Kenji Bunch’s Snow Queen


 

Kenji Bunch (1973- ) is a musician whose name has made it to my personal orbit many times but this is my first encounter with his music and what an encounter it is!  This two disc set comprises a full length ballet commissioned and performed by the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet.

bunch

Kenj Bunch

Bunch is an American composer who hails from Portland, Oregon the child of a Japanese mother and a Scottish father.  He studied at Julliard and this is approximately the 18th CD release to contain his music (if I counted correctly).  A prolific composer, one can find a decent listing of his compositions on his website.  And he was a violist performing with the esteemed Portland Youth Philharmonic from 1986-1991/

There are at least two symphonies, numerous soloists and orchestra pieces as well as solo instrumental music.  Though I’ve heard just snippets of his music aside from the disc under review here I think I can safely say that his style can be described as essentially tonal, even perhaps somewhat conservative, but the accessible qualities of his music do not translate into mediocrity. Quite the contrary, he is a very exciting composer and his style seems very well suited to an undertaking such as this ballet.  Bunch appears to be a master of orchestral color and he uses it to great effect here.

The two discs comprise 23 tracks much like one would expect of most classical ballets. The individual movements are 3-10 minutes approximately and they correspond to specific scenes that tell the classic story of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story.  No doubt cost is the barrier which precluded a DVD release which looks like it was a gorgeous production.

It is at least this writer’s impression that much of classical ballet music does not do well without the visuals of the dance.  I am referring to 19th century models such as Coppelia whose music might be best performed in excerpted suites if dancers are not a part of the performance.  Bunch’s ballet is more in the spirit of perhaps Prokofiev or Stravinsky wherein the music stands quite well on its own and even does a great job of evoking the images of the given scenes.  Basically the music stands on its own as a narrative.

Orchestra NEXT  is a training orchestra and resident ensemble with the Eugene Ballet Company.  They handle this complex and musically challenging score with seeming ease under music director Brian McWhorter.

There is little doubt that those who were fortunate enough to see this fully staged production will appreciate the opportunity to relive their memories by hearing again the recorded score.  But this will likely appeal to most fans of new music as well.  It is a major work by a composer who deserves serious attention.  This writer will certainly be listening.

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Ross Feller: X/Winds


feller-x-winds

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.  

Jennie Oh Brown and Friends: Music for Flutes by Joseph Schwantner


jennieoh

Innova 919

At first an all flute album featuring a contemporary composer would seem to be a risky idea at best but this disc of some of Joseph Schwantner‘s flute compositions works very well.  Pulitzer Prize winning Schwantner is no stranger to the concert or recording scene and deservedly so.  He writes a modern, though not terribly experimental, style which works well in the concert hall and on disc.  He won the Pulitzer for his wonderful 1978 Aftertones of Infinity and wrote a substantial guitar concerto championed by Sharon Isbin among many other works.

Jenny Oh Brown is an unfamiliar name to this reviewer but I suspect that will not be the case for long.  This is one talented and charismatic artist and she has recruited some marvelous fellow musicians for this album.  This is not the complete flute music of Mr. Schwantner but it is certainly a very nice representative sampling.

The album starts with Black Anemones (1980), a piece which is pretty much part of the standard flute and piano repertoire now.  The performance of this lyrical post-romantic essay clearly demonstrates why this piece has become popular.  It requires a great deal of skill and virtuosity for both the flautist and the pianist and both musicians handle their roles expertly.

The next three tracks are the separate movements of a piece,, again for flute and piano, called, Looking Back (2009).  The first movement, called Scurry About is a frenetic and virtuosic little romp which gives both musicians ample opportunities to demonstrate their chops.  The second movement, Remembering, is a sort of nostalgic solo flute cadenza and the finale, titled Just Follow brings the work to a satisfying conclusion.

The highlight for this listener, though, is the three movement quartet for flutes, Silver Halo (2007).  No piano here but every member of the flute family pretty much and each gets what sounds like a very satisfying role.

In addition to Jennie the album features Jeffrey Panko on piano, Karin Ursin, flute and piccolo; Janice McDonald, flute and alto flute; and Susan Saylor, flute and bass flute.  This Innova release is a must for fanciers of the flute and of Mr. Schwantner’s music.

 

Navigation Without Numbers: George Hurd and his ensemble


george hurd

The San Francisco Bay Area is a rich and varied musical scene with a plethora of talented and creative musicians.  Given that I am not surprised and perhaps just a touch chagrined to not have heard of George Hurd.  After a bit of research I learned that this is his debut album so I guess I feel better.

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George Hurd (promotional photo)

For an emerging composer he is well represented by his web page referenced above and another for the George Hurd Ensemble.  Like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and many others he is taking the composer/performer route which is certainly a better guarantee of getting one’s music performed and performed well.

