Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

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

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

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

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

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

And now on to the music:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


klucevsek

Starkland ST-225

As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do.  The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century.  It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.

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Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

Guy Klucevsek  (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s.  He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh.  He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts.  His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat.  He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities.  The accordion will never be the same.

Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label).  He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule.  He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.

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Starkland ST-225

freerange

Starkland ST-209

Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.

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Starkland ST-218

The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga.  His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world.  Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.

On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface.  What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed.  To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann.  You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.

Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording.  Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians.  Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.

The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds.  Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music.  There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.

Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano.  No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.

The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels.  William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer.  Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.

Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit.  The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums.  Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks.   Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.

The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end.  Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.

As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones.  Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia.  This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved.  Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.

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Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein.  Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin.  Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown.  All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.

Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.

 

End of an Era and a Summation: In the Mood for Food Dinner/Concert Series


Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland's Chapel of the Chimes.

Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.

For a variety of reasons I have not been able to spend any time with this blog for the last month or two but recent events tell me that I must find the time to get back online and publish.  My apologies to all who are awaiting reviews and such.  They will now be forthcoming.

This past Saturday night June 27, 2015 is among the last of this East Bay series which has been with us for the last 10 years.  Philip Gelb, vegan chef extraordinaire, shakuhachi player and teacher has announced that he will be relocating to New York in the next few months.

I personally discovered this series shortly after I moved to the bay area.  In a nondescript West Oakland neighborhood in a modest loft live/work space I found a vegan dinner which also featured a performance by Bay Area composer/performer Pamela Z.  One concert/dinner and I was hooked.   The opportunity to meet and hear many wonderful musicians and enjoy the amazing culinary magic was just too much to resist.  I have been a regular attendee at many of these concerts and they all are valued memories.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Phil, who studied music, ethnomusicology and shakuhachi has been a familiar performer in the Bay Area.  In addition to performing and teaching the Japanese bamboo flute, Phil has run a vegan catering business and began this series some ten years ago modeled on a creative music series founded in part by the late Sam Rivers.  As a musician Phil has gotten to know many talented and creative musicians who performed on his series.  Phil is a friendly, unpretentious man with great talents which he successfully combined here.

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Phil and sous chef Cori preparing the evening’s feast.

The 20 seats were sold out for the annual Masumoto Peach dinner.  At the peak of the harvest each year Phil has put together multiple course dinners featuring locally grown organic peaches from the now four generation Masumoto family orchard near Fresno .  In fact a recent film (information on the Masumoto page linked above) has been made about them called, “Changing Seasons” and one of the filmmakers was in attendance.  There was a short discussion with Q and A at one point.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

No music this night but wonderful food and friendly conversations filled the evening.  The meal began with, of course, a taste of the actual peaches.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

The next course, a peach tomato gazpacho.

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Followed by a grilled peach salad with cashew cheese balls, arugula radicchio,, pickled red onions, and a cherry balsamic dressing.

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Oh, yes, a nice Chimay to quench the thirst.

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And then tempeh char siu wontons (from the local Rhizocali Tempeh), flat tofu noodles, a really great hot peach mustard and peach sweet and sour sauce.

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The main course: peach grilled seitan, peach barbecue sauce, roasted corn and peppers, and some crunchy fried okra.

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And, for dessert, peach rosewater cake with peach walnut sorbet.  As is his custom Phil went around offering more of that sorbet which most folks, present writer  included, availed themselves.

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

But, as I said, this tradition is coming to an end.  Not to fear, however.  Phil is in the process of writing a cookbook sharing the secrets of his culinary mastery and the book will also document some of the many musicians whose talents graced many an evening here.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil's loft a few years ago.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil’s loft a few years ago.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

So this little sampling of photos provides some idea of the scope and significance of this series.  Happily it is being documented in a book for which an Indiegogo campaign is presently in process.  You can donate and receive any or many of a variety of perks ranging from a copy of the book for $40 and perks including an invitation to celebratory dinners planned in both New York and Oakland.  My copy and my dinner invite are reserved.

