and it is now an essential part of the beginning of my summer.  Pauline has taught me much and no doubt will continue to teach me through her writings and recordings.  For that I am eternally grateful.

 

 

The Anniversary That (almost) Everyone Missed: Bill Doggett (1916-1996), Wizard of the Hammond Organ


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Bill Doggett with his combo (getty images)

William Ballard Doggett, better known as Bill Doggett was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was introduced to music by his church pianist mother.  He played in a combo while still in high school and went on to work with a plethora of stars in rock, jazz, rhythm and blues amassing a string of hits but, sadly, seems to have barely been noticed on this the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Where is NPR at a time like this?

Well, all is not lost.  Fortunately his nephew and namesake Bill Doggett is doing justice to the memory of this important American musician.  This younger Doggett is an archivist, lecturer, curator, strategic marketer, photographer, filmmaker, and arts advocate (his website is well worth your time).  I am hardly as well prepared to provide more than an overview of this musician’s work but I feel obliged to do my small part in recognizing this man’s work.

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Promotional poster for the September 28, 2016 centennial celebration curated by nephew and namesake, Bill Doggett.

Doggett’s list of chart singles:

  • “Be-Baba-Leba” (vocal by Helen Humes) (Philo/Aladdin 106) 1945 (#3 R&B)
  • “Moon Dust” 1953 (#18 R&B)
  • “Early Bird” 1953 (#21 R&B)
  • “No More In Life” 1953 (#20 R&B)
  • “High Heels” 1954 (#15 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 1″/”Honky Tonk, Part 2” (King 4950) 1956 (#1(14) R&B/#2(3) Pop)
  • “Slow Walk” (King 5000) 1956 (#4 R&B/#19 Pop)
  • “Ram-Bunk-Shush” (King 5020) 1957 (#4 R&B)
  • “Soft” 1957 (#11 R&B)
  • “Leaps And Bounds, Part 1″/”Leaps And Bounds, Part 2” (King 5101) 1958 (#13 R&B)
  • “Blip Blop” 1958 (#11 R&B)
  • “Hold It!” (King 5149) 1958 (#3 R&B)
  • “Rainbow Riot, Part 1″/”Rainbow Riot, Part 2” (King 5159) 1959 (#15 R&B)
  • “Monster Party” (King 5176) 1959 (#27 R&B)
  • “Yocky Dock, Part 1″/”Yocky Dock, Part 2” (King 5256) 1959 (#30 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 2” 1961 (#21 R&B)

 

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    Doggett’s best known work.

While his last chart hit was 1961 his collaborations with  Lucky MillinderFrank FairfaxJimmy Mundythe Ink SpotsLouis JordanJohnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie,  Lionel HamptonRed Holloway, Clifford Scott, Percy France, David “Bubba” Brooks, Clifford Davis, and Floyd “Candy” Johnson; guitarists Floyd Smith, Billy Butler, Sam Lackey and Pete Mayes; and singers Edwin Starr, Toni Williams and Betty Saint-Clair attest to the scope of his work.  Doggett continued to play and arrange until his death from a heart attack in New York in 1996 at the age of 80.

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Bill Doggett photographed in France in 1980 by Lionel Decoster (from Wikipedia article)

The Hammond Organ is known for being the workhorse of modern classical as well as rock, rhythm and blues and jazz.  It was Bill Doggett who became one of the early masters of this (then new) electronic instrument.  While he was also a highly competent pianist, it was with the Hammond Organ that he had his greatest success. There is little doubt that his playing has influenced subsequent musicians who took on this instrument.

Here’s hoping that astute musicians and producers will take on the task of recognizing the work of the late great Bill Doggett.  Toward that end here, from Wikipedia, is a discography of his work:

10 inch LPs

  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 1 King 295-82 (1954)
  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 2 King 295-83 (1954)
  • All Time Christmas Favorites King 295-89 (1954)
  • Sentimentally Yours King 295-102 (1955)

12 inch LPs (on King Records)

