When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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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.

A Really Great Brass and Organ Album, Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble


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MSR Classics MS 1598

At first this disc seemed to be one of those “audiophile spectacular” niche market items designed to show off one’s stereo system.  I expected a well-recorded album with wide dynamic range and a clarity that would stun the listener but these types of albums frequently have well-recorded but uninteresting music or, worse, cloying showpieces that don’t bear repeated listening.

The first listen dissuaded me from that notion immediately because this is interesting and well-played music.  Except for three clever transcriptions of late 19th/early 20 century pieces all the music is from 2005-2013 (as are the transcriptions for that matter).

The music is, on the whole of a somewhat conservative nature but that is not a negative thing.  All of the music is pleasantly engaging and/or downright exciting.

The first four (of a total of 15) tracks present the music of Carlisle Sharpe (1965- ).  The first work Flourishes (2005/10) is a festive fanfare which was revised for this ensemble. The next three tracks contain the Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo (2012) is a commission by the present artists.

Next we move on to one of the arrangements by Craig Garner (1959- ).  This is, I think, a difficult arrangement to play but is handled with such ease by these players that one could be fooled into thinking it was easy.  The arrangement of the popular drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) is a lucid and detailed transcription.  It is the clarify of the recording that makes this obvious as we are able to hear the various challenging lines that allow pretty much everyone in the ensemble to demonstrate their facility.

William Whyte (1983- ) is the next featured composer with a satisfying little suite called Dwarf Planets (2012).  It is in five brief movements.  The piece was also commissioned by and dedicated to Chicago Gargoyle Brass and artistic director Rodney Holmes.

Earthscape (2011) by David Marlatt is cast in a similar vein and, with the previous five tracks these are effectively musical appendices to Holst.  Marlatt, a Canadian composer has written this lyrical piece for the Gargoyle Brass.

Tracks 12 and 13 are another great transcription of a type of work which conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of calling “bon-bons”, an appellation that was a proto-pop concert concept describing short, popular encore pieces.  It is the Polka and Fugue from “Schwanda the Bagpiper” by Jaromir Weinberger (1896-1967), a Czech composer whose reputation lies pretty much entirely on this work.   Originally for orchestra, this engaging work is very effectively arranged for this ensemble.

Tracks 14 and 15 comprise another transcription, this time of two movements from Camille Saint-Saens’ (1835-1921) 3rd Symphony (1886).  This is another truly great piece of music that always plays well with audiences.  The original is for a large orchestra and an organ.  The transcription is remarkably faithful to the score and it’s hard not to get hooked on that finale.  The entire symphony is actually based on the “Dies Irae” chant from the Requiem Mass though this is not a somber piece at all.

The last track is Velvet Blue (2012) by Peter Meechan (1983- ), a British born Canadian composer.  Originally written for a “rock” organ (the Hammond variety) and here played on a traditional pipe organ this is one of the most unusual pieces here.  It’s blues/jazz inflections harken back to big band sounds of the 1930s.

Brass instruments and organs are not instruments known for their agility.  Combine that with the resonant recording space of the churches involved and you have some serious engineering challenges.  Hudson Fair at Hudsonic has met these challenges and succeeded in capturing these performances in lucid detail with a true audiophile recording.  The dynamic range is wide and the the recording is about as clear as I have ever heard done  in this setting.

The musicians Lev Garbar, trumpet; Andrew Hunter, trumpet and flugelhorn; Amy Krueger, horn; Kathryn Swope, horn; John Grodrian, trombone; Graham Middleton, trombone; Ryan Miller, trombone; Andrew Vandevender, tuba; Paul Ramsler, tuba; Joshua Wort, tuba; Michael Schraft, tympani and drum set; Jared Stellmacher, organ; Mark Sudeth, piano; and Steven Squires, conductor all play with precision, lyricism and feeling.

One more piece of what I call “audio porn” is nicely included, the statistics on the two beautiful organs played at the two churches where these recordings were made.  Nice touch. Great fun album.