There are 34 days left in the campaign at the time of this writing and the project is now at 106% of its funding goal.  This is a piece of Bay Area music and culinary history that will please music enthusiasts and those who appreciate creative vegan cuisine.

Here is a list of musicians taken from the campaign site to give you an idea of the scope of the series:

Tim Berne – alto saxophone (Brooklyn)

Shay Black – voice, guitar (Berkeley via Ireland)

Cornelius Boots shakuhachi/bass clarinet

Monique Buzzarte – trombone, electronics (NYC)

Chris Caswell (2) – harp (Berkeley)

Stuart Dempster – trombone (Seattle)

Robert Dick (flute) NYC

Mark Dresser (2) – bass (Los Angeles)

Mark Dresser/Jen Shyu duet – bass, voice/dance

Sinan Erdemsel – oud (Istanbul)

Sinan Erdemsel/ Sami Shumay duet – oud, violin

Gianni Gebbia – saxophones (Palermo, Italy)

Vinny Golia- winds (Los Angeles)

Lori Goldston – cello (Seattle)

Frank Gratkowski (2) – clarinets, alto sax (Berlin)

Daniel Hoffman/Jeanette Lewicki duet violin, voice/accordion (Berkeley, Tel Aviv)

Shoko Hikage – koto (Japan-San Francisco)

Yang Jing – pipa (Beijing)

Kaoru Kakizakai (4) – shakuhachi (Tokyo)

Marco Lienhard shakuhachi (Zurich-NYC)

Mari Kimura – violin, electronics (Tokyo-NYC)

Yoshio Kurahashi (5) – shakuhachi (Kyoto)

Joelle Leandre – contrabass (Paris)

Oliver Lake – alto sax (NYC)

Riley Lee (2) shakuhachi (Australia)

Jie Ma – pipa (China, LA)

Thollem Mcdonas Jon Raskin duet piano/sax (wanderer/Berkeley)

Roscoe Mitchell – alto, soprano saxophones (Oakland)

David Murray – tenor sax (Paris)

Michael Manring (5) – electric bass (Oakland)

Hafez Modirzadeh – winds (San Jose)

John Kaizan Neptune – shakuhachi (Japan)

Rich O’Donnell – percussion (St. Louis)

Pauline Oliveros (2) – accordion (NY)

Tim Perkis/John Bischoff duet computers (Berkeley)

Barre Phillips solo and duet with Mark Dresser – contrabass (France)

Alcvin Ramos shakuhachi (Vancouver)

Tim Rayborn/Annette duet oud, strings, recorders (Berkeley/Germany)

Jon Raskin/Liz Albee duet sax/trumpet (Berkeley/Berlin)

Jane Rigler – flute (Colorado)

Gyan Riley (5) – guitar (NYC)

Terry Riley (2) – voice, harmonium (universe)

Diana Rowan (2) – harp (Berkeley/Ireland)

Bon Singer/Shira Kammen duet (voice, violin) (Berkeley)

LaDonna Smith/India Cooke duet (2) violin, viola (Birmingham, AL, Oakland)

Lily Storm/Diana Rowan – voice, harp (Oakland/Ireland)

Lily Storm/Dan Cantrell (2) – voice/accordion (Oakland)

Howard Wiley – tenor Saxophone solo and duet with Faye Carol voice

Theresa Wong/ Ellen Fullman duet

Amy X (3) – voice, electronics (Oakland)

Pamela Z – voice, electronics (San Francisco)

Certitude and Joy, the World of Wold


MinMax 019

MinMax 019

This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start.  Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay.  This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son.  Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, pai...

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware.  He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning.  That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills.  He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.

The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer.  And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.

The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer.  And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music.  It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer.  His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.

I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works.  That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen.  But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.

As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative  of these composers.  His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and  suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns.  I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative.  The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.

What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience.  He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary.  But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental  illness and the current state of our society and our world.  This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.

Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human.  The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find).  The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets.  A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.

