David Rakowski: Stolen Moments, Fabulous New Orchestral Music


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BMOP 1048

The spirit of jazz and, in particular, that of Duke Ellington and perhaps George Gershwin seem ever present in this recent release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  David Rakowski (1958- ) is a new voice to these ears but clearly a highly developed one well schooled in writing for large orchestra and for piano solo within that context as well.

Two works are presented here, the four movement Stolen Moments (2008/2010) and Piano Concerto No.2 (2011).  Both are large, colorful works in a basically tonal/romantic context but with clear modernist influence.  Nothing experimental here, just sumptuous orchestral writing and a challenging and interesting work for piano and orchestra.  It was only from reading the useful liner notes that I learned Rakowski had been a student of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a composer famous for his hard nosed complexity.  In fact Rakowski actually quotes from Babbitt and this music is a tribute to the education received from this man (keep in mind that Babbitt also taught harmony to Stephen Sondheim).

It is as difficult to grasp that Rakowski was taught by Babbitt as it is to believe that, by his own assertion, he knows very little about jazz.  The first work seems to channel the spirits of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin more than Babbitt for sure.  This four movement orchestral suite, in it’s many moods, is melodic, jazzy and engaging in a way that can’t fail to entertain.

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Amy Briggs (image from the artist’s web site)

Amy Briggs has long been a collaborator with Rakowski and is an artist who has successfully made her career exclusively playing contemporary music.  This second of Rakowski’s concertos for this instrument was written for her and she plays it magnificently.  She clearly has a feel for the jazz rhythms and handles the virtuosic writing as though it were second nature.

The concerto ventures into a variety of moods and provides ample opportunities for many BMOP soloists to have their moments.  It is basically a classical three movement structure with multiple subdivisions within each movement.  These large movements come in at nearly 15 minutes each and are practically works unto themselves though they clearly adhere to the same basic vision.  The second movement is dedicated in memory of Rakowski’s teacher Milton Babbitt.  I’m sure he would have approved.

This is in fact the second time that Gil Rose and his massively talented musicians have chosen to survey some of Rakowski’s music.  That alone should be enough to clue listeners in to a potentially good listen.  Rose has been amassing a catalog of music by modern composers whose work deserves attention and, while this is an example of some pretty recent music, Rose and BMOP have done a fine job of giving attention to composers who have been unjustly neglected as well.   They seem to have a fine ear for quality music and this reviewer will listen to anything they choose to record.

As usual with BMOP, the recording is bright and lucid allowing the listener to hear the fantastic details in these big and intricate but entertaining works.  The production is by Gil Rose himself with recording and post-production by Joel Gordon.  Another great volume in the growing BMOP canon.

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Young American Inventions: Music by Steven Ricks


Young American Inventions (New Focus FCR 158)

Young American Inventions
(New Focus FCR 158)

Let me say at the beginning here that this disc contains music of a rather experimental nature.  It has underlying complexities and this is not the kind of CD one would have playing at most parties except perhaps to clear the room.  That being said this is not bad music but it is challenging listening.

I had not been familiar with Steven Ricks (1969- ) or his music prior to receiving this disc for review.   Ricks earned his B.M. in Composition in 1993 from Brigham Young University, and M.M. (also in composition) from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1995, a Certificate of Advanced Musical Studies from King’s College in 2000 and  Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2001.  His teachers have included Morris Rosenzweig, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Bill Brooks, and Michael Hicks.

He is currently on the Board of Advisors of the Barlow Endowment, and an Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at BYU where he also directs the Electronic Music Studio.  His works fall primarily into the realm of the “electroacoustic”.  His training and interests seem to put him into orbits that likely include Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lejaren Hiller and perhaps Salvatore Martirano (all, by my definition, great composers but difficult listening and with electroacoustic outputs primarily).

I must confess that I know relatively little about the forefront of electronic music these days and I am working on catching up on this history (which seems to exist almost completely separate from classical music per se).  Even the hybrid of “electroacoustic” music seems, for this writer at least, to remain rather marginal in terms of its listening audience and its prevalence in the concert hall.

Now, having loaded the reader with these prefaces, apologies and excuses, I move on to the music itself.

I listened numerous times to the tracks on this disc.  Sometimes I listened with direct intention and concentration, other times I listened with this disc playing ambiently (can I use that term here?) whilst pursuing other tasks (not recommended).  The music is assertive and, at times downright intrusive.