  • Moon Dust King 395-502 (1956)
  • Hot Doggett King 395-514 (1956)
  • As You Desire Me King 395-523 (1956)
  • Everybody Dance The Honky Tonk King 395-531 (1956)
  • Dame Dreaming With Bill Doggett King 395-532 (1957)
  • A Salute To Ellington King 533 (1957)
  • The Doggett Beat For Dancing Feet King 557 (1957)
  • Candle Glow King 563 (1958)
  • Swingin’ Easy King 582 (1958)
  • Dance Awhile With Doggett King 585 (1958)
  • 12 Songs Of Christmas [reissue of King 295-89 plus 6 additional tracks] King 600 (1958)
  • Hold It! King 609 (1959)
  • High And Wide King 633 (1959)
  • Big City Dance Party King 641 (1959)
  • Bill Doggett On Tour [this is NOT a live album] King 667 (1959)
  • For Reminiscent Lovers, Romantic Songs By Bill Doggett King 706 (1960)
  • Back With More Bill Doggett King 723 (1960)
  • The Many Moods Of Bill Doggett King 778 (1962)
  • Bill Doggett Plays American Songs, Bossa Nova Style King 830 (1963)
  • Impressions King 868 (1963)
  • The Best Of Bill Doggett [compilation] King 908 (1964)
  • Bonanza Of 24 Songs [compilation] King 959 (1966)
  • Take Your Shot King 1041 (1969)
  • Honky Tonk Popcorn King 1078 (1970)
  • The Nearness Of You King 1097 (1970)
  • Ram-Bunk-Shush [compilation] King 1101 (1970)
  • Sentimental Mood [compilation] King 1104 (1970)
  • Soft [compilation] King 1108 (1970)
  • 14 Original Greatest Hits [compilation; reissued as ‘All His Hits’] King-Starday 5009 (1977)
  • Charles Brown: PLEASE COME HOME FOR CHRISTMAS [this vocal album includes 4 instrumental tracks by Bill Doggett] King-Starday 5019 (1978)

12 inch LPs (on other labels)

  • 3,046 People Danced ‘Til 4 A.M. To Bill Doggett [this is a live album] Warner Bros. WS-1404 (1961)
  • The Band With The Beat! Warner Bros. WS-1421 (1961)
  • Bill Doggett Swings Warner Bros. WS-1452 (1962)
  • Rhythm Is My Business (Ella Fitzgerald with Bill Doggett) Verve V6-4056 (1962)
  • Oops! The Swinging Sounds Of Bill Doggett Columbia CL-1814/CS-8614 (1962)
  • Prelude To The Blues Columbia CL-1942/CS-8742 (1962)
  • Finger-Tips Columbia CL-2082/CS-8882 (1963)
  • Wow! ABC-Paramount S-507 (1964)
  • Honky Tonk A-La-Mod! Roulette SR-25330 (1966)
  • The Right Choice After Hours/Ichiban 4112 (1991) Note: this is Bill’s last recorded album of original material; also released on CD.

OK all you producers, have at it.

 

 

 

Skylark: Crossing Over, bringing the chamber choir to the mainstream


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Sono Luminus continues their dedication to high quality performances and recordings of a wide variety of music from the 20th and 21st centuries.  In this lovely  disc we are treated to a great deal of interesting and very listenable a capella choral music from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

It is this reviewer’s perception that a capella choral music is somewhat of an outlier in the classical music field and is generally not as well known as solo instrumental, orchestral, chamber music and such. (Band music is a similarly neglected area which is not frequently explored by many composers and not as familiar to audiences.)   It is not an area very familiar to me but this recording appears to be one that can expand this niche considerably by virtue of the sheer beauty of these recordings.

There are eight pieces by seven composers of varying levels of familiarity.  The most familiar names here are those of the late John Tavener (1944-2013) and William Schuman (1910-1992).  (Schuman was also no stranger to writing for band music.)  Some listeners may have heard of Jon Leifs (1899-1968), an Icelandic composer who should definitely be better known.  (Curiously the only comprehensive information available in English on this composer is in Wikipedia.)

The remaining composers, Daniel Elder (1986- ), Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940), Robert Vuichard (1985- ) and (fellow Icelander) Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Thorvaldsdottir may be familiar to listeners via her earlier Sono Luminus release (reviewed here) as well as numerous other releases which definitely mark her as a rising star.

The disc opens with Elegy (2013) by Daniel Elder.  It is the only piece which features soloists and is a touching piece which demonstrates the composer’s skill with this specialized genre.

Butterfly Dreams (2002) by John Tavener is a series of eight choral meditations based on Chuang Tse known for his “…Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”.  Tavener’s work has pushed the solo choral genre more to the mainstream than nearly any composer of the last 50 years and this piece is a good example of how he has managed to do this.  Tavener’s inspiration comes in part from the choral styles of eastern rite church music, a rich and sonorous sound.

Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov is apparently a classic in sacred music circles.  In Latin this would be Pater Noster and in English, Our Father.  This is a beautiful setting of the classic Christian Prayer.

Requiem (1947) by Jon Leifs is based on Icelandic folk poetry.  It was written in response to his grief at the loss of his daughter who drowned at the age of 18.  While not exactly representative of Leifs’ modern style it is a good example of the power of his invention in this heartfelt homage.  This is perhaps the composer’s best known work.

Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard is another example of the deep knowledge of the specialized techniques available to composers in this genre.  Vuichard appears to be a niche choral composer and one who has considerable skill.  There is a rather modernist feel to this powerful meditation.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death (1958) is a sort of modern classic which has been recorded many times.  There are three movements, each on a separate track.  It is curious how well these pieces fit in style with the rest of the disc given the date of composition.

Beyond the Veil (2005) is a setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of an old Icelandic psalm.  It is a prayer which is, in part, a meditation on death.  The composer has a mystical/impressionistic style that suits this music particularly well.

Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener is definitely a modern classic.  This piece pretty much marks the beginning of the change from his early modernist style to the sort of “holy minimalist” (if you will) style that followed his conversion to and immersion in eastern rite sacred music.

Skylark is a chamber choir (five voices to each part, SATB) and this is their second album.  They were formed in 2011 and are under the direction of Matthew Guard.

This review is basically about the music but I have to say that this is also one of the most beautiful booklets I have seen.  It is short on info about the music but the photography and graphic design by Collin J. Rae and Caleb Nei deserve special recognition as well.  Each page features a photograph and texts of these pieces are tastefully printed across the photos.  This really enhances the experience and seems to be in harmony with the overall production.

Dan Mercurio, producer, has definitely made something special here and one hopes that this will help promote this compositional and performance niche to a more common experience and will encourage composers to write for a capella choir as well.  Daniel Shores is the recording and mastering engineer.  I am unable to assess the DVD audio and can only imagine how it must sound.  The CD itself is amazing to hear.

For an album ostensibly about death there is great joy and beauty to be found here.  Highly recommended, and not just to fans of choral music.

 

 

 

Gene Pritsker and Some of His Collaborators, a Heady Mix


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Gene Pritsker

We have here three very different CDs all of which feature composer/performer Gene Pritsker along with a variety of his colleagues and collaborators.  Each of these CDs is a unique production and reflects a marvelously creative group of composers and performers.

I first came to know of Pritsker’s work when he sent me a copy of his wonderful chamber opera, Manhattan in Charcoal and when I began to learn of the scope of his work through his numerous You Tube videos and his website I found myself rather overwhelmed and wholly intrigued.  In fact I can’t shake a comment which Leonard Bernstein once made about Igor Stravinsky to the effect that he was able to switch between different styles at different times with seeming ease and certainly skill (It was a comment made on a vinyl disc in which Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky in general on one cut and described the imagery of Petroushka on another.).  Pritsker’s Russian origins certainly play a part in reminding me of this association but it is the sheer extent and variety of his compositional visions and techniques that drive me to be reminded of this.  His virtuosity on the guitar also puts me in the mind of Frank Zappa at times too.  And he seems to be doing it pretty much all at once too, utilizing a wide palette of styles selectively with care and subtlety.  Pritsker switches between some very classical sounds to rock, jazz, rap, etc. as though the distinctions don’t exist or matter.  In the end they don’t matter really.  All is music I suppose and he seems be able to use them all pretty well and these discs are a nice sampling of some of this interesting musician’s various guises and interests.

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Fortunately I am not attempting a comprehensive cataloging of all that but rather reviewing a nice little selection of some current releases which Mr. Pritsker was kind enough to entrust to my critical ear.  First up here will be a Mozart tribute of sorts. Regular readers may recall another entertaining Mozart-based recording by John Clark (here). Indeed Mr. Clark makes an appearance here both as composer and performer.  This curious little disc consists of short, clever glosses on Mozart by Gene Pritsker, Patrick Grant, John Clark, Milica Paranosic, Dan Cooper and David Taylor.  Pritsker in particular seems to have a penchant for reworking music by other composers.  His Bach-based works also deserve attention as well.  But that is another matter.

