Captain Kirk and the Buddha Speak Esperanto: Other Minds 22 Commemmorates Lou Silver Harrison at 100


Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917).  This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding.  He outlined his intentions as follows:

  1. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
  2. “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
  3. “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.

Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide).  Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).

L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917)

In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner.  Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library.  It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies).  It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue.  A link to a Shatner scene is here.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o

And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM

Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay.  This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist.  He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.

Lou Silver Harrison

And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist

In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan.  Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).

Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music.  (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble.  The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.

Harriso (left) with Bill Colvig

This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas.  Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence.  Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.

Lou Harrison with Charles Amirkhanian (curator of this concert series) in 1966

It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area.  It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College  in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco).  Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012.  This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.

The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores.  The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.  The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.

Interior of the historic Mission Dolores Basilica

For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated.  In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest.  I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts.  You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:


Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990) 

Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)

Meredith Clark, harp

Emil Miland, cello

Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)

Jerome Lenk, organ

Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee) 

Shalini Vijayan, violin

William Winant Percussion Group

La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)

For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan

The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m. 

Mission Dolores Basilica

3321 16th St.

San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at:

http://om22concerttwo.brownpapertickets.com/

Revido tie. (See you there.)
 

Ross Feller: X/Winds


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Innova 911

 

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

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


redrain

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

huangruo

Huang Ruo (1976- )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Thomson’s Restless: a Feast of New Chamber Music


restless-cover-2000x2000

Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive.  Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.

The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument.  This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.

The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano.  It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development.  It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas.  The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano).  This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.

ashleybathgate-karllarson_photo1_photographer_gabrielgomez

Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)

The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys.  Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.

More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation.  It is pretty clear and very effective music.  This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.

Couloir, a Wonderful New Cello and Harp Duo


couloir

This is an beautiful album.  The main attraction is the world premiere recording of Serere (2012) by James B. Maxwell in two versions separated by a shorter piece by Nico Muhly.  Ravello Records brings us a wonderful Canadian duo, Couloir consisting of Ariel Barnes on cello and Heidi Krutzen on harp.

Maxwell, a Canadian composer, is new to this writer but the present work suggests that there is good reason to pay attention to this artist.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of two versions of the same piece on one disc but it does allow for close comparison.  It is basically an intimate and episodic piece of chamber music which is filled out with some electroacoustic material in the second version.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive because this is an engaging and enjoyable listen and a piece which seems to contain a certain depth and wisdom which suggests a well crafted work.  Both versions are clearly challenging from a technical aspect but all seems to be integrated in service of the music and not simply empty effects.  The second version of course has a fuller sound due to the augmentation of the electronics.  Both versions benefit from multiple listens and I certainly don’t intend to set this disc aside for a bit.

This is actually my first encounter with Nico Muhly’s work.  I have certainly heard of him but I am not familiar with any of his other work so I have nothing against which to compare the present piece except in the context of this disc.  Given that, this briefer piece, Clear Music (2003) is also finely wrought and engaging.  Maryliz Smith plays celeste on this track.  It functions basically as an interlude here but it does help clear the palate (so to speak) without taking the listener too far out of the musical context.

The recording from 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia is clear and pleasant and the performances are simply wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

Music by Gerhard Schedl, a New Recording by the Walden Chamber Players


Suicide, the artificial ending to a life is an inscrutable act, especially so when it takes the life of a talented individual.  So it is with Austrian composer Gerhard Schedl whose life was ended by his own hand in 2001.  I had never heard of this man and his work and I always welcome the opportunity to hear music new to my ears and such an opportunity presented itself recently.

By good fortune and the kindness of cellist and current artistic director Ashima Scripp I received a copy of the Walden Chamber Players latest CD: ‘A Voice Gone Silent too Soon: The Music of Gerhard Schedl.  The disc contains 4 chamber works for various combinations of strings, piano and clarinet.schedl

As it happens I had not been familiar with this ensemble before either so a word about them would seem to be appropriate.  Founded in 1997 this flexible sized ensemble consists of eleven musicians including strings, piano, harp and woodwinds.  The musicians are all highly accomplished and most are on faculty at area Universities.  Their choice of repertoire distinguishes them as they seem to choose new and/or lesser known music that the musicians feel deserve a hearing and hopefully a wider audience.  Their fascinating catalog at the time of this writing consists of 6 discs and includes music by Beethoven, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, Francaix, Gubaidulina and Reger to name a few.

