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This week, The New York Philharmonic premieres their second commission by composer Julia AdolpheThe first, 2016’s Unearth, Release, was a warmly received viola concerto for Philharmonic Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps. The latest, White Stone, will be premiered July 26th as part of the orchestra’s Bravo! Vail series in Colorado. I recently had a chance to catch up with Adolphe about both of these collaborations, as well as her opera Sylvia. 

Who were/are your composition mentors at Cornell and USC? What is something that you’ve learned from each?

I’ve had two incredible mentors who’ve inspired me to become a composer. The first was Steven Stucky, who gave me private composition lessons for four years while I was an undergraduate at Cornell. I arrived at Cornell without any formal training in classical music and was very intimidated by the large group of (all male) doctoral students pursuing composition. Professor Stucky made me feel included and welcome, allowing me to take graduate level courses alongside his other students. Steven Stucky essentially taught me how to compose, to go from nothing on the page to crafting a vocabulary, playing with colors, and communicating ideas through music. At USC, I spent four years studying with Stephen Hartke, who taught me an enormous amount about writing for the orchestra and writing opera. With Professor Hartke, I learned how to write larger forms and develop a musical narrative. Hartke encouraged me to embrace my love of storytelling through my music. Most importantly, both Stucky and Hartke taught me specific compositional techniques and tools while encouraging me to trust and believe in my own voice.

 

You fashioned both text and music for your opera Sylvia. Tell me a bit about your work as a poet/librettist?

My first musical pieces that I wrote as a child were folk songs comprised of my own original lyrics. I always loved writing lyrics and stories as well as acting in plays and musicals. Opera seems like a natural extension of these early passions. I wrote Sylvia in 2012 and it is based on the real life experiences of my best childhood friend. The opera’s content was deeply personal and I wrote the libretto out of a need to tell Sylvia’s story. I love working with living poets and am currently setting a poem entitled Equinox by Elizabeth Alexander. For my next opera, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, I will be working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann. I am very excited to have such wonderful collaborators!

 

I have sung at Bargemusic and it can be a wobbly place to get your bearings. What was it like producing Sylvia there?

It was a lot of fun and an incredibly dramatic, yet intimate venue. I think the surreal setting and off-kilter feeling you experience on the boat fit perfectly with the dreamlike nature of the opera.

 

There are some great viola concertos in the literature, but the challenges facing composers of them is legendary: balance, orchestration, etc. Was writing for viola and ensemble an upfront part of the commission for Unearth, Release or did you choose to write for these forces?

The New York Philharmonic asked that I compose a viola concerto for their principal violist Cynthia Phelps. I was extremely excited about the challenge: the viola does not possess the same carrying power in terms of volume and brightness as the violin or the cello. It is a subtle instrument with dark tones and fragile qualities. Yet is has a singular expressive beauty. I worked closely with Cynthia, ensuring that every gesture was idiomatic and communicative for her instrument. During the rehearsals of the work’s world premiere with the Eastern Festival Orchestra, I was able to make revisions so that the viola could speak more clearly over the orchestra. Both Alan Gilbert and Jaap Van Zweden gave me feedback throughout the writing and rehearsal process and I learned an incredible amount about the orchestra along the way.

 

Did you know which pieces were going to be programmed alongside yours in Vail? If so, did that impact your composition of White Stone?

I knew from the beginning that my piece would be premiered alongside Gershwin and Dvorák, but I chose not to think about that. My goal when I write is to express my own voice and be as true to my own emotions, dreams, atmospheres and sounds as possible. Of course I am influenced by a host of composers, but to purposely seek out composers on the same program would make it harder for me to clarify my own thoughts during the writing process.

 

What else would you like for audience members in Vail to know in advance about the piece?

A white stone is an object that is both unique yet familiar, a jewel and a pebble, emerging from the dirt to become something treasured. The music rises from dark, murky textures, striving towards brightness and clarity. The cello and timpani are the first to surface from the discord, stirring action in other sections of the orchestra. The percussion serves to rally and activate the music, leading the orchestra upwards towards brighter harmonies and unified rhythms. White Stone captures the struggle to be resilient and powerful in the face of overwhelming obstacles and fear of defeat.

2 days ago |
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experimental music since 1970

Book Review:

Experimental Music Since 1970

By Jennie Gottschalk

Bloomsbury, 2016

284 pp.