I get the feeling overall of a great deal of experimentation and complexity that nearly raises Milton Babbitt’s famous question, “Who cares if you listen?”.  Certainly the composer and performers care but that doesn’t rule out the likelihood that this music may speak to a limited audience who are better trained and more familiar with these techniques/ideas.

What I like about this disc, though, is that bold, experimental, doesn’t matter who is listening approach.  Were it not for such innovation a lot of good musical ideas would never have been expressed.  This music is experimental and perhaps more than a little “inside”, meaning that other composers/scholars might get things that the average listener would probably miss.  Call it an adventure.

Curiously I was/am intrigued by Ricks’ interest in algorithmic composition (an iffy genre as well, I know).  I was pleased to find that he has available for free download on his site a program he wrote called Universal Music Machine and I have been rather entertained by it both as a compositional tool and as a teaching/learning method.   And I promise to post mp3 files of any masterpieces I might generate.

There are 9 separately identified pieces here written between 2001-2014.  Two are multi-movement works and all but two involve electronics in performance to some degree.

The opening track, Ten Short Musical Thoughts (2002) serves well as an introduction.  It makes use of sampling and of algorithmic composition.  Indeed these are short musical ideas with some spoken word comments integrated with the music.

If you are not watching/listening closely you may miss the transition between the opening track and the next, “Young American Inventions” (2007) for solo piano and electronics.  The title, a mashup of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Steve Martland’s “American Inventions” reflects Ricks’ eclectic interests and fascination with both contemporary classical as well as popular culture.  Pianist Scott Holden navigates the challenging keyboard part accompanied by the electronic score.  Here is where Ricks’ work reminds me of Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms” series.

The four movement, “Extended Play” (2007) continues the pop culture references as the composer states that those four movements are intended to mimic or approximate the four tracks which are found on most vinyl EP productions.  The ensemble composition, which is also full of more specific references to both classical and popular music, is executed by Flexible Music and is the most easily accessible work on this disc (to this listener’s ear).

“Ossifying (Keeping us from…) (2012), listed as “electroacoustic” is a piece of sound art like the opening track (no live performers in the concert hall here) and is one of the most experimental pieces on the disc.  It seems both deeply personal and inextricably self-referential.

“Geometria Situs” (2012) is the musical portion of a multimedia work called “WRENCH” which was written for and performed by Hexnut.  Mezzo-soprano Michaela Riener handles the delicate vocal lines with grace and ease.

“Sounded along dove dôve” (1999) is the last of the non-live “electroacoustic” pieces and, like its predecessors, is similarly cryptic and self-referential, a puzzle perhaps, in which the components of language itself are used as determinants of the settings of the texts.

A bit of an “aww” moment occurs with “Waves/Particles” (2008) which is performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble conducted by the composer’s former teacher Morris Rosenzweig.  Rosenzweig founded the ensemble in 1977.  This is both homage and acknowledgement between the two generations of artists.  It is lovingly played.

“Young American Inventions REMIX” (2014) invokes another pop culture metaphor of remixing a song.  This is another iteration/elaboration of the material in the earlier version of this piece.  Scott Holden is the soloist once again with the electronics.

“Stilling” (1997, rev. 2011) is a piece for solo piano.  This is described by the composer as being an impressionistic piece, perhaps a sort of tone poem.  The language is thorny and modern.  The very capable pianist here is Keith Kirchoff.

The lucid liner notes are by Jeremy Grimshaw.  The New Focus recording is clean and clear.  So if you enjoy adventures in experimental/electroacoustic music this is your disc.

 

 

 

 

 

Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman, a Labor of Love


Labor Records LAB 7094

Labor Records LAB 7094

New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne.  In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.

Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl).  I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist.  He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta.  A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.

He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966.  His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded.  He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s.  In short he is a living treasure of American music.

 

His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more.  He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear.  This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.

Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists.  This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.

Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009.  The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage.  The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes.  We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind.  And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.

 

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques.  She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom.  She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk.  The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds.  Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song.  Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.

The piece is cast in eight movements  suggesting the “rondo” I suppose.  And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors.  But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.

The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today.  This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world.  Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers.  I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers.  Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose).  That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.

 

 

 

 

CD Review-Hegarty, Steinbeck and Robles: Time/Space, an atypical jazz trio


HegartySteinbeck-TimeSpace

An old school twelve tone composer, an AACM composer and Julliard composer walked into a bar.  They sat down to play an out came, well, this album. And the bar I am imagining is perhaps a sort of post beat, post bop version of the bar from Star Wars.  I guess I am awash with metaphors here.