Hurd is also a promoter of an interesting gaggle of other musicians and musical organizations as well and while this is his debut recording Hurd has a significant history of success and a composer, performer and arts administrator.

Now to the album at hand.  Navigation Without Numbers consists of 11 tracks of chamber music with electronics, electroacoustic music.  Each is an individual piece but they seem to create a unity and this listener’s experience was that of a soundtrack to a film yet to be made.  Indeed Hurd has written a few film scores as well.

The musicians are: Solenn Suguillon, violin; Jacob Hansen-Joseph, viola (and stomping); Erin Wang, cello; Ari Gorman, double bass; Elyse Weakley, piano; Annie Phillips, bass clarinet; Adam Murray, violin; Andrew  McGuire, vibes; Anton Estaniel, cello; Theresa Au-Stephen, violin; Jason Hallowed, viola; Anna Steinhoff, cello; Alana Grelyak, piano; Stephanie Wallace, harp; Katie Weigman, vibes; George Hurd, electronics with Anna Singer and Joseph Voves, stomping and clapping.  There is also an appearance by well known bay area violinist Carla Kihlstedt appearing on the fourth track.

There are no liner notes here so one is left only to one’s ear and heart to extract meaning and significance from these compositions.  To this writer’s ear it seems to be a combination of gypsy influence and jazz at times in a tonal context with an almost dance like feel at times.  This is not background music but it can be enjoyed with varying degrees of attention.  By that I mean that the music is assertive enough to be useless as Muzak which requires little attention and perhaps even none and that it benefits from closer attention and multiple hearings.  The overall experience is perhaps that of a good chamber group entertaining a knowledgeable clientele at a hip coffee shop.  Not your run of the mill classical, not exactly jazz but a very pleasant album.

 

Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


matthusen

This is the first disc devoted entirely to the music of Paula Matthusen who as of July is a newly minted associate professor at Wesleyan University where she walks at least partly in the footsteps of emeritus professor Alvin Lucier whose course Music 109 she inherited from him.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Matthusen at Other Minds 18 where she was one of the featured composers.  In our all too brief conversation she was affable and unpretentious but certainly passionate about music.

Paula Matthusen

Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’ at Other Minds in 2013

 

She holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and PhD. from New York University.  She announced her recent promotion to associate professor on Facebook as is, I suppose, customary for people of her generation.  It is on Facebook that I contacted her to request a review copy of this CD to which she quickly and graciously agreed.

This CD contains 9 tracks representing 8 works.  They range from solo to small ensemble works, some with electronics as well.  Her musical ideas seem to have much in common with her emeritus colleague Alvin Lucier but her sound world is her own despite some similarities in techniques, especially her attention to sonic spaces and her use of electronics to amplify sonic micro-events which might even include her heartbeat.

 

sparrows in supermarkets (2011) for recorder looks at the sound of birds in the acoustic space of a supermarket and their melodic repetition.  It is for recorder (Terri Hron) and electronics

limerance (2008) is another solo work, this time for banjo (James Moore) with electronics.  She says she is working with the concept of reciprocation here but that seems rather a subjective construct.  Like the previous piece this is a contemplative and spare work with some spectral sounds as well.

the days are nouns (2013) is for soprano and percussion ensemble and electronics.  Here she is concerned with resonances within the vibrators of the instruments as well as the acoustics of the room.  It is a dreamy, impressionistic setting of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye whose poem supplies the title but the text is fragments of a Norwegian table prayer.  A very subtle and effective work.

AEG (2011) is represented by two movements (of four?) all of which were written for the Estonian ballet.  It is similarly concerned with resonances and words at times.  Of course it would be interesting to hear those other movements but perhaps another time.

of architecture and accumulation (2012) is the first of two purely acoustic compositions on this disc.  This one is for organ solo (Will Smith) and explores long tones within the acoustic space.  It is a very satisfying work even if one doesn’t go into the underlying complexities.

corpo/Cage (2009) is  the longest and largest work here and is the second purely acoustic piece on this recording.  It has echoes of Stravinsky at and it is an enticing example of Matthusen’s writing for orchestra.  This reviewer certainly looks forward to hearing more of this composer’s works for larger ensembles.  Very effective writing.

in absentia (2008) is the earliest work here.  It is written for violin, piano, glasses and miniature electronics (not quite sure what that means).  Like many of the works on this disc the concern or focus seems to be on small events and sounds.  This is a rather contemplative piece that nicely rounds out the recording.

Matthusen resembles Lucier in some of her techniques and focus on small sounds otherwise missed and she certainly owes a debt to people like Pauline Oliveros.  But in truth she sounds like no one as much as Paula Matthusen.  The composer presents a strong and intelligent voice and one wishes for more from this interesting artist.  Thank you for the opportunity to review this.