From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.

Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.

With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.

These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussing the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989, help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.

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4 days ago |
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Our Buddhist friends like to remind us that the idea that we are separate is an illusion and not a fact but try telling that to anybody anywhere these days desperately trying to “connect” by every mobile device known to man. And if that doesn’t spell separation/alienation we might need a new word for this state of mind. Leave it to French poet-artist-playwright-novelist-filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963 ) to set things right because the characters in his work are often desperately trying to connect as in his lyric tragedy with composer Francis Poulenc La Voix Humaine (1958 ) where the speaker is quite literally at the end of her tether. And let’s not forget the fact that Cocteau was always making war on established truths, and toying with what appearances mean or seem to mean. I walk around my block and nothing makes “sense” but that’s crazy because nothing really ever does. Cocteau, at any rate, rarely tried to make “rational” sense in his work, and composer Philip Glass began his Cocteau trilogy with Orphee (1992) in which he took the script of Cocteau’s 1950 film of the same name and made it into an opera for singers and chamber orchestra, and though crystal clear in construction and sound it was almost as dreamlike as its source. Francesca Zambello’s white-on-white original production which I caught at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music was impressive, though much more so in its second half. Glass went further with La Belle et la Bete (1994) in which he used Cocteau’s 1946 film of the same name as both visual environment and text. The film’s sound was turned off which meant losing the actors’ voices as well as Georges Auric’s original incidental — partial — score which Glass replaced with a wall to wall one of his own for singers, with Glass and his Philip Glass Ensemble playing live. The result was a remarkable fusion of image, words, and music which I caught in Charles Otte’s US premiere at BAM, and in a slightly different but equally successful production by the PGE in 2013 at www.ybca.org, and in an overly busy and diffuse one by Oakland Opera Theater minus the film. Glass went even further in his “dance/opera/spectacle” Les Enfants Terribles: Children of the Game (1996) which he and director-choreographer Susan Marshall derived from Cocteau’s eponymous 1929 novel and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film. The result was a highly theatrical work for singers, dancers, and three digital/grand pianos which foregrounded the reality which Elisabeth and her brother Paul construct as a substitute for their boring day to day life. Dance mirrors their animal natures, or as Glass put it in a program note for its original production which I wrote about for the defunct gay arts mag Provocateur — ” Here, time stands still. There is only music, and the movement of children through space”, which Opera Parallele re-imagined in surprising but perfectly apt ways They made the unreal real, and the real unreal and that’s catnip for opera. The snow which fell onto the BAM stage from above was here projected on a scrim with the cast behind it facing the audience, and when the scrim went up, they stepped forward and the drama hurtled towards its dark inevitable end. Paul felled by the “marble-fisted.. marble-hearted blow ” of a snowball with a rock inside it thrown by his male friend Dargelos whom he’s in love with. `Paul convalesces at home with his sister where they seal themselves off from the world in their “Room” where they play the “Game ” which devours them and everyone who enters it. Entrapment. Betrayal. Incest. Poison. Death. And let’s not forget that Cocteau was coming off opium when he wrote Les Enfants so every production of it has to have the perfervid force of a dream, and this one had that in spades. Amy Seiwert’s dancers doubled baritone Hadleigh Adams’ Paul and soprano Rachel Schutz’s Lise disturbingly; director Brian Staufenbiehl’s fluidly calibrated movement surrounded / opposed tenor Andres Ramirez’s Narrator / Gerard who’s Paul and Lise’s friend mezzo Kindra Scharich enacted both Dargelos — Cocteau on Paul’s view of Dargelos  — “He had imagined himself in thrall to an accidental likeness between a schoolboy and a a girl ” — and the siblings’ friend Agathe to ambiguous and exacting effect. Ambiguous because everything here is ambiguous yet clear as your face in the glass, and exacting because though Cocteau may have been on opium when he wrote it his French is dispassionately clear, precise, a sealed off language in which even the biggest flights of fancy don’t quite take off because French has always been about where you should touch down, and that means rules understood and obeyed to a tee. And this distance between the implied and the said is so very Cocteau, and so very Philip Glass which is here in his two against three rhythmic oppositions which hide and reveal his clear yet always moving harmonic structures, and it’s here when these three superb pianists build those structures one upon the other like floors in a building, utterly separate yet conjoined, indefinite space clearly defined, or as Debussy advised Satie — ” Music should stay where it is, not follow the play. It should be like a decor. A property tree doesn’t go into convulsion when an actor crosses the stage ” and it’s here where Staufenbiehl’s silent film isn’t an invention or an intervention but part of a barely glimpsed whole complete in its incompleteness. Or should we leave it to Cocteau who said ” style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” And to think that I saw the final dress of Verdi’s Rigoletto at www.sfopera.com just after Opera Parallele’s Glass Les Enfants. Two masters of our music theatre art operating at the very top of their respective games. We like to think we’re separate but we aren’t.

Music by Philip Glass

Libretto by Jean Cocteau 

Sung in French and English with English supertitles  Caroline H. Hume Hall www.sfcm.org  Directed by Brian Staufenbiehl Conducted by Nicole Paiment  Pianists : Kevin Korth; Keisuke Nakagoshi; Eva-Maria Zimmerman Choreography: Amy Seiwert Dancers: Steffi Cheong; Brett Conway Singers; Rachel Schutz; Hadleigh Adams; Andre Ramirez; Kindra Scharich www.operaparallele.org
6 days ago |
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György Kurtág

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Asko | Schönberg and Netherlands Radio Choir; Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor

ECM Records 3xCD 2505-07

Composer György Kurtág was born in Transylvania, but his many years of association with the Budapest conservatory have identified him as one of the foremost composers of Hungary, heir to Ligeti’s mantle as forward thinker and brilliant creator. ECM has been the label most associated with his music. Their release last decade of his string works was revelatory and one could certainly heap plaudits on the label’s celebration of Kurtág’s eightieth birthday in 2006 with a recording of his brilliant Kafka Fragments.

To celebrate his ninetieth year, just a smidge late, ECM has released a 3 CD set of Kurtág’s Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Even before listening, it is something to behold. ECM rightly has a reputation for lovingly curating their releases, but a number of interviews and essays (including program notes by Paul Griffiths), inclusion of the complete texts in sympathetic translations (no matter how thorny the originals), and many samples of the composer’s handwritten scores and ink drawings make this release a feast for the eyes. As for the ears, it has a remarkable dynamic range, clearly rendering everything from the softest whispers to thunderous bass drum thwacks with a sense of energetic potency.

The variance of dynamics is just one part of the multi-layered structures found in this music. From fragments of instrumental sound and disordered declamation to walls of choral sound and altissimo register vocal climaxes, Kurtág’s work encompasses a wide range of expression. In terms of desire, grief, fear, exhaustion, resiliency, and pain, there seems to be not a shade of emotion missing: his music is a complete catalog of the modernist project. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw elicits each of these emotions and musical demeanors in turn with the surest of hands, drawing consummately detailed performances from the assembled forces. If you make it your business to get one recording of music by Kurtág, this is it.

7 days ago |
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Aaron Parks Trio

Smalls Live

June 16, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Nestled snuggly in the midst of Greenwich Village, Smalls Live is an intimate space, but a vital one for the jazz scene. Over the past decade, the venue has hosted thousands of performances – 11,000 of them are archived on the site for subscription-based streaming. With a nice piano and fastidious sound, it is an enjoyable place to experience live music. “Nestled snuggly,” but comfortably, was how I felt on June 16th, as my partner and I were fortunate to garner two of the last seats. The venue was full of a wide cross section of attendees; seasoned jazz buffs and regulars mingled with a decidedly younger set. If pianist Aaron Parks — and Smalls — can continue to draw such a healthy-sized audience from a similar cross-section of demographics, signs are most encouraging.

 

Parks was celebrating the release of Find the Way, his second CD as a leader on ECM. He was joined, both on the recording session and at Smalls, by bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, veterans who have played together in various contexts in the past. Find the Way consists of eight originals and one tune by Ian Bernard: the CD’s title track. The live set featured selections from the album, as well as two tunes from elsewhere: an as yet unrecorded Parks original “Isle of Everything” and George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Parks has recorded with Anders Christensen. The first of these vacillated between free tempo bluesy excursions and more incisive post-bop passages. Hart played his cymbals with abandon while Street juxtaposed walking lines with countermelodies high on the neck of his double bass. “Conception” was tightly knit and taken uptempo, demonstrating the pianist’s facility with wide-ranging arpeggios and the rhythm section’s seamless coordination.

