On Tuesday November 11, 2014 Piano Spheres presented a concert by Richard Valitutto entitled NAKHT. The venue was the RedCat performing arts space at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and the 275 available seats were mostly filled to hear an evening of solo piano nocturnes. This was the first major recital by Richard Valitutto, who is a member of several leading new music ensembles that appear regularly throughout the city.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with Nocturnes (1929 – 38) by Francis Poulenc. Five nocturnes were played from this piece and the first of these, No 1 in C major, began with a warm and welcoming feeling and reflecting, from time to time, just the slightest tinge of regret. This piece gracefully unfolded with an accessible beauty. The acoustics in the hall were good and Richard applied a sensitive touch to the flowing melody line and its stately ending. The second movement, No 5 in D minor, has a much quicker feel, like a group of children running about inside a large house. The subtitle of this nocturne translates to “moths” and perhaps this accounts for the lively feel. The fast runs and rapid rhythms were accurately and precisely rendered while at the same time allowing the playfulness of the music to come through.
Other nocturnes from Poulenc were variously slow and stately with an introspective feel, sophisticated and engaging, like a group of friends out on the town or dramatic and expressive. The last nocturne, No 8 in G major, was softer and more reserved, almost church-like in its solemnity, but with a certain uplifting sensibility. All these Poulanec nocturnes were played with an ease and smoothness that highlighted a sense of openness and warmth.
The second piece in the concert was as above, so below (2014) by Richard Valitutto and this occasion was the world premiere. Some adjustments were required; the music rack on the piano was rotated allowing access to the strings within. As above, so below began with the plucking of isolated strings – with those in the higher registers sounded with a bell-like purity and were left hanging nicely in the air. The lower notes produced more of a clanking sound, but this made for a good contrast. The listener soon became accustomed to the use of these extended techniques, and as the piece proceeds they become a normal feature of the sound palette. Eventually notes were struck from the keyboard and this registered as a more percussive sound compared to the lovely sustained pitches of the plucked strings. A dialogue unfolds between the two sounds as the piece gradually develops into a quiet, meandering mystery. It is like a nocturnal wandering inside an old house while hearing the chimes of a grandfather clock. Based on the lunar cycle and “..simple canonic procedures like those we hear in Renaissance and Baroque music” as above, so below has a more flowing, introspective feel than its underlying structure might suggest, resulting in a pleasing level of thoughtful reflection.
Due Notturni crudeli (2000) by Salvatore Sciarrino was next and the first movement Senza tempo e scandito started with a series of strong, pounding high notes followed by a pause, a short passage and then a repeat. This became a steady, march-like pulse as the piece progressed, broken only by rapid runs that skipped down the keyboard. The feeling was quite unlike a traditional nocturne and was more reminiscent of an automaton caught in some perpetual factory process. Intimidating and impersonal, this movement only turned softer towards the end as it slowly died away. The second movement, Furia, metallo, was even more forceful, with loud pounding chords and rapid runs in the middle registers. There were a few quiet stretches but these simply served to reinforce to harshness of the more robust sections. The program notes for this piece state “…the predominating attitude is one of violence and hysteria, examining the dichotomy of disparate gestures and their pugnacious incompatibility.” The playing by Richard Valitutto was skillful throughout and carefully attuned to the strong emotions present in Due Notturni crudeli – the cruel nocturnes.
After a short intermission La chouette hulotte (1956-58) from Catalogue d ‘oiseaux, 3 Livre by Olivier Messiaen began with an ominous feel, like walking outside into the inky blackness of a cloudy night. Changing rhythms and running passages ensued, with a building sense of uncertainty and tension. The title of this piece translates to Tawny Owl, and is part of the Messiaen series of piano works that focus on birds and bird calls. He writes about this piece: “Darkness, fear, the heart beating too fast, the meowing and barking Little Owl, the cries of the Long-Eared Owl, and then there is the call of the Tawny Owl: sometimes gloomy and painful, sometimes vague and disturbing (with a strange tremor), sometimes shouted out in terror like the cry of a murdered child!” All of this is viscerally present in La chouette hulotte; at times Richard Valitutto seemed to be attacking the keyboard and at other times caressing it, artfully drawing out all of the foreboding and drama that is packed into this piece.