The Ensemble Formerly Known as Zeitgeist (?), Music by Scott Miller


Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

Scott Miller- Tipping Point (New Focus fcr 161)

ADDENDUM:  Mr. Miller kindly supplied the correct composition dates for the pieces in this album and they have been placed in the text.  Also I was pleased to receive a link to their discography:(http://www.zeitgeistnewmusic.org/discography.html)  I hope that is a recent addition and not my oversight (apologies if it’s an oversight).

 

I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review as I am a long time fan of the Minnesota based Zeitgeist ensemble.  This varied ensemble has been a vital part of the new music scene in Minnesota since about 1977 (I still have some of their vinyl LPs).  Happily they are in the process of making these out of print items available again on CDs via their website.

Curiously there is very little on the ensemble’s web site or on the internet in general on the history of this group prior to about the year 2000  A Google search yields few references to this group and Discogs does not have much listed in their discography of Zeitgeist.  Their Wikipedia page is also in serious need of updating. The Innova records site is perhaps the most useful in identifying the albums released by this group in its various configurations and solo or other collaborations by its members (though the re-release of the older discs are not distributed there).  I realize that this group began in the pre-internet era but perhaps it is time to clarify this and present a comprehensive history and discography of this significant new music ensemble.

Scott Miller

Scott Miller

The present disc is a collection of recent works by Scott Miller, a Minnesota based composer and teacher whose association with Zeitgeist goes back to 1993.  He is currently the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro Acoustic Music in the United States) and professor of music at St. Cloud State University.  You can find his work on youtube and Sound Cloud.

Now let me say here that it is my observation that electroacoustic music, while not an uncommon genre, seems to be a specialized one which, like Zeitgeist, is not consistently well-promoted.  At least that is my explanation (excuse perhaps) for my limited knowledge of Mr. Miller’s music up to this point.

The CD is a collection of six tracks with vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw on tracks  2, 4 and 6.  Each track is a separate work and they are listed in the proper order on the back of the CD case but are discussed out of order in the notes for some reason.

But now I must stop my whining and criticisms (and thinly veiled references to Prince) and turn to the actual music. This is really wonderful music, well-performed and well worth your attention.  And if the term “electroacoustic” puts you off don’t worry.  What we have here is an artist who has managed to integrate a variety of techniques into an effective musical language that transcends mere experimentalism to yield some really good music.

The first piece, the one from which the album receives its title, is Tipping Point (2010) and was originally included on the SEAMUS CD Volume 20 (EAAM-2011).  This is a remixed and remastered version of that recording from 2010.  This writer hears echoes and homages to (or influences by, you decide which) Terry Riley, Steve Reich as well as perhaps Morton Subotnick and even the thornier sound of Mario Davidovsky at times.  To my ears this is an integration of many ideas which work effectively together.

The second track, Forth and Back (2003) is the longest track and is a setting of the poem by Catalan poet Felip Costaglioli.  The setting is atmospheric, appropriate to the lovely texts and the vocal writing is simply beautiful.  Carrie Henneman Shaw delivers this work with the success of interpretation that one would expect of a musician who understands the composer’s intent.  Not an explicitly virtuosic piece it nonetheless challenges the performer with sotto voce passages that I imagine are quite a balancing act for a singer.  This is a beautiful piece and the fact of its electroacoustic aspects take on far less important place than the effectiveness of the setting.

Next up is Pure Pleasure (2008) is a percussion piece.  The composer goes into some detail in the notes as to the genesis of this piece and that is interesting but so is the act of listening to it.  This is one of the more obviously experimental works here.

Twilight (2008-13) is actually a portion of a larger work, a collaboration between Miller, Pat O’Keeffe and video artist Rosemary Williams called, The Cosmic Engine.  This is a multi-media chamber opera which premiered in 2008 and this section was revised in 2013.  The text is by Walt Whitman.  Again, Shaw does a lovely job with the lyrical vocal lines.

Funhouse (2003) is a marvelous use of electroacoustic methods.  It is a piece with rather complex origins as explained in the notes but, consistent with its title, this is a fun piece to hear and, I imagine, to play.  Along with the percussion piece it represents the more overtly experimental work of this artist.

The final track, Consortia (2013), as  with Twilight, is an outgrowth or by product of work on the multimedia opera, The Cosmic Engine.  Here the composer enlists computer processing to create a sort of live polyphony with live mixing of tracks of pre-recorded and live improvisational structures based on some renaissance tunes and techniques.  I will leave it to the listener to read through the technical details but the result is a pretty entertaining piece of music.

Zeitgeist does a wonderful job here playing with passion and dedication.  I can only hope that we hear more from both Zeitgeist and Mr. Miller.

The recording done at Wild Sound Recording Studio in Minneapolis (Mark Zimmerman, master engineer on tracks 1 and three; Steve Kaul, master engineer on tracks 2 and 4-6) is lucid and warm.  The art and design by Raul Keller makes for an attractive product.  This release from New Focus Recordings belongs in the collection of any new music fan and certainly every Zeitgeist fan.