 

The trio sidled into a mid-tempo groove, with a plethora of gestural imitation between them, on the album cut “Melquíades.” “Adrift” included a guest musician: the saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Both Find the Way and Stephens’s Criss Cross recording I’ll Take My Chances feature this composition. Parks and Stephens spurred each other on, creating ebullient soaring lines in some of the most inspired playing of the evening. Not to be outdone, Hart played forcefully and dexterously on “Hold Music,” a piece written by Parks to showcase his colleague’s legendary drumming. The final number of the set was the CD’s title track, which demonstrated the pianist’s impressionist leanings, boasting limpid splashes of harmony redolent of Debussy and Ravel. As we departed, there was a line out the door, eager to hear the trio’s second set. Encouraging signs indeed.

20 days ago |
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On June 27, 2017 Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert titled The Flood. A full house gathered on a warm Koreatown evening to hear works by five contemporary Southern California composers as performed by the Brightwork newmusic ensemble.

First up was Kaleidoscope (2014) by William Kraft, who was in attendance. This opened with a series of bright tutti notes that had a vivid luminescence combined with a sense of the mysterious. Some solid duo playing by the bass clarinet and the piccolo was followed by a softer, slower section that contained a lovely flute solo, all adding to the mystical feel. The full ensemble then stoked up the intensity with a series of syncopated tutti passages, while a nicely expressive violin solo down-shifted the emotional color yet again. All of this unfolded before the audience almost without warning. As William Kraft stated in the program notes: “I do like to enjoy the adventure along the way. In that way, the balancing of phrases and events reveal the form, as it is being developed.”

The constantly changing tempos, textures and dynamics required a high level of musicianship from Brightwork, and they delivered with their usual accuracy and flair. The close acoustics of Monk Space brought out every detail of this stimulating piece – Kaleidoscope is well-named. At the conclusion the composer, one of the great eminences of the Los Angeles new music scene, rose to acknowledge the prolonged and sincere applause.

I will learn to love a person (2013) by Chris Cerrone followed, and for this soprano Stacey Fraser joined Brightwork’s Aron Kallay on piano, Brian Walsh on clarinet and percussionist Nick Terry. I will learn to love a person unfurls in five short movements that survey the difficult emotional terrain of a relationship under stress. The opening movement, That night with the green sky, sets the scene with a few tentative notes from the piano that are soon joined by the vibraphone whose deep tones form a sort of musical shadow. The voice enters quietly, full of brief phrases and a questioning feel, all tinged with sadness from the text by Tao Lin: “Why did you want me gone?”

The second movement, Eleven page poem part III, is brightly active, starting with a long piano trill that accelerates as fast arpeggios are heard in the clarinet. The vocals here are strongly declarative even as the accompaniment becomes more animated and intense. The feeling stops just short of anger, but is in clear contrast to the unguarded sensitivity of the opening movement. As the piece continued into the later movements, more stridency is heard in the voice which often dominates. The range of expression was impressively negotiated by Ms. Fraser, especially in the higher registers. A slower, more gentle section followed with a distinctly aspirational feel, highlighted by a finely wrought vocal passage set against a helpfully thin instrumental texture. This was followed, however, by darker colors that portrayed the feelings of frustration and helplessness that result as a close relationship comes to a regrettable end. I will learn to love a person is a powerful and intimate look at the many vulnerabilities that surface when personal relationships are in crisis.

Ararat (1995), by Shaun Naidoo, was next and for this the entire Brightwork ensemble returned to the stage. A syncopated, rhythmic passage opens, followed by silence. The opening passage repeats and more extensively syncopated tutti passages follow,adding a layer of complexity to the overall feel. There is also a sense of the exotic – like taking a journey to a strange place – while an active and rhythmic texture contribute a strong sense of motion. Shaun Naidoo is quoted in the program notes: “Although Ararat should not be viewed as an overtly programmatic exercise, there is an undoubted connection between the flood myth and the rhetorical flow of the music.” Mount Ararat is, of course, the place where Noah’s ark first came to rest on solid ground after the flood, and this provides a metaphorical framework for this piece – as well as the concert as a whole. As Ararat progressed, a loud drum solo is followed by the clarinet, flute and violin trading phrases and building a nice groove. At one point the tempo slows and the bass clarinet casts a somewhat darker tone, but the uptempo pace soon returns with a complicated tutti texture that culminates in a long chord and steady drum beat. A series of light piano notes end Ararat, an intriguing and stimulating odyssey, safely grounded at last.