Next was a work by Aleksandr Skryabin, Poem-Nocturne, OP 61, (1912) and this began with a light, rolling melody accompanied by warm chords. This is a more traditional type of nocturne and is evidence of very controlled writing – there is a sense of slight tension and of something held back. Skryabin was heavily influenced by Chopin and, as the program notes state: “…during his middle years Skryabin became interested in composing ‘poems’, an appellation he derived from the late-Romantic concept of tone poem. However, unlike those heroic and tragic chronicles, most of Skryabin’s piano poems focus on the ephemeral beauty of a few simple gestures, favoring grace over grandiosity.” The delicate sense of anticipation in Poem-Nocturne approaches impressionism in its simplicity and subdued texture, and the understated feelings were all carefully articulated in this performance.
The final work of the evening was NCTRN (2014) by Los Angeles composer Nicholas Deyoe, commissioned for this concert by Piano Spheres. For this piece the piano was prepared so that the right-most key made a wooden knocking sound instead of hitting the string to make a note. This simple adjustment became an effective focal point as the piece progressed. Anyone familiar with the music of Nicholas Deyoe would normally expect to hear a thunderous roar from the piano, but apart from a few sharp chords NCTRN was a model of carefully controlled atmospherics. This is surprisingly economical music, with pauses and silences that added to a deep, evocative feel. The knocking sound made by the prepared key produced a keen sense of slowly building anticipation, becoming more insistent as the piece progressed. The sudden ending was the perfect, unexpected finish. The playing was everything NCTRN required – a fine touch with precise control that sustained the tautness throughout. The audience received this performance with sustained applause and cheering.
With artists like Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Vicky Ray and others, Piano Spheres has, with this satellite series concert by Richard Valitutto, recognized a new voice for the music of an upcoming generation.
On October 11, the Oneonta Concert Association of central New York presented an unforgettable concert by Musicians from Marlboro. For half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro Music School and festival have spawned top-flight, ad-hoc ensembles pairing rising stars in classical music with established names in the field. The fact that the name of Kim Kashkashian, one of the world’s finest violists and a tireless champion of contemporary music, was mentioned nowhere in the touring group’s modest marketing package indicated the level of Marlboro’s commitment to apprenticeship. Indeed, despite her unmistakable tone and timbre, Kashkashian contributed humbly to an atmosphere of total and mutual respect.
The program was itself a work of art. Before bows contacted strings, Kashkashian described György Kurtág’s Officium breve as “very gestural and dramatic music.” That it was, for its sparse notecraft nevertheless required of the four string players an uninhibited comportment by which the sounds might freely unravel. The moods of Kurtág’s compendium, written in memory of Hungarian composer Endre Szervánszky (1911-1977), are as varied as their source materials. With characteristically intertextual grace, he references the canon from Webern’s final completed opus (the second Kantate of 1941-43) and works by Szervánszky, the latter not least of all by way of self-quotations from the ever-expanding Játékok (specifically, the bipartite “Hommage à Szervánszky” thereof). The opening harmonics, courtesy of cellist Karen Ouzounian, established a haunting undercurrent that would flow throughout. To this were added the floating lines of violinists David McCarroll and Nikki Chooi before being conjoined by Kashkashian’s peerless tonal qualities. Despite the brevity of its 15 sections, most lasting under a minute, what the piece lacked in duration it made up for in Kurtág’s wealth of invention. Shifting contrasts of altitude, distance, and texture throughout made this sometimes-challenging music feel as organic as rain. Harmonies were elastic, pulled as they sometimes were from a single note in tutti or alit upon from above. The occasional outburst came across not as an interruption but as a catharsis of self-discovery. The ending left us with a drawer of knives, each of varying sharpness and resilience but all bearing the stamp of meticulous smithery.