There are 13 tracks and all have a somewhat improvisational character.  Of course variation forms are ubiquitous and varied throughout music history and these are, if not strictly speaking, “variations”, then something close which is why I have chosen the term glosses.  But all are entertaining and reflect a sort of new music take on Mozart who appears to have some meaning for each of the composers (Mozart is my desert island composer by the way).  I am sure that Mozart himself would have been amused and honored.  These are most certainly homage at the very least.

The CompCord Ensemble consists of Charles Coleman, voice; Chanda Rule, voice; Milica Paranosic, voice/gusle; Patrick Grant, voice/harpsichord; Lynn Bechtold, violin; Dan Barrett, cello; John Clark, horn; David Taylor, bass trombone; Gene Pritsker, guitar; Dan Cooper, bass; Javier Diaz, percussion/voice; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Franz Hackl, trumpet.

There are no liner notes here and perhaps that is for the best.  I have no doubt that there are a great deal of personal stories here as to how these pieces came about and what they mean to the respective musicians but they do stand on their own as entertainment and to my ear sound like they could even work as a film soundtrack (most likely a non-American film). This is entertaining material, perhaps a bit “inside” with its references but not difficult or obscure.   I will leave it to some future musical archaeologist to elucidate those details. The listener need only sit back and be entertained.

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Now to the second disc.  This is quite different in character being a duo between a guitarist (Gene Pritsker) and a drummer (Peter Jarvis).  Such scant scoring tells one nothing about what is to come.  Each of the six tracks is by a different composer (Peter Jarvis, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Joseph Pehrson, Jessica Wells and Daniel Palkowski).  As with the previous disc there are no liner notes so one is left with nothing but the sound.

This appears to be much more of an improvisational nature than the previous recording considered above.  The style here ranges from free jazz to rock and perhaps some contemporary musical styles as well.  Each track is a succinct statement and none of the tracks seem to go longer than necessary.  The musicianship is superb so if you are fond of the sound of guitars and drums played creatively and well you will enjoy this disc.  These musicians extract a great deal of varied sounds from their instruments.

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Finally we have this disc of song cycles.  Now the only song cycles I know at all well are those of Franz Schubert but that is, I think, an adequate place to begin to understand what is going on here (still flying without liner notes).

Eight composers and eight poets are featured in six song cycles. The first and last cycles (tracks 1-3 and 16-19) are the only ones which include instruments in addition to the voice and piano.  Only one song here (Inside on track 15) features poetry by the composer.  The rest, like Schubert utilized existing poetry.

Most of these composers are unknown to me which is both the joy and the bane of reviewing such discs.  All of these fall roughly into the classical art song tradition even with their occasional blues inflections (as in the Pritsker songs) or extended instrumental techniques.  David Gutay, Zach Seely, Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory are all new names to me and it Mr. Pritsker is to be commended for his efforts to promote others’ music.  The two composers here who are familiar are Mr. Pritsker and, another reason for commendation, Lester Trimble (1923-1986), a man embraced by Leonard Bernstein and cut from similar sonic cloth as both Bernstein and Copland.  This recording of Trimble’s Canterbury Tales is a welcome addition to the discography of mid to late twentieth century masters who deserve at least another listen.

The poets include: Tony Roberts, Jacob Miller, Dorrie Weiss, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Eleanor Cory and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Performers include Elizabeth Cherry, soprano; Thomas Carlo Bo, piano; Katie Cox, flute; Charles Coleman, voice; Derin Oge, piano; Patricia Songego, soprano; Taka Kigawa, piano; Lynn Norris, soprano; Amir Khorsrowpour, piano; Eleanor Taylor, soprano; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Circadia Ensemble consisting of: Melissa Fogarty, soprano; Kaoru Hinata, flute; Christopher Cullen, clarinet; Jenifer Griesbach, harpsichord (in the Trimble cycle).

The performances are uniformly excellent albeit a collection of separate recordings all mastered, as were the previous two discs by Sheldon Steiger.  If you love art song this is a treasure trove of current compositions but with a healthy respect for the past.

 

 

Other Minds 21, the Dawn of a New Chapter and the Raising of the Dead


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Charles Amirkhanian with the composers of OM 21

Much needed rain pummeled the city by the bay on all three days of OM 21 dampening, perhaps, some attendance but not the enthusiasm of the audience or the performers.  In most ways this concert was a continuation of the celebration begun last year commemorating 20 years of this festival.  Returning this year were Gavin Bryars (OM7) and Meredith Monk (OM1).

