Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


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I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer.  Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist.  I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album.  I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.

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Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002).  This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).

The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation.  The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier.  And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well.  Can you say eclectic?

The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.

In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas.  One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though.  The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.

The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect.  The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011).  The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.

I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing.  Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse.  I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues.  I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming.  It is as though this is too much for a single release.

Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well.  The Sonata seems to be the highlight here.   It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.

There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone.  The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what.  This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.

The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets.  Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well.  Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming.  This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.

 

 

 

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Final Culmination of a Long Collaboration: Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston


Starkland's Alcatraz DVD

Starkland’s Alcatraz DVD

The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father.  The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno.  Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies.  He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments.  But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style.  Very difficult to describe in words alone.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer.  He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups.  He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.

Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army.  His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from  ECM.  His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.

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Jim Bengston in his studio 2009

Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production.  Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.

Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object.  The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music.  But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show.  It is not didactic and only incidentally linear.  It is not just a piece of music for listening either.  The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).

Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece.  It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound.   Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston.  There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany.  Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac  music.

The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985.  According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively.  They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time  and the quality of their collaboration is apparent.  And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.

The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments.  Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay.  The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks.  Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.

The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures.  It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo.  These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone.  And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions.  One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’.  It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.

Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways.  The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs.  Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cisterci...

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This disc works on many levels.  You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by.  But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object.  One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone.  This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.

The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus.  Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design.  Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.

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Other Minds 17. Day 2


The second night at Other Minds featured two different generations of composers. As is their practice Other Minds on this night featured two composers already established and fairly well known in new music circles as well as three up and coming artists.

The first performance was by San Francisco’s own champions of new music, the Del Sol Quartet. They performed the American premiere of American expatriate composer Gloria Coates’ String Quartet No. 5 composed in 1988. This and her 8 other quartets have been made available on the brave and progressive Naxos CD label. Coates also holds the record as the most prolific woman symphonist of all time with some 16 symphonies to her credit (many of those are available and well worth seeking on CD as Well).

String Quartet No. 5 is cast in three movements. By the composers description all of the movements are canons, a simple counterpoint form. But the result is hardly simple. Using microtonal glissandi, sometimes having instruments tuned a quarter tone apart and relying on creative ways of synchronizing the players individual tempos Coates achieved a complex sounding but friendly and approachable result. The quartet which lasted about 30 minutes would be a challenge for any ensemble but the Del Sol (which, except for the cellist, perform standing in a break with convention) clearly knew and liked the work and gave an intense and beautiful rendering sounding at times like there were more than four players. The piece has an almost romantic feel at times, cleverly incorporating melodies into a sound world uniquely the composer’s own (I am at a loss to identify a precedent). I sincerely hope that this work and her other works become better known in this, her native country. It is a tribute to the acumen of the Other Minds team that music like this is presented here. The audience greeted the performance very appreciatively.

Next up was Harold Budd on piano playing with Keith Lowe on double bass augmented with electronic effects. The piece, titled “It’s Only a Daydream” from 2011 is, by Budd’s description, entirely improvisational as is most of his music. Lowe began playing first with long sustained tones awash with rich harmonics. Budd’s piano then entered and we were transported to the familiar sound world which is Budd’s musical signature. Those who knew his collaborations with Brian Eno and his later solo works recognized his somber pretty ambient sounds. The two musicians were well matched and played a sort of jazz duet trading solos and accompaniments evoking a curiously nostalgic and hypnotic atmosphere of a strange dream-like lounge. Time seemed suspended and I don’t know exactly how long they played but when they finished the enthusiastic audience reception brought them back for a shorter encore, something I had never seen occur before at this festival.

Following intermission Ikue Mori took the stage sitting at her laptop which controls her various electronic sounds. She played the laptop solo for a few minutes and was then joined by UC Berkeley faculty composer Ken Ueno on vocals. But ah, what unusual vocals. His extended vocal techniques seem to come equally from Tuvan throat singing, Buddhist chanting, David Hykes (of the harmonic choir), Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas, Kenji Suzuki (of the band Can), Tan Dun (on Taoism) and God knows what else. After another few minutes Tyshawn Sorey, a doctoral candidate in composition at Columbia, seated himself quietly at his drum/percussion kit, then with an assertive fortissimo bang on the side drum confidently entered the energetic fray. Mori sat intently gazing at her computer screen and entering the sound changes for her part while Ueno, holding the microphone to his mouth with both hands issued passionate wordless vocalizations of endless variety and Sorey executed a similar endless variety of high energy acoustic percussion sounds.

Mori calmly issued computer commands to perform her Japanese/New York/ punk/free jazz/Stockhausen expanded percussions while the academic Ueno improvised intense growling, multiphonic, wild vocals with few pauses and Sorey got in touch with his AACM ancestors producing a unified three ring circus of wonderful musical mayhem transcending any concept of genre. Three different traditions, separate but working together. Metaphorical? You decide.

Well deserved and enthusiastic applause greeted the intense but calm Mori and the sweaty and apparently exhausted but satisfied Ueno and Sorey.

The relative order of Coates followed by the ethereal calm improvisations of Budd were but a distant memory (albeit a pleasant one) after the ritual emotional exorcism of the second half. This is the rich variety that characterizes these concerts. And now anticipation builds for tomorrow’s finale.