Imagine, if you can, a melding of musical styles.  Take a little Milton Babbitt, a little Anthony Davis, a touch of Wadada Leo Smith and perhaps a bit of Oscar Peterson (there is a little bit of a traditional lounge jazz touch here).  I have struggled to characterize this music and struggled perhaps even more to envision its ideal audience but that is not a criticism and is not intended to say anything negative about this album.

To be fair one of the main reasons I think I am struggling to describe this release is that it is a download only release which fortunately is accompanied by some nice cover art by Anna Hegarty and some liner notes which are essentially a  quote from some reviews but contain very useful information about the musicians and their history.  I guess I would feel differently if this had been a physical instead of digital release but perhaps I am just being nostalgic.  Oh, and keep in mind this is a free download.

The varied backgrounds of these musicians have resulted in a blending of styles creating a unique and enjoyable listening experience.  You can listen to this relatively short pieces as chamber music of a new classical variety but I think that would be missing the point.  This is basically an album of lounge jazz written and performed by some really good musicians who play well together.  Calling it “avant-garde” serves only to add a layer of fear and confusion to what should be a pleasant or at least innocuous experience.   That is why I called these guys an “atypical” jazz trio in the title of this review.

The musicians include James Hegarty on piano, Paul Steinbeck, electric bass and Shane Del Robles on drums.  According to the liner notes these musicians  have a pretty varied experience including free jazz,  AACM jazz, rock and various other projects.  They come together here very well.

In 12 short pieces (a metaphor for serialism?) this album manages to be lyrical and understated.  A few tracks use some studio effect of playing the tape backwards but most of what you hear is just acoustic instruments playing short numbers whose titles may mean more to the musicians than to the music itself but that is consistent with the type of music they are playing.  The music and the musicianship are good and sincere.

I would love to hear these guys play live in a smoky bar while sipping single malt scotch and hobnobbing with some kindred artistic spirits but I’ll have to settle for hearing it on my CD player (you have to hear this on a decent sound system).  I might even try to slip this in to some background music at a party just to see if anyone would notice it as different from whatever other background music might be played.  Very nice album and you can’t beat the price.

Can Videos Promote New and Difficult Music?


Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

I write music as a hobby, to learn about music and to express some ideas. I have recently discovered  You Tube to be a useful forum to find new and interesting music. I decided to post two pieces (among others) on to share and to get reactions. In the ensuing two years I have had and listens (respectively), a few favoritings and a few comments. I am fine with this.
soundcloud
I also subscribe to a few channels which feature the sort of new music of which I am a fan. These channels offer videos (of varying, frequently mediocre images or even just one still image for the entire length of the piece) with a soundtrack of a wide variety of contemporary music, much of it not generally or easily available. In most cases I have found the images superfluous or even unrelated to the music at hand but, no matter, I just wanted to hear the music.

Then, in a little “aha” moment, I wondered if I could get more “hits”, more people listening to some of my music by posting videos. So I took a little time to figure out the video making program on my computer and put together two videos using a series of still images gathered on the Internet. I did try to choose images with some relevance to the music (but the videos are admittedly mediocre) and I posted these brief videos on my newly created YouTube channel one year ago.

Well, guess what, in the space of one month I got more hits than I received in a year on Soundcloud. Now this is not to denigrate Soundcloud or to promote YouTube. This is quite simply a limited experiment, maybe a pilot study if you will.

One year later the gap closed on with the first piece having more listenings on Soundcloud than You Tube and the other widening the gap with more views on You Tube .

I’m not sure how to interpret the results but I offer here a few speculations for discussion:

First, YouTube is clearly a more popular medium. It has been around longer and gets a lot of traffic. It is also set up with topics by which you can reference your music (piano music, classical music, etc.). This gives the search engine ways to index your video by things in addition to title and author which, as far as I can determine, is not the case with Soundcloud. Soundcloud allows you to tag your sounds but I am not as certain that their search engine handles them in the same way.

Second I have to wonder if the medium of the Internet either lends itself or has been developed in such a way that users are more easily drawn to the audiovisual rather than just the audio. Even unrelated or pedantic images stir more interest than watching the progress bar on Soundcloud for certain. But one could also say that the images distract from the music.