Until last year no composer had appeared more than once at this series.  For those unfamiliar with OM it is worth noting that the process has been for the 8-10 selected composers spend a week at the Djerassi Arts Center in Woodside, California sharing and discussing their work before coming to San Francisco for performances of their work.

As it turns out this year’s concert series will be the last to follow that format.  Apparently OM has become the victim of gentrification and has had to move out of its Valencia Street offices and will now opt for various concerts throughout the year as they have done but without the big three-day annual festival and the residency at Djerassi.

The archives of OM are now going to be housed at the University of California Santa Cruz where they will reside along with the Grateful Dead archives.  I do believe that Mr. Amirkhanian lived near Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead when he lived in San Francisco some years ago so it seems fitting that these two archives will peacefully coexist in that space (also coming to UCSC will be OM 21 composer Larry Polansky though not in an archive).

This is certainly a change but this is a festival which has endured various changes in time and venue led throughout by the steady hand of the Bill Graham of contemporary music concerts, Charles Amirkhanian (both men have had a huge impact on music in the bay area as well as elsewhere and it is worth noting that the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have a tribute to Graham this year).

Actually Other Minds traces its provenance to the Telluride, Colorado Composer to Composer festival (also led by Amirkhanian) and later morphed into OM with the leadership of president (now emeritus) Jim Newman back in the early 1990s.  There is a short excellent film describing OM’s history on Vimeo here.

It is the end of a chapter but, as Amirkhanian explained, there are many exciting concerts coming up which will keep Other Minds in the earshot of the astute contemporary music aficionados on the west coast.  Next year, for example, will include several very exciting concerts celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of beloved bay area composer Lou Harrison.

My apologies for the delay in posting which was due to both the richness of the experience and the exigencies of my day job and other responsibilities.  I hope that readers will find this post to have been worth the wait.

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Nordic Voices

Starting our rainy day were the extremely talented singers known as Nordic Voices.  Lasse Thoresen‘s Solbøn ( Sun Prayer) (2012) and Himmelske Fader (Heavenly Father) (2012) both required keen listening and required the use of extended vocal techniques such as multiphonics.  The singing appeared effortless and even fun for the ensemble but that speaks more to their expertise and preparedness than any ease in terms of the score.

It is always difficult to judge a composer’s work by only a small selection from their output  but Thoresen’s virtuosity and subtle use of vocal effects suggests a highly developed artist and it would seem worth one’s time to explore more of this gentleman’s oeuvre.

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Lasse Thoresen takes the stage to acknowledge the applause.

Next was an unusual, humorous/dramatic work by Cecile Ore called Dead Pope on Trial (2015/16) with a libretto by Bibbi Moslet.   This Other Minds commission was given its world premiere at this concert.  The work is based on the story of a medieval pope who was taken from his grave no fewer than six times for various perceived offenses.  It is a mix of irony and humor in a sort of madrigal context.  The work was in English and had the nature of a conversation between the singers.  No doubt a challenging piece, it was sung very well and the composer seemed as pleased with the performance as much as the audience.

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Cecile Ore smiling as she acknowledges the applause for the wonderful premiere performance of her new work, Dead Pope on Trial.

As if in a demonstration of sheer stamina in addition to virtuosity Nordic Voices took the stage again, this time for some Madrigals (2002/2016) by returning artist Gavin Bryars.  Bryars is no stranger to Other Minds or to madrigals and such older musical forms from the renaissance and before.  He has extensively explored vocal writing and medieval harmonies in many previous works.  Though categorized as being a “minimalist”, Bryars actually has produced a huge range of music in all forms including opera, chamber and orchestral music.

His madrigals have been written for the Hilliard Ensemble and each book is distinguished by the madrigals having been written on a specific day of the week.  The first book on Mondays, etc.  They are settings of Petrach’s sonnets and are sung in the original Italian of his day.  On this night we were treated to four madrigals from Book Two and the premiere of a madrigal from Book Four.  That madrigal was dedicated to Benjamin Amirkhanian, the father of Charles Amirkhanian who celebrates his 101st birthday this summer.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with the affable Mr. Bryars.  His generous spirit pervaded our conversation and he spoke very highly of both his visits to Other Minds.  If you don’t know this man’s music you are doing yourself a great disservice.

