Gene Pritsker and Some of His Collaborators, a Heady Mix


Gene_Pritsker

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.

 

 

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all spring, Music of Emily Doolittle


 

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Emily Doolittle (1972- ) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She earned a B. Mus. from Dalhousie University in 1995 having studied with Dennis Farrell and Steve Tittle.  She went on to earn an M. Mus. in 1999 from Indiana University where she studied with Don Freund.  She completed her Ph.D. at Princeton in 2007 studying with Barbara White, Steve Mackey and Paul Lansky.  In addition she studied with Louis Andriessen from 1997-1999.

Doolittle now lives in Glasgow, UK having just left a faculty position at the Cornish school in Seattle, WA.  where she taught since 2008.  A quick look at her CV reveals a very busy composer and academic with an extensive list of compositions, performances, research, teaching etc. such that this reviewer is amazed to find that the present release is the first CD dedicated exclusively to her music.

I was pleased to be able to get a perspective from the composer that helped me understand the context of this disc in terms of the rest of her work.  She wrote:

“As I was making choices of what to include on this CD, I realized that my music divides itself into several (sometimes overlapping) categories. Over the next few years, I’m hoping to be able to record two or three more CDs. The one that I sent you is the one for fairly standard-ish chamber ensembles, with pieces that would sit fairly comfortably with chamber music of any era. At the moment I’m applying for funding to record a CD of pieces for one or two instruments/voices — these pieces also have a fairly similar musical language to the pieces on “all spring”. After that, I’d like to record a CD of my bird and animal song influenced music, which tends to be more experimental (in terms of sounds used and structure), and often involves some improvisation. And then I have a number of pieces that are harder to figure out how to present to a larger audience — site-specific pieces, pieces for amateurs or children, etc. So I guess I see this CD as both the culmination of one project, and the beginning of a larger project. And I think that getting this sort of overview of my compositions to date will help give me ideas about the directions I’m most interested in going in in the next few years. (I’m at a bit of a transitional time — I just left a full-time teaching position at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle to move to Glasgow. I’m hoping to find part time teaching here, but mostly I want to devote a lot more time to composing than I’ve been able to in the last few years.)”

I was also unaware that there was such a thing as “zoo-musicology” or the study of things musical generated by the members of the animal kingdom.  Who knew?  I was familiar with Olivier Messiaen’s transcriptions and use of bird song but until now I was not aware that work was still being done in this area.  Alas, that will have to be the subject of another review as this disc, while later analysis might reveal zoomusicological influences, is ostensibly more in the category of absolute music or perhaps metaphorical music.  What is quite clear is the picture of an artist with wide-ranging interests who is working to shape her oeuvre and her research interests into a more unified effort which promises potentially fascinating results yet to be heard.

The CD is a very pleasant listening experience.  Nothing here sounds experimental, rather these works are beautifully composed and lovingly played by the Seattle Chamber Players (and friends).  All were composed from 2000 to 2014 and share a sort of romantic and nostalgic flavor and demonstrate the delicate nuances of this composer’s palette.

The first two works, “Four Pieces About Water” (2000) in four short movements and the single movement “falling still” (2000/2009) are purely instrumental as is the fourth piece on the disc “col”(2002/2014).  (Please note that all spellings are as they appear on the disc.)

Tracks 6-10 comprise the album’s title piece, “all spring”(2004) features the poetry of Canadian poet Rae Crossman and the final and longest piece, “Why the parrot repeats human words” (2005) features a text by the composer in which she tells her version of a Thai folk tale (think perhaps of a Canadian Peter and the Wolf maybe).  Both these works feature the beautiful spoken and singing voice of Maria Mannisto.

The ample and lucid notes are by the composer.  The recording was engineered by Doug Haire at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle and mastering was by John D. S. Adams at Stonehouse Sound in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia for this Composer’s Concordance label release.

Certainly this writer will be looking forward to hearing more from this fascinating artist as she reveals more of her work on recordings and goes on to who knows what new and interesting areas in this (now) post-Boulez world.  Brava!