Blackness, Race and Music, What I Have Learned So Far


Two years ago, when I was just at the start of my blogging adventures, I decided it would be a good idea to do a few articles in honor of Black History Month. I am not black and I have no expertise in the area of black music but, in keeping with the personal perspective of this blog, I decided that my interest in these subjects is sufficient reason to express some opinions and ideas.  I chose Carl van Vechten’s portrait of William Grant Still, considered by many to the first major black composer to receive recognition in the 20th Century as my symbol for this article.  Much of his music remains unknown and little performed though there have been some significant recordings released in the last few years.

I called that first set of articles “Black Classical”. Curiously my brief article on black conductors has been one of my most read pieces (947  views as of the time I write these words).   So I continued to write on this subject in the following year. For my second set of articles I took the opportunity to look at the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by all measures a landmark piece of legislation. I asked a question, in part rhetorical because I had a basic idea of the answers I expected, but also to elicit opinions and to discuss issues of race and music.

I sent queries to a random set of composers and conductors and received a few very gracious replies. Comments ranged from carefully worded egalitarian musings on how black music and music by other racial minorities should be integrated and heard throughout the concert seasons to seemingly careful statements suggesting that this might not even be the right question or that it shouldn’t be asked. Not all comments were published but I am grateful to all who replied. And I have been able to continue this discussion in the various groups on Facebook.

I learned in a (yet to be published) interview with Anthony Davis some fascinating perspectives. Professor Davis did not address my question as I originally asked but he provided some valuable food for thought. It is worth noting that Davis is a composer whose politics are frequently very much in evidence in his music. In a discussion of the current state of music he commented regarding John Cage‘s apolitical stance by saying that, “John Cage’s silence is the silence of white privilege.” One could argue that taking an apolitical stance may have contributed to Cage’s ability to get grants and commissions.  Politically charged music generally does not fare as well.

In general I found more or less what I expected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had little, if any, benefit for black musicians and composers. And given the ongoing killing of unarmed black men by police one must wonder if we have been going backwards as a society. But I don’t want to do a grand social critique here. That is a subject for another blog and is a bit outside of my scope at least for now.

I found some musicians who did not want to address racial and discriminatory issues. It seems the issue is too “hot” and that one could face consequences for even asking the question. And some did not feel sufficiently well-versed in Civil Rights history to make a truly informed assessment of this issues.  Perhaps it is a form of white privilege that allows me to ask such a question. We shall see if any reactions result in verbal attacks or (not likely I think) in a reduction in my readership.

What I have learned is that black classical musicians (who are not in short supply) occupy very few prominent positions in academia, in the public sphere of conductors and performers and in the representation in recorded performances of what is a rich but virtually untapped repertoire.  The inequality remains with perhaps some progress but not enough to pronounce the issues here as resolved to a truly significant degree.  But there is a vibrant community of black musicians who are working as did their predecessors to contribute to our collective culture and the discussions are both lively and stimulating.

In 2014 there was a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony of an Oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” (1937) by R. Nathaniel Dett. The premiere performance of the piece (a beautiful and listener friendly piece of music) was broadcast live. But that broadcast was truncated, leaving out the finale when white listeners complained about music by a black composer getting so much airtime. Happily the entire piece was broadcast uninterrupted and made available in streaming format. However there is no commercial recording of this grand biblical choral work.

I was pleased to be able to review the fully staged performance in May, 2014 of Zenobia Powell Perry‘s opera Tawawa House (1984) in the unlikely venue of Modesto, California by Townsend Opera.  It was a heartfelt and beautiful production and was reviewed here.

Another interesting event in 2014 was the first appearance of three black counter tenors in a performance of a Purcell Opera in Los Angeles.  My blog on this subject can be found here.  I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who has been very helpful in keeping me up on the latest developments with black musicians and composers and was the person who alerted me to this historic event.

Coming up in March at the Other Minds festival there will be performances by Errollyn Wallen and Don Byron.

I have been able to dialog with various black musicians on Facebook most notably through the groups Black Composers, The National Association of Negro Composers and Opera Noir.  Composer, performer and conductor Anthony R. Green is posting the name of a black composer every day for the month of February with examples of their work.