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A very pleased Gavin Bryars deflects the applause and adulation to the amazing Nordic Voices for their astounding performance of five of his madrigals.

The singers of Nordic Voices sustained a high level of virtuosity as well as sheer stamina as they sang for nearly two hours in the opening pieces of this concert series.  No time was lost setting the stage for the performance of the next piece, another premiere, Algebra of Need (2016) for electronic sampling and string quartet by Bang on a Can member Phil Kline.

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FLUX Quartet playing at SF Jazz, 2016

The Flux Quartet was featured in the next two (and last) works on this long program.  Algebra of Need is Kline’s meditation on the words and the cadences of the iconic writing and voice of the late William S. Burroughs (gone 19 years as of this writing).  The familiar voice seemed to go in and out of clearly audible, at times mixed more closely with the string writing in this intense homage.

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A satisfied looking Phil Kline leans in to embrace the first violin of the Flux Quartet after their premiere of his Algebra of Need.

The Bang on a Can collective was also represented tonight by Michael Gordon.  The Sad Park (2008) for string quartet and electronics put a most decidedly disturbing conclusion on the evening.  This piece, which samples the voices of children (one of them Gordon’s) as they spoke of their experience of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

The effect was, as no doubt intended, harrowing leaving a pretty strange and unsettling feeling as we walked away from the concert into the still rainy night.

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Michael Gordon embraces the FLUX Quartet’s first violin after a stunning performance of The Sad Park.

The rain continued on Saturday but the crowd was noticeably larger for the second night which opened with the usual panel discussion.

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left to right: Meredith Monk, John Oswald, Nicole Lizee, Eliot Simpson, Larry Polansky, Oliver Lake and Charles Amirkhanian in a panel discussion prior to the concert

This evening began with a performance by the wonderful bay area violinist Kate Stenberg of a piece which was a sort of antidote to the somber, The Sad Park from the previous night.  Again the composer was Michael Gordon and the piece was Light is Calling (2004), a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Though hardly a happy piece Light is Calling is perhaps elegiac and the composer seems to achieve some of his stated intent to find some healing in the wake of a disaster to which he was all too close.

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Kate Stenberg plays violin beneath the projection of a Bill Morrison film in Michael Gordon’s, Light is Calling

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Michael Gordon and Kate Stenberg accepting the applause of an appreciative audience.

Next up was John Oswald, a Canadian composer whose career took off in infamy when his Plunderphonic CD, released to radio stations in the early 1980s, became the subject of legal battles over the meaning of copyright law in light of digital sampling.  Fortunately Oswald won the right to publish his work and his Plundrphonics concepts now underlie much of his compositional process.  Until this night I had not heard any but his Plunderphonic CDs so the introduction to his live music was a revelation.

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Pianist and (at least here) multi-instrumentalist Eve Egoyan performing with a Yamaha Disklavier and other instruments.

The first piece she did was called Homonymy (1998/2015) was originally written for chamber orchestra and was then transcribed for Egoyan and her prepared disklavier et al.  It is a piece based on linguistic elements and with a visual component as well.

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Eve Egoyan performing Homonymy with overhead projections.

Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes (2015) was the next piece  and also made use of the projection screen.  The subtitle of the piece indicates it is for “disklavier and glitch”.  Well life imitated art as some sort of glitch prevented the projection from functioning at first but this was rather quickly resolved and we were treated to excerpts of scenes from several David Lynch films with the piano playing some of the rhythms of the dialog in an exchange that puts this writer in the mind of music like Scott Johnson’s “John Somebody” and Steve Reich’s incorporation of speech rhythms in works like, “The Cave”.

Nicole Lizee is a Canadian composer and was the youngest composer on this year’s program.

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Eve Egoyan playing Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes with projected scenes/glitches from Lynch’s films.

The work is one of a series of pieces inspired by films and was executed with apparent ease by pianist Eve Egoyan who played the disklavier (both the keyboard and directly on the strings), a guitar and perhaps other gadgets .  The piece kept her quite busy and the associations I described above sound nothing like this work actually.  These etudes were a unique, typically Other Minds sort of experience, one that expands the definition of musical composition.

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Nicole Lizee (l) with Eve Egoyan absorbing the audience’s appreciation of the David Lynch Etudes.

Two more John Oswald compositions graced the program next.  Palimpia (2016) is a six movement piece for disklavier with pianist playing as well.  Oswald says it is actually his first composition for piano.

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John Oswald embracing pianist Egoyan and enjoying the audience applause for his work.

Well I did say there were two more Oswald pieces but this last one was a masterful plunder by this truly unusual composer.  Here Oswald conjured the playing as well as the image of the late great Glenn Gould who was seen actually playing Invaria (1999) with the disklavier performing along with the film of Gould performing this music.  It was, for this writer, a spellbinding experience.  He has raised the dead in the name of music.  Wow!  It was an amazing and heartfelt homage to a fellow great Canadian musician.

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Glenn Gould playing John Oswald

Larry Polansky (1954- ) is well known as a teacher and as a composer but one is hard pressed to find much in the conventional discography of his work.  The few discs out of his amazing electronic music (and one disc of piano variations) represent only a small fraction of his output and represent only one genre of music which he has mastered.  However the astute listener needs to be advised to look online to look, listen and hear some of the bounty of his creative output.  Check out the following sites: Frog Peak Music (Polansky’s publishing site which includes music and scores by a great many interesting composer in addition to himself and Dartmouth Page (which contains link to various recordings, writings, computer software, etc.

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Giacomo Fiore (left) and Larry Polansky playing Polansky’s ii-v-i (1997)

As an amateur musician who has enough trouble simply tuning a guitar it made my knees weak to watch these musicians effortlessly retune as they played.   Polansky’s experimentation with alternate tunings is an essential part of many of his compositions.

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Fiore and Polansky changing their tunings mid-phrase in a stunning demonstration of virtuosity with pitch changes.

The program then moved from the electric to the acoustic realm with Polansky’s folk song arrangements.  Eliot Simpson, the pedagogical progeny of the great David Tanenbaum (who played these concerts last year at OM 20), played the just intonation National Steel Guitar and sang.

Let me say just two things here.  First, these are not arrangements like Copland’s Old American Songs and second, I will never hear these folk songs quite the same way again.  Polansky’s interest in folk music and Hebrew cantillation along with alternate tunings produces what the ears hear as perhaps a different focus.  In these pieces he did not stray too far from the original (as he does in his Cantillation Studies) but one is left with distinctly different ways of hearing and thinking about this music and the listener is left richer for that.  It is a journey worth taking and Simpson played with both passion and command.

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky's Songs and Toods

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky’s Songs and Toods

Polansky returned to the stage for a performance of his 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) (1995). Again we were treated to the virtuosic use of alternate tunings performed live (and again with live re-tunings) by the composer.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Continuing with the solo performer theme we were privileged to hear the virtuosic jams of Oliver Lake (1942- ) whose long career is legendary in the jazz world.  The “mostly improvised” (according to the composer) Stick was played on two different saxophones in what appeared to be as intense an experience for the performer as it was for the audience.

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

The emotional workout was received warmly by the audience.

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

There was no panel discussion on the third day of OM 21.  This matinée was dedicated entirely to the work of Meredith Monk (1942) who, fittingly was one of the featured artists in the first Other Minds gathering in 1993.  Now a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts this beloved artist returns to OM 21.  Though the rain continued the house appeared to be full.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp in one of her early solo songs.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp and singing in one of her early solo songs.

Monk played a selection of material from various periods in her career in a mostly chronological survey which she called The Soul’s Messenger.  She began with selections from her solo songs and proceeded to her voice and piano music, then to her work with multiple voices and instruments.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Most of the audience seemed to have a comfortable familiarity with the individual works she offered on this night which effectively gave a picture of her career.  Monk was in good voice and appeared to enjoy her performance.

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

The stage was set to allow for the dance/movement that is an essential part of Monk’s works.  She originally trained as a dancer.

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

In addition to the grand piano the stage was set with two electronic keyboards, an essential sound in many of Monk’s works.

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Woodwind player Bodhan Hilash joined the ensemble for the last set of pieces.

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end resulting in 3 curtain calls.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

And the properly prepared artist came back for an encore of her song Details.

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

 

It was a fitting finale to a great OM 21, fitting to have this artist who appeared on the first iteration of Other Minds returning now crowned with a National Medal of the Arts and clearly beloved by the audience.  Her music like her lovely smile fade to the edge of memory like that of the Cheshire Cat on a truly triumphant finale.

And, despite some format changes, who knows what treasures continue to lie in store?  I will be watching/listening and so, apparently will many others.  Keep an eye on www.otherminds.org .  I know I will.