When they choose Beethoven they choose the seldom played string trios and their other choices seem to involve late romantic and early 20th Century composers with a focus on pieces that are little known and rarely played.  From what I have heard they bring a real passion to their performances.  In addition they have a variety of educational and outreach programs that serve to increase interest in chamber music and support new artists in playing this repertoire.

Now to the disc at hand.  At first I did what I usually do after a quick read of the liner notes.  I put the CD in my car stereo to begin some relatively casual listening so I can begin to form some initial impressions.  However this is music of wide dynamic range and some of the most beautiful moments are the quieter ones so I found that it is best heard in a quiet environment and preferably with headphones.  Most of the gestures in this music are the familiar sounds of chamber music.  The music is sometimes melodic, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic.  Schedl seems to be a sort of modern post-romantic who is well-schooled in what a chamber ensemble can do and is apparently influenced by the expressionism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as by Mahler, Debussy and perhaps Messiaen.  This being said his music does not actually resemble any of these influences too strongly.  The music is rarely dissonant but there are grand fortissimo gestures as well as glissandi and what sounds like some playing inside the piano and some extended techniques which my ears could not identify with certainty.  But this is not what I would call “experimental music”.  Indeed the music sounds very well planned with an ear for subtleties that the ensemble lovingly interprets.  It sounds like this music is as enjoyable to play as it is to hear.  Though virtuosic it is also expressive if agonized at times and the recording is fantastic.

The first piece, String Trio (1991) for violin, viola and cello is in three movements.  I did not find the tempi descriptions particularly useful as a listener since this composer’s music seems to sustain a variety of tempi and expression within each movement.  Inevitably comparisons to Schoenberg, Webern and perhaps Ernst Krenek will come to mind and it is difficult to predict this piece to stand with those models but it definitely bears additional hearings and would be welcome on any good chamber music program.

The next piece, “A Due”, a Duo for Violin and Cello (2000) is from the last year of the composer’s life.  It is in four movements and is the most angst ridden of the pieces on the disc.  This combination of instruments is relatively rare.  I personally know only the Ravel duo which resembles this piece though that is largely due to the instrumentation, not the style.  This is a concentrated and deeply felt piece which seems to reflect some painful emotions.  Here I am reminded more of Webern and perhaps Wolfgang Rihm with their spare textures and emphatic fortissimi amidst the quieter moments.   As with all the pieces on this disc the execution reflects the intense concentration and dedication of the musicians.

The five movement, “A Tre” for clarinet, violin and piano of 1984 is the earliest composition here.  It comes as a welcome relief emotionally from the previous “A Due”.  This is by far the most whimsical of the pieces featured on this album.  It has an almost orchestral feel to it at times.  Multiple techniques (and, no doubt, careful execution) result in textures that are sometimes rather expansive.  Shades of Messiaen appear to be present sometimes.  They contrast with the more chamber music like gestures familiar from the previous works.

The disc concludes with the 1996-7 “A Cinque” for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano.  It is a very serious post-romantic, even neo-classical take on the quintet format.  The piece consists of three movements.  The first two are serious but not terribly dark and showcase the ensemble well.  The last, an adagio, has a sadness mixed with nostalgia that reminds this listener of Mahler. There are none of the abrupt dynamic changes heard in the previous works on this CD, only a soft and gentle ending.

If you enjoy well-performed and recorded chamber music and are interested in exploring something besides the old war horses of the standard repertoire then this disc is for you.  Multiple listenings reveal more detail about the pieces and make this writer curious about this man’s work for larger ensembles as well.

Thank you Walden Chamber Players for a wonderful CD.  I look forward to hearing more from this fine and adventurous ensemble.