Some recent films have done much to tell the very unpretty history of black people in the United States including: 12 Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northrup‘s harrowing memoir,  Fruitvale Station (2013), a retelling of the execution style shooting of Oscar Grant at the hands of police in Oakland, California, Selma (2014), a dramatization of the 1965 march in support of voting rights (musical direction by Jason Moran).  And this trend, happily, seems to be on the rise providing artistic historical narratives to aid in the processing of the complex, shameful and painful histories depicted.  The lack of recognition by the motion picture industry supports my arguments for the poor representation and acknowledgement of black artists in general.

I have to mention that the wonderful set of recordings by Paul Freeman originally released on Columbia records remains available as a boxed set of 9 vinyl records with notes from the College Music Society now being offered at only $17.50 (that is not a typo either) via mail order.  I’m going to buy a couple of extra copies to give away as gifts.  It’s a really nice set.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned is the egalitarian approach by conductor Michael Morgan who stated his desire that music by ethnic groups be integrated into programming on a regular basis rather than being highlighted in a given month.  (I am pleased to report that maestro Morgan will be receiving an award for his service to new music from the American Composers Forum.)  I am now using that approach with this blog in which I will continue to highlight the work of musicians and other artists whose work I find interesting and worth promoting.  So please stay tuned.

 

 

Finding Angels, Energetic Eclecticism from Howard Hersh


Angels and Watermarks

Angels and Watermarks

Howard Hersh (1940- ) studied music and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Stanford University.  He is a California native and he succeeded Charles Amirkhanian as music director at KPFA.  His Pony Concerto (2005), Braided River Nights (2004) and Sonata for Violin and Percussion with String Bass obligato (2000) were released on Albany Records in 2007 and his Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is available as a free download on Bandcamp.

I had not been familiar with Mr. Hersh’s music when I agreed to review this disc but I found that liked it immediately and it made my  list of favorite releases for 2014. The  featured piece here is the Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) and it is a tour de force.  Hersh writes in a tonal idiom that sounds to this reviewer’s ears like a mix of Conlon Nancarrow and Francis Poulenc.  This concerto is virtuosic in the extreme but not the empty virtuosity of the romantic composer pianists (Anton Rubinstein bores me to tears).  This work in three movements sounds very difficult to play but manages to remain playful and entertaining, never taking itself too seriously.  Pianist Brenda Tom does a fantastic job (she must have fingers of steel) and is very ably supported by the small ensemble conducted by Barbara Day Turner.  Rapid attacks, scales and arpeggios keep the soloist very busy and the ensemble clearly listens and collaborates in what is an electrifying performance.

The other pieces on the disc are a sort of strange contrast to the concerto.  First is a suite for harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (2004) was composed during Hersh’s residency at the Djerassi Arts Center.  The piece is in five movements and is a significant contribution to the contemporary literature for that instrument.  Cast in the manner of a baroque suite, each movement plays on familiar forms.  The first movement is a ponderous prelude which is followed by a playful moto perpetuo, a gentle lullaby, then a spectacular jazz inflected toccata and finally a sort of non-literal recapitulation of the prelude.  Again we are treated to the dynamic keyboard work of Brenda Tom who executes each movement flawlessly and with great expressiveness.

The final work on the disc is Dream (2012)  which the composer (who wrote the liner notes) says is his exploration of how to incorporate tonal harmony in his work.  It is a soft, slow meandering piece in which he manages to make his explorations into a beautiful and restful work.  Brenda Tom is the dedicatee of both this and the harpsichord suite and she demonstrates her ability to work with soft expressive textures.

All in all a great CD which will delight any new music fan.  It is available from CD Baby and Amazon.  Highly recommended.

Composers of Northern California, Other Minds 19


OM 19, the final bow.  Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

OM 19, the final bow. Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

This past Friday and Saturday the San Francisco Jazz Center hosted the 19th annual Other Minds Festival concerts.  This is the first year not to feature an international roster.  Instead the focus was on composers from northern California.  (Strictly speaking these composers’ creative years and present residence is northern California.)  It was not a shift in policy but a focus on a less generally well known group of artists who have not enjoyed the exposure of east coast composers but have produced a formidable body of work that deserves at least a fair assessment.  In fact these concerts presented a fascinating roster of composers from essentially three generations.