Third, I wonder if people are now actually being socialized to expect the audiovisual experience and to have a shorter or no attention span for audio alone. I wonder if this could be a factor in the attraction of audiences to concerts which don’t have as strong a visual component.
Certainly heavily produced rock and pop concerts have set expectations for their audiences. But even the experience of listening to jazz or blues in smaller venues has visual components in seeing the stage presence of the musicians and the reaction of the audience. And stage lighting generally seems to have a different character than that of a formal concert hall or chamber venue.

Of course I am talking here specifically about music which already seems to have a limited audience and one which has rightly come to expect some serious challenges in the listening experience (think Xenakis, Nancarrow, Reich, Rihm, Boulez, etc). I have many times seen the puzzled faces of musicians and composers to whom I have spoken when I share my familiarity with their work and my ongoing interest in it. They seem almost to be asking themselves what must be wrong with this essentially non-musician that drives him to subject himself to concert experiences that would bore and/or frighten and confuse many audience members. It is safely assumed by performers of new classical and free jazz that their audience will likely have limited familiarity and have difficulty grasping their compositional ideas. And in my experience many concert goers are curious (or brave) but have very little knowledge to support their understanding and appreciation of what they hear. Some purists might say that one should simply give in to the experience but I think that is naïve.

Now this is not to say I feel any hostility or condescension. Quite the opposite. Once the composers and performers figure out that I am simply a curious and interested consumer they are invariably extremely appreciative. (The most frequent question I get is something like, “How do you know this?”). I think it is a safe assumption that the average audience member is not steeped in the esoteric or obscure realms in which these musicians usually work and that finding such information requires more than average effort. I am appreciated as an outlier and that’s fine with me. The problem I have is that, at some level I can’t imagine why someone would not be fascinated by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Milton Babbitt, Steve Reich, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. I just find new music compelling and find myself driven to learn about it and experience it.

But I digress. My main point has to do with the level of interest gained by audiovisual vs. audio alone in presenting music on the Internet. And I can draw no definitive conclusions from such meager data but I did find a difference. I think that pretty much anything that gets people listening is probably a good thing. I am a star on neither Soundcloud nor YouTube but I
now suspect that I can find a larger audience with videos than with audio alone. Perhaps if I had some silly animal videos to which I could append my music I could achieve the digital dream of “going viral”. Or maybe not. But at least you will have listened once.

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Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde


Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings are well liked and frequently quoted in many contexts. Perhaps their most famous use in music is that of Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ for narrator and orchestra. And without doubt his most famous words are those of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ first read on Thursday November 19th, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. That’s 150 years ago.

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Those words were brought to the service of the avant garde in 1967 when Salvatore Martirano employed them in his overtly political ‘L’s GA’ for “gassed masked politico”, “helium bomb”, three 16mm movie projectors and two channel tape recorder. The piece was updated to a version for three video tapes played simultaneously on three monitors sometime in the 1980s.

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Salvatore Martirano (1925-1999) was a major pioneer in electronic music. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951 where he studied composition with Herbert Ellwell. In 1952 he completed a masters degree at the Eastman-Rochester School having studied with Bernard Rogers. He studied with Luigi Dallapicola in Italy from 1952 to 1954 on a Fulbright Fellowship.

While his early work is influenced by the twelve tone traditions which also characterize Dallapicola’s music nothing in his various teachers’ work could possibly prepare one for the music he would produce in his mature works. His long association with the University of Illinois afforded him access to technology and developers with cutting edge ideas that he absorbed and mastered. Until a fair assessment is made of the work and achievements of the computer labs there it is difficult to say if they exceeded that of the Columbia Princeton lab (with the brilliant Milton Babbitt at the punchcards).

The piece at hand in this essay defies verbal description and is not easy listening. It utilizes the text of the Gettysburg Address read by a man in a gas mask breathing helium (which raises the pitch of his voice in a cartoon-like way), 3 sixteen millimeter film projectors and electronic score on tape. The original recording lasts some 25 minutes. I recall that the version for three videotapes on simultaneously running monitors lasted about the same time. But the experience is one of a complex wall of sound and images that is unrelenting until it actually ends. It was embraced as a sort of “cri de coeur” in sympathy with the escalating anti-war protests of the time.

Unfortunately the posts on you tube do not contain the video footage which definitely enhances the experience of this true multimedia masterpiece. And it is a prime example of classical political protest music. It is and should be disturbing.

But even in retrospect I doubt that the passing of time can be seen to have diminished the importance of this composition both as music and of sociopolitical protest (that never seems to become irrelevant actually). This work certainly deserves to be heard and experienced much more widely and studied along with Martirano’s other mature works and the body of work which has come out of the hybridization of music and technology of that era.