Duo Stephanie and Saar: Bach Art of Fugue


duo bach

New Focus Recordings FCR 181

One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance.  Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.

There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra.  It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few.  In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice.  Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.

Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript.  In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity.  Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision.  They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon.  As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.

Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer.  However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art.  Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way.  This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.

Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music.  The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate.  Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work.  And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era.  Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.

Exploding Debussy, Kathleen Supové


New Focus FCR 170

Increasingly it seems that new music performers take on a persona which includes a unique selection of repertoire and frequently a distinctive physical presence.  Kathleen Supové is a fine example.  Her distinctive physical appearance and attire becomes a metaphor for her very personal and intelligent choice of repertoire which sets her apart from her peers.  In addition to unquestioned virtuosity and beautiful interpretive skills her persona takes on an adjectival quality which prompts this reviewer to ponder the “Supovian” experience.


I may live to regret that neologism but the present album is offered as exhibit one (of about 20 albums) attesting to the distinctive choices of music that characterize her work.  This two disc album, The Debussy Effect, is a very modern homage (even sometimes with apologies) to the impressionist master.  Twelve tracks on the two discs feature seven contemporary composers.  Only three tracks are for solo piano.  The rest involve electronic enhancements and or “soundtracks”.

Initially I had hoped to be able to say something useful (if not particularly insightful) to prospective listeners/buyers of this album about each of the pieces here but after several listens I can only reliably say that the material makes for a great and entertaining listening experience.  It harbors complexities that cannot be fairly recounted in such a brief review.  (And this reviewer has a limited knowledge of Debussy as well.)

Here are works by some of the finest of the New York “downtown” music traditions that reflect some amazing and very deep appreciations that will likely change the way you hear Debussy.

Here is the track list:

Disc One

1.  Storefront Diva: a dreamscape by Joan La Barbara

2.  Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks

3.  Layerings 3 by Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark

4.  What Remains of a Rembrandt by Randall Woolf

Disc Two

1-4.  Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind by Annie Gosfield

5-7.  Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) by Daniel Felsenfeld

8. La plus que plus que lente by Jacob Cooper

All are engineered by the wonderful Sheldon Steiger for the New Focus recordings label.

So the take away here is as follows:  If you are a Debussy fan you will want to hear this album.  If you are a Kathleen Supové fan you will want to hear this album.  It is the second reason the seems the most salient here.  I expect to be listening to this many more times.  Enjoy.

 

Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


glimwebs

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.

bailey2

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.

 

 

 

New and Newer Music for Flute and Piano


nataraja

New Focus FCR154

This is a curious collection of flute and piano music.  It is framed by two pieces from the late great Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), one by Elliott Carter and a collection of world premiere recordings by composers far less familiar and markedly different in style.

The premieres are all by living composers (Josh Levine, Christopher Dietz, C.R. Kasprzsyk and Sam Pluta).  Now these are all fine compositions but their style is so very different from the Harvey and Carter pieces that it is almost jarring to the listener.  This living set of composers is represented by a far more conservative compositional ethic (please don’t read that as a negative) than the older, more modernist pieces which frame their efforts here.

Of course only time will tell the eventual place of these works in the annals of musical history but the fact here is that we have two towering works by Harvey, a tasty bit of one of Carter’s lesser known works and essentially unheard works from a gaggle of newcomers. The listener just has to be prepared to switch gears.

The performances are beautiful and loving throughout.  The Harvey pieces truly stand out as the masterpieces they are as does the Carter.  Curiously Carter (1908-2012) has been somewhat maligned since his passing for reasons that defy logic but I am glad that this late Carter piece was included.

This is a lovely recording and performance.  The juxtaposition of the modernist pieces framing the neo-romantic pieces by the younger composers is striking but stick with it. The pleasures of this recording are in the loving and committed performances as well as the recording itself which is quite lucid.

Conor Nelson on flute and Thomas Rosenkranz, piano are new names to me but I will keep them in mind having heard what they have done here.  The ear who made this recording so listenable was Ryan Miller, the recording engineer.

Between the Lines, New Percussion Music by Neil Thornock


Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Other than the information on this CD and the composer’s faculty page (here) information seems limited on this composer,.  He earned a BM, Organ Performance, Brigham Young University, 2001, an MM, Music Composition, Brigham Young University, 2003 and a DM, Music Composition, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 2006.  Currently he is associate professor of music at BYU where he teaches theory and composition as well as electronic music.

Thornock is that rare breed of percussionist (or is it keyboardist?), a carriloneur  and he takes the opportunity to display those skills on this all percussion release, apparently the first recording of this composer’s music.

It is very difficult to assess a composer based solely on their percussion music and sometimes that genre can take on the insider feel of, say, band music or some more rarefied and sequestered niche of music.  As popular as percussion music has become in the 20-21st century it seems sometimes to be an orphan genre.  This is also, no doubt, due to the all-inclusive nature of the term “percussion” which leaves a huge list of potential instruments to consider.  So an album of tympani music or bongo music or marimba music (conceivably even piano and harp can be included under the percussion rubric).might all be spoken of generically as percussion music.  This recording uses a wide variety of instruments.

Having said that this disc appears to show a composer with a wide palette and knowledge of the medium and it is an opportunity to hear carillon music which is itself a relatively rare experience in recordings.  His writing is accessible and, no doubt, well-tailored to the skills of the musicians.

There is nothing familiar here.  All are new works written, presumably, in the last few years.  It would be interesting to hear more of this composer’s output in the areas of chamber, orchestral and electronic music.  But this little tease will have to do for now.

Matthew Coley, the percussionist, seems to be the real star here.   He plays on all tracks and seems to be a highly skilled player.  His website was the most useful to this reviewer as well.  Along with him are the Iowa Percussion Group, the Iowa State University Percussion Ensemble and, as mentioned earlier, the composer on carillon on tracks 7-10 with Gerard Norris conducting.

This New Focus recording FCR 156 is beautifully recorded and I think that is no simple task given the variety of instruments involved.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.