The first generation represented was one which came of age in the fabled 1960s and included electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, AACM founding member Roscoe Mitchell and proto-minimalist Joseph Byrd.  The second was represented by Wendy Reid, Myra Melford and John Bischoff.  And the youngest generation by Mark Applebaum and Charles Celeste Hutchins.

The program opened on Friday night with a sort of pantomime work by Stanford associate professor of music Mark Applebaum.  The piece, called Aphasia (2010) consists of an electronic score to which the composer, seated in a chair, responds with a variety of carefully choreographed gestures.  The result was both strange and humorous.  The audience was both amused and appreciative.

Applebaum's Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble.  Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble. Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s graphic score Metaphysics of Notation (2008) was projected overhead while the ensemble played their interpretations of that score.  The ensemble, dubbed the Other Minds Ensemble, consisted of most of the composers who participated in the festival including Mr. Amirkhanian displaying his facility with  a percussion battery among other things.  (Presumably Roscoe Mitchell, who was reportedly not feeling well, would have joined the ensemble as well.)  Mr. Applebaum was conspicuously absent perhaps so as to not unduly influence the proceedings.

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble's interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble’s interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

The piece was full of minimal musical gestures, humorous events like ribbons strewn across the stage and the popping of little party favors that emitted streamers.  The ensemble appeared to have a great deal of fun with this essentially indeterminate score which they are instructed to interpret in their own individual  ways.  It was a rare opportunity to see and hear Mr. Amirkhanian (who is a percussionist by training) as well as an opportunity for the other composer/performers to demonstrate their skills and their apparent affinity for this type of musical performance.  Again the audience was both amused and appreciative.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

The third piece by Applebaum featured the composer with his invented instrument and electronics playing on a balcony stage right with a projection of himself on the big screen.  He produced a wide variety of sounds from his fanciful computer controlled contraption that seemed to please the audience.  This is the kind of unusual genre-breaking events which tend to characterize an Other Minds concert.

The second composer of the night was the elusive Joseph Byrd who is perhaps best known for his cult classic album The American Metaphysical Circus by Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies from 1969.  A previous band, The United States of America released a self-titled album which received critical acclaim in 1968.  Both are apparently out of print but available through Amazon.

Joe Byrd studied music with Barney Childs and worked with La Monte Young, cellist Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono and Jackson Mac Low.  Byrd went on to produce a great deal of music by others and also wrote music for films and television but his own compositions have only come to light again recently with the release of a New World CD released in 2013 which presents his work from 1960-63.  Mr. Amirkhanian said that it was this disc that got him interested in inviting Byrd to Other Minds (Byrd also taught at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.).

This is the sort of musical archeology for which Other Minds has become known.  Amirkhanian is known for his ability to find and bring to performance and recordings music which has been unjustly neglected.  Hopefully this appearance will be followed by more releases of Byrd’s other music as well.

Byrd was represented here by performances of Water Music (1963) for percussionist and tape with Alan Zimmerman (who was one of the producers of the New World album) played the spare percussion part which integrated well with the analog electronic tape.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd's Water Music.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd’s Water Music.

A second piece, Animals (1961) was performed by the brilliant and eclectic bay area pianist Sarah Cahill with Alan Zimmerman and Robert Lopez on percussion and the fiercely talented Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Richard Shinozaki, violins, Charlton Lee, viola and Kathryn Bates Williams, cello).  This was another piece with soft, mostly gentle musical gestures involving a prepared piano and predominantly percussive use of the string players.  It was interesting to contemplate how this long unheard music must have sounded in 1961 but it was clear that it communicated well with the audience on this night.