To this, Szervánszky’s Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola made for a natural follow-up. Enlivened by the virtuosity of flutist Marina Piccinini, alongside violist Wenting Kang and Chooi again on violin, its flowering field carried scents of Bartók, Dvorák, and Smetana. Impressive was Szervánszky’s constant shifting of register, as was the trio’s ability to evoke it. The first two movements, lush and pastoral, were feathered by the veiled Adagio, which gave way to the final Vivace with dreamlike reluctance. Throughout, moods morphed from exuberant to tearful and back again, Piccinini navigating the strings’ crosscurrents with a seafarer’s proficiency. The dance was always waiting—not in the wings but with them, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
The Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp of Claude Debussy took yet another logical step into 20th-century repertoire. Piccinini, Kashkashian, and harpist Sivan Magen—newly fashioned as Tre Voci—charted the centerpiece of their 2014 ECM New Series release with élan. Debussy’s popular trio, tailored specifically to the idiosyncrasies of its instruments, is divided into three movements with seemingly arbitrary titles. A Pastorale introduces the fluid impressionism one typically associates with the Frenchman. And yet, as this piece’s bold strokes make clear, Debussy was anything but an impressionistic composer. Boldness was especially apparent in the Interlude, the enchanting harping of which only served to emphasize the clarity of its partners. With a strong backbone and even stronger sense of destination, the sportive Finale further proved that Debussy isn’t all sparkles and rainbows. Key to this performance was each musician’s take on the equal role given to her or him. Piccinini was like the writer’s pen and Magen the weaver’s dance, while Kashkashian took on a visual artist’s intuition, her bow as descriptive as a painter’s brush. In a word: exquisite.
[Photo source: (le) poisson rouge]
Intermission prepared us for the finale of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major. Its four-movement traversal of atmospheres showcased the string players at their most integrated. From the massive, seesawing Allegro to the show-stopping Presto (its tight tremolos providing full yet distant support for the violin’s acrobatic exposition), the musicians handled every twist and turn with ease and a unity typically seen only in far more established ensembles. Between these juggernauts, however, were the piece’s highlights. A romantic yet earthy Adagio, its tendrils wavering in freshwater current, paired beautifully with the Scherzo’s delicate anchorage. It was a fitting summation of the dramas that preceded it, spoken in a language at once canonical and freeing.
Also canonical and freeing was the pre-concert performance by Jonathan Fenwick, a high school junior from nearby Ithaca, who presented the Adagio and Fugue of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin. In addition to polishing the concert’s educational sheen, Fenwick’s performance was further proof of the inspiration absorbed by coming generations of classical purveyors. His sensitive pacing, artful trills, and warmth of execution proved that all roads not only lead back to Bach, but also proceed from him.
The Brand Library in Glendale was the site for an evening of piano music by Steve Moshier on Saturday, October 25. Cynthia Law performed three Moshier pieces, including the premiere of Into the Safety of the Abyss (2014).
The concert opened with Unchained Melody: Eight Bagatelles for Piano (1999) and the first of these began with a series of strong, decisive chords that invoked an important, stately feel The opening passages were repeated in the higher registers, slightly subdued, before returning to the powerful lower chords. The second bagatelle was softer but along the same lines, as if a development on the opening theme. It featured a bit more complexity as well as counterpoint that produced a sense of rolling motion.
Other movements of the Eight Bagatelles for Piano were variously fast and running or featured melody and counterpoint that smoothly changed between the left and right hands. The forth bagatelle, Andante non troppo e grazioso, was perhaps the most characteristically Moshier – starting out slowly but with an exotic feel, turning more introspective with a question and answer dialogue in the passages. The contrast in dynamics in this section were nicely accented by Ms. Law and there were a number of sections that featured well-played counterpoint.