After the intermission, Why Women Weep (IT IS THE QUICKEST WAY TO REJOIN THE OCEAN) (2017), by Pamela Madsen was performed by Brightwork cellist Maggie Parkins. Part of a larger multi-media oratorio, this solo piece also incorporates spoken voice recordings as well as electronics. The program notes state that Why Women Weep “…embodies three selves—the cello, the spoken voice of the performer, and the recorded voice of Anaïs Nin. Anaïs Nin (1903–77), an American writer of Cuban-Spanish and French-Danish descent, is perhaps best known for her close association with Henry Miller, and for her extensive, deeply introspective diary. “

Why Women Weep opens with deep, solemn tones in the cello as spoken words are heard from the electronics. The poignant playing of Ms. Parkins sets a sorrowful mood that turns more dramatic through a series of faster repeating passages with spiky rhythms. As the piece proceeds, the agitation gives way to a lighter sense of optimism for a time before returning to the more subdued feel of the opening. Two sets of voices are heard in the electronics and the cello playing becomes very expressive and quietly emotional, especially in the repeating figure heard as the piece decrescendos to a close. Why Women Weep is a strongly passionate piece, capably served in this performance by the sensitive playing of Ms. Parkins.

The final piece on the concert program was Internal States (2016) by Tom Flaherty. This was commissioned by Brightwork newmusic and the full ensemble returned to perform this three movement work. Doubt, the first movement, began with low tones in the piano and cello, accompanied by an anxious violin passage. Dissonance and repeating figures added to the tension, but this was soon followed by a series of extended and overlapping tones, passed around among the instruments, defusing the anxiety just a bit. A sharply parsed violin solo – nicely played by Tereza Stanislav – ratcheted up the tension once more as the rhythmic activity increased in all the instruments. A tutti crescendo brought the volume up to maximum just before fading at the finish.

Reverie, movement 2, followed and this had a quiet, introspective feel, aided by sustained tones in the bass clarinet and cello at the beginning. Simmering low notes in the vibraphone and a dominating violin passage added to the dreamlike quality. Arpeggios in the flute and clarinet added a slight edge, but the meditative atmosphere was restored with a return of the bass clarinet and flute – very effectively scored – plus some bowed notes from the vibraphone. The feeling became very fluid and dreamy towards the end with tutti chords and runs, all topped off with a solid vibraphone figure at the finish.

Celebration, the final movement, began with a flourish of rapid runs, traded off between the flute and clarinet. The bustling texture from the syncopation and dissonance resulted in a dance-like feel, and everything seemed to be in a state of motion. The whirling tutti texture was most engaging and some well-timed wood block rhythms added to the sense of agile movement. As the piece progressed a syncopated clarinet solo drew the other players in, and this built into a nicely active mix. The tempo then slowed slightly, allowing just a small sense of sadness to creep in, as longer notes prevailed. At the finish, however, the pace accelerated with the percussion loudly dominating, while a series of frantic tutti phrases flooded out from the entire ensemble. The vigor and intensity of Internal States left the audience breathless but energized as Tom Flaherty rose to receive the enthusiastic applause.

Brightwork newmusic is:
Sara Andon – flute
Aron Kallay – piano
Maggie Parkins – cello
Nick Terry – percussion
Tereza Stanislav – violin
Brian Walsh – clarinet.

21 days ago |
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Marc Sabat

Harmony

JACK Quartet

Canadian Composers Series #5

Another Timbre

Euler Spirals Scenery (2011), Claudiu Ptolemy (2008), Jean Philippe Rameau (2012)

A long time fixture on the Toronto scene as a string performer, improviser, and composer, Marc Sabat now resides in Berlin. However, he has taken his experimental penchant for tuning systems with him, writing in extended just intonation with a fluency that rivals Harry Partch and Ben Johnston’s own explorations of pitch. On the CD Harmony, JACK Quartet plays two quartets and a duo with rapt attention to the detailed nuances of Sabat’s pitch language and a keen sense of its corresponding flowing rhythms.

Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery (2011) is a five movement work that name checks various elements and personages of the intonation studies milieu. The first movement, Preludio, is subtitled “Les Quintes Justes” and it indeed does deal with sustained pure fifths in evocative fashion. Two of the movements, numbers two and five respectively, are titled Pythagoras Drawing. Movements three and four are each dedicated to a different composer who has been influential on Sabat; they are titled Harmonium for Claude Vivier and Harmonium for Ben Johnston. Each successive movement sends us a little further into the dark forest of dissonant overtones that accumulate on top of “Les Quintes Justes.” Thus, the entire piece can be seen as gradually revealing the compass of Sabat’s pitch palette.

Claudius Ptolemy (2008) is a duo, played by JACK violinist Christopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland (note: Jay Campbell now plays with the group). Open string double stops as well as dissonant intervals, harmonics, and ambling melodies combine in this adagio essay to make a fresh-sounding conglomeration of familiar playing techniques. The aforementioned “ambling affect” is one that Sabat shares with a number of his Canadian colleagues, not least Linda Catlin Smith, whose volume in the Canadian Composer Series (#1) appeared as a review here earlier in 2017. The final work on the Sabat CD is named after another important music theorist: Jean-Philippe Rameau (2012). Here the simultaneities are particularly fetching, with double-stops from multiple quartet members overlapping into beautiful chords. In one of his treatises( from 1737), Rameau struggled to describe the consonant and dissonant properties of just intonation: Sabat’s Rameau lays it out for all to hear with abundant clarity. 

30 days ago |
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On Thursday, June 15, 2017 Dog Star Volume 13 landed at the Cal Arts campus for a concert titled The Mean Harpsichord. No fewer than three harpsichords were in place at The Wild Beast, where every chair was filled with someone interested in hearing experimental music at the cutting edge. The 2017 Dog Star Orchestra series, a local new music tradition since 2005, featured a total of eleven concerts this year and has been running at various locations all around Los Angeles since June 3.

The first piece on the concert program was Tasten, by Eva-Maria Houben and for this two harpsichords were employed, manned by Robert Holliday and Sepand Shahab. Two soft notes by Holliday began Tasten, followed by an extended silence. About 30 seconds later, and almost as an answer, three separate notes were heard from the second harpsichord. More silence followed, allowing the notes to ring out and slowly decay. This pattern continued with the sounding of one, two or a few notes by each harpsichord, followed by an extended silence between.

The two harpsichords seemed to alternate in turn, but not strictly, and the extended silences acted to draw the listener into a heightened level of concentration. It was as if each set of notes added a clue to some larger form or structure. There were occasional seven or eight note phrases, but no chords, and the sounds were never hurried. This is very spare music, and it often seemed like a quiet conversation between two people who know each other very well – perhaps after dinner on a dark porch – with the long silences actually adding to the communication. The score for this was not conventionally notated, but was rather a page of instructions followed by several more pages of symbols and letters that gave the harpsichord players their cues. Tasten reduces pitch, rhythm and dynamic content to the minimum while at the same time raising the listeners awareness in ways that are not otherwise experienced in a conventional musical performance.

Arianna (Monteverdi) by Mark So followed, and for this some 10 musicians with their various instruments gathered while a field recording of street sounds and construction equipment was heard over the speaker system. A solemn, deep tone was heard from something like a small hand-pumped portable organ accompanied by softly sorrowful notes from a violin. Harpsichords joined in as well as a cello, creating a feeling of disconnection and loneliness that was very effective in combination with the impersonal sounds coming from the field recording. All of this was slow and stately – there was nothing rapid or with a rhythmic beat. The texture was smooth and lush, and some lovely harmonies were heard at times among the various instrument groupings. A pop tune and then some faint voices were heard in the field recording that contrasted with a series of low, mournful chords from the portable organ and strings. The strongly expressive feel of this piece was the result of distributing small sections of an original Claudio Monteverdi score to the various acoustic instruments. There was no effort to quote this music per se, but rather fragments of chords and harmonies were employed in diverse ways to create the richly haunting mood. Arianna (Monteverdi) is an impressive example of the creation of a new contemporary piece fashioned from the musical DNA of a 17th century Italian master.

Shadow Earth, by Michael Pisaro was next and this was performed by Sepand Shahab at the harpsichord. This began quietly with a few short sequences of notes, followed by some simple chords that unfolded into a modest dissonance as the piece progressed. Counterpoint appeared in the lower registers and this led to a series of thick chords that precipitated a dark, mysterious feel. There was no continuous beat or pulse in this music, but rather a sequence of brief, disconnected passages; sometimes these included chords with harmony and at other times just a few singular notes. It was very much the musical equivalent of a woodcut relief print – where the total is the sum of the ink markings and the white space – so that the viewer’s brain forms the completed image. The abstraction of the sound that is heard in this piece partners with the listener’s imagination. Shadow Earth nicely evokes the contrasting darkness and light of shadows in the same way – the music paints only a part of the image and the listener completes the picture.

The Oracle at Delphi, by Laura Steenberge followed, and this was inspired by the ancient Greek religious sanctuary of Apollo on Mt. Parnassus. At Delphi the oracle would sit, issuing cryptic predictions and guidance to those who had come with questions. The language of the oracle could not be understood directly, but an interpreter would provide a written response to the questioner a day or two later. For this piece, vocalist Argenta Walther portrayed the oracle, robed and sitting in a chair, while wearing a roll of temperature sensitive paper tape about 4 inches wide that hung from a large necklace. The paper tape was drawn out across a small table where Laura Steenberge sat with a hot soldering iron. The tape was further extended to a harpsichord and rolled, scroll-like, onto a tuning fork.

Ms. Walther began humming and singing, and as this occurred Ms. Steenberger began making traces on the paper with the hot soldering iron while harpsichordist Sepand Shahab rolled up the paper tape. This resembled something like a crude ticker tape, the moving tape received markings as the soldering iron wiggled in reaction to the singing voice of the oracle. When the marks on the tape reached Mr. Shahab some moments later, a series of notes or chords were played from the harpsichord. When there was no sound from the oracle, sections of blank tape were scrolled over. It took about 20 or 30 seconds for the tape to move from the soldering iron table to the harpsichord, a distance of several feet. All of this was an abstract representation of the original process at Delphi – the oracle humming and singing, an interpreter in the form of the soldering iron making marks on the paper tape, and the translation of the message by the harpsichord. This was engaging to watch and to hear, and could have also been a metaphor for the process of composition – the oracle as the inspiring muse, the composer notating the tape with a soldering iron, and the harpsichordist as musician reading and playing the score. The Oracle at Delphi is an engaging combination of performance art and music that ingeniously operates on several levels.

let it go beyond a certain point was next and a total of seventeen performers sat in a large semicircle, each holding a device of some kind. Some of these items made sounds while others seemed more symbolic or active. Near the center of the semicircle one performer was inflating large toy balloons with a hand pump and with each stroke the balloon grew, until it burst with a tremendous bang. At this point several of the others became active – one fired large rubber bands across the room, another snapped a large twig in two while yet another let loose a blast from an air horn. A second performer began to feed out a tape measure vertically a few inches at a time. Higher and higher it went until it was extended several feet, and then, leaning from its extended weight, suddenly collapsed. This was the signal for more actions by the others – a trumpet sounded, inflated balloons were popped with a pin, all accompanied by other assorted noises and tones.

In one sequence, the string of a small harpsichord was twisted increasingly tighter with a tuning wrench as its note was sounded. The pitch rose, unnervingly, as the tension in the string increased until it finally broke with a loud twanging sound. All of these staged events did much to increase the anxiety level in the audience as well, especially the very loud explosions of the popping balloons. The recurring pattern of slowly building tension and sudden release soon became emotionally exhausting and produced a palpable level of stress in the listener. let it go beyond a certain point provides a concentrated and visceral metaphor of the tensions we encounter in everyday life – the intensity of this performance was a potent reminder of how emotionally damaging our busy lifestyles have become.

A bit of inspired programming concluded the concert with méditations poétiques sur “ma mort future” and this was in the style of the opening piece, performed with two harpsichords. As before, each player traded short phrases or notes, separated by extended silences. The ringing out and decay of the notes, the overtones and quiet meditative atmosphere were a stunningly effective contrast to the preceding piece. The widely separated tones from the harpsichords created a sort of protective framework around the silences – always keeping the listener aware that this was a time for rumination and not for reaction. After the stress of let it go beyond a certain point, this harpsichord piece provided a vivid alternative to an existence filled with constant tension. Time seemed to slow down, broadening the listener’s perspective past the immediate environment. méditations poétiques sur “ma mort future” is not about musical stimulation, but rather the opposite – creating a quiet mental space for contemplation and knowing what a gift that can be.

The performers in The Mean Harpsichord were:
Madison Brookshire
Argenta Walther
Erika Bell
Eric Heep
Eric KM Clark
Christine Tavolacci
Luke Martin
Emily Call
Mari
John Eagle
Sepand Shahab
Stephanie Smith
Laura Steenberge
Colin Wambsgans
Todd Lerew
Isaac Aronson
Liam Mooney
Robert Holliday
Mark So

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Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Beyond

Works by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh

Sono Luminus 2XCD

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs on one of the most compelling releases of early 2017. Beyond (Sono Luminus, June 16, 2017) is a double-disc helping of new works for percussion ensemble by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh. All of these composers are up and coming stars in the new music world. Both Reid and Cerrone are New Yorkers (Reid is now based in NY and LA) who have taken Los Angeles by storm in recent seasons with opera and orchestra projects. Bjarnason and Thorvaldsdottir are Icelandic composers who both have a strong connection to the West Coast. McIntosh is very strongly identified with the LA scene, as a composer, string performer, and the guiding force behind Populist Recordsone of the most interesting experimental labels out there (here is my recent review of a Populist release by Daniel Corral).

One of the fascinating things to hear on Beyond is the way in which each composer translates their musical approach to the percussive idiom. Thus, Bjarnason’s penchant for dynamic and scoring contrasts is demonstrated in Qui Tollis, a composition equally compelling in both its pianissimo and fortissimo passages. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aura maintains its creator’s fascination with pitched timbres and colorful clouds of harmony; these are deployed with a deft sense of ensemble interplay. Cerrone imports acoustic guitar and electronics in the five-movement suite Memory Palace. The places he references are familiar to New Yorkers, from the pastoral hues of “Harriman” to the tense ostinatos of “L.I.E.” (Long Island Expressway, for those of you who have the blissful fortune to be unaware of this stress-filled commuter highway), and his depictions ring true. Fear-Release by Reid presents a dramatic use of unfurling cells of rhythmic activity alongside pensive pitched percussion. Its coda for metallophones is particularly fetching; after all of the built up tension of the piece’s main body, it serves as a kind of exhalation.

The culminating, and most substantial, work on the recording is McIntosh’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw, a nine-movement long piece some three quarters of an hour in duration. Much of its composer’s music concerns itself with microtones and alternate tunings – he is experienced in playing both Early music’s temperaments as well as contemporary explorations of tuning. Thus it is no surprise that McIntosh’s pitch template for I Hold the Lion’s Paw is an extended one. However, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece, which also makes extensive use of low drums and cymbals for a ritualistic colloquy. Still more ritualized, taking on an almost sacramental guise, is the pouring of water and striking of ceramics filled with water. Every percussionist I know loves an instrument-making assignment and McIntosh doesn’t disappoint: DIY elements include aluminum pipes, cut to fit. None of the elements of this significant battery of instruments seems out of place: despite the use of water, I Hold the Lion’s Paw is no “kitchen sink” piece. On the contrary, it is a thoughtfully constructed and sonically beguiling composition. Several excellent percussion ensembles are currently active: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is certainly an estimable member of this elite cohort.

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Thelonious Monk

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Saga/Sam Records/Universal

2xCD, LP, and digital formats

Thelonious Monk, piano, composer, arranger; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Barney Wilen, tenor saxophone; Sam Jones, double bass; Art Taylor, drums

Since its arrival at our house, this release has been in heavy rotation. After it seems as if everything that the famed modern bebop pianist Thelonious Monk put to record had been issued, a treasure like this surfaces: the pianist’s soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1960 Roger Vadim film adapting Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous 1782 novel. Buoyant versions of Monk classics such as “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Crepuscule with Nellie” are abetted by excellent soloing from two tenor saxophonists, Barney Wilen (in whose archives these recordings resided) and Charlie Rouse, a frequent partner of the pianist’s. Monk’s playing, varied here in approach from succulent balladry to rousing uptempo soloing, spurs on the rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor to ever more complex coordinations. A previously unissued cut, the gospel number “By and By” by Charles Albert Tindley, receives a particularly sensitive reading. The recording contains a bonus disc that features alternate takes and a quarter hour of the group rehearsing and discussing “Light Blue.” To top it all off, the sound is excellent. Heartily recommended.

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