Animals (1961)

Animals (1961)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

Following intermission we heard two pieces by Mills composer/performer John Bischoff.  The first was Audio Combine (2009) which featured Bischoff on this laptop producing a variety of digitally manipulated sounds.  It was followed by Surface Effect (2011) with creative lighting effects/animations that nicely complemented the laptop controlled analog circuitry.  Bischoff’s music is generally gentle and clear.  It belies the complexity of its genesis in state of the art computer composition and performance for which he is so well known.

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

All this led to the final performance of the evening by Don Buchla whose modular synthesizers were developed in the early 1960s with input from Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Buchla also designed the sound system for Ken Kesey’s bus “Furthur” which featured in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

The conclusion of Friday’s program consisted of the American premiere of a Drop by drop by Don Buchla for Buchla 200e, electronically controlled “piano bar”  (another Buchla invention) and film projection.  The film was made in collaboration with bay area film maker Sylvia Matheus.  The sequence of images began with a dripping faucet and proceeded to a waterfall and then to emerging pictures of birds all the while accompanied by the various sounds from the synthesizer and the piano.

OM190028

Nannick and Donald Buchla receiving warm applause from the audience.

The Saturday night performances began with Charles Celeste Hutchins and his laptop improvising system.  Hutchins, a San Jose native, describes his system as related to Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system and utilizes a live graphic interface which the computer uses to trigger sound events.

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

The drawings were projected onto the overhead screen.  There seemed to be a somewhat indirect correlation between the drawings and the resultant sounds and much of the tension of this performance derived from wondering what sounds would result when the cursor reached that particular drawing object.  The audience is basically watching the score as it is being written, a rather unique experience and the Other Minds audience clearly appreciated the uniqueness.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

John Schott and his Actual Trio then took the stage to perform his own brand of jazz which seemed to be a combination of free jazz, Larry Coryell and perhaps even Jerry Garcia.  But these descriptions are merely fleeting impressions and are not intended to detract from some really solid and inspired music making.  After the conclusion of the set this listener half expected an encore.

But the program moved on toWendy Reid’s performance as we watched the stage being set up with music stands, some electronic equipment and a parrot in a cage.

Tree Piece #55 "lulu variations" with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Tree Piece #55 “lulu variations” with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Reid’s Tree Pieces are an ongoing set of compositions incorporating nature sounds with live performance.  This is not unlike some of Pauline Oliveros’ work in that it involves careful listening by the musicians who react within defined parameters to these sounds.

Lulu the parrot appeared nervous and did a lot of preening but did appear to respond at times.  The musicians responded with spare notes on violin and muted trumpet.  It was a whimsical experience which stood in stark contrast to the more declarative music of the previous trio but at least some of  the audience, apparently prepared for such contrasts, was appreciative.

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

The diminutive figure of Myra Melford took command of the piano and the hearts of the audience in her rendition of several pieces from her recent CD.  She played sometimes forcefully with thunderous forearm cluster chords and sometimes with extreme delicacy but always with rapt attention to her music.  Her set received a spontaneous standing ovation from a clearly roused audience.  She is a powerful but unpretentious musician who clearly communicates well with her audience.

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran  following their performance of Noonah (2013)

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran following their performance of Noonah (2013)

The finale of OM 19 was the world premiere of an Other Minds commission, the version for four bass saxophones of Roscoe Mitchell’s Noonah (pronounced no nay ah).  It is the latest incarnation of a piece of music that Mitchell describes as having taken on a life of its own.  It exists now in several different versions from chamber groups to orchestra.

The piece is vintage Roscoe Mitchell, a combination of free jazz and sometimes inscrutable compositional techniques which clearly enthralled the very focused performers.  What the piece seemed to lack in immediate emotional impact it made up in mysterious invention which was brought out grandly by the very experienced and committed players.

Mitchell, who was not able to attend on the previous night, appeared rather tired but played with a focus and enthusiasm that matched his fellow musicians.  Like all of Mitchell’s music there is a depth and complexity that is not always immediately evident but does come with repeated listenings and performances.

Thus concluded another very successful edition of Other Minds.  Now we look forward to the gala 20th anniversary coming up in March, 2015.

 

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