Bagatelle 7 featured a series of light arpeggios that gave a feeling of uplift with a counter melody that contained an elegant, distinguished polish reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata. The final bagatelle started as a fast, irregular series of notes – like code carrying some message. This was accompanied by a series of bright chords that gradually turned warm, followed by some nice syncopation in the right hand. The piece finished strongly in the deep lower registers , recalling the declarative feeling of the opening movement.
The music of Steve Moshier is most closely connected with the Liquid Skin Ensemble and this piano music was recognizably similar, with its precisely regular rhythms and crisp minimalistic repetition. Ms. Law provided an accurate, even reading – exactly what this music requires. The piano filled the recital hall with a big sound that was especially effective in the lower registers.
The second piece of the concert, Shadows from the Underworld (1997), began with deep, mysterious chords that produced a feeling of movement – like traveling into an unknown territory. A small, repeating figure in the upper register with a counter melody in the middle added to the atmosphere, but this was followed by a more playful feel as the notes ran ahead. The piece oscillated back and forth between the lighter, bouncy sound and a stronger, more exotic feel that inspired a certain awe – like looking at a volcano or remote temple.
The darkness and light theme continued, the lighter dominating with a series of freely repeating figures that gave way to a more conventional feel that included a some nice harmonies and a good bass line. The contrast gradually increased, now darker and louder in the lower registers, but offset by higher and brighter passages. This was precisely played by Ms. Law and featured some artfully smooth and expressive runs in the right hand. The piece concluded on a series of strong but optimistic phrases at its sudden ending. Despite the ominous title, Shadows from the Underworld felt more like the hopeful light than darkness or sadness from below.
After a short intermission the premiere performance of Into the Safety of the Abyss (2014) began softly with a hesitant melody in the higher registers, filled out in the middle and when fully developed had a full and almost bouncy feel. The counterpoint and rhythms were familiar but in this newest Moshier piece the texture seemed a bit more dense and meaty than in the earlier works. Into the Safety of the Abyss consists of three movements and in this first there was an almost classic feel as the introductory passages were expanded into a series of development sections. A dialogue that developed between the right and left hands provided an interesting exploration of each theme.
The second movement started with a single line of notes and a lower counter melody and this was repeated and inverted, with the lower register taking the melody. A series of sharp statements – accentuated by rests – appeared, and this was followed by further development. The harmonies here were more fully formed and there seemed to be a willingness in the writing to follow the music wherever it might lead – yet at the same time showing a greater strength of structure.
The final movement began with a series of sharp, dance-like chords that developed with complex counterpoint into a series of interesting passages. There was a return to the opening bars of this movement and further development in different registers. This gave some scope for interpretation by Ms. Law, whose strong playing and careful articulation was up to the greater complexity of this piece. After a powerful restatement of the opening theme Into the Safety of the Abyss concluded. This was perhaps the most structured and fully formulated work to date from Steve Moshier and provides strong evidence of a style that continues to evolve.
The playing of Cynthia Law was ideally suited to Moshier’s minimalist style – accurate, precise and always under control. After an evening of carefully performing so many notes her efforts were received by sustained applause from the audience.
The friendly confines of Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert by Los Angeles-based gnarwhallaby on Saturday, October 4, 2014. The quartet appeared complete with their trademark rock-solid playing and black jumpsuits for the performance of six pieces by European and American composers of new music.
The concert opened with Euphorium (1995-96) by the Czech composer Martin Smolka. This featured Matt Barbier on euphonium and Brian Walsh on baritone saxophone. Combined with the piano and cello this produced a wonderfully robust bass line and a big sound that bounced and jumped playfully about. The rhythms were fast, bold and angular with an active feel, like a city at rush hour. The composer describes this piece as follows: “The tempo is breakneck and there are too many notes leaping up and down the entire range and the irregular rhythms in alternate measures remind a maze… The score invites the players to find alien tones. It is full of indications to play out of tune and at times out of rhythm… It is a musical illustration to a Scrap Iron Art Manifesto.” Even so the playing by gnarwhallaby was tight and the irregularities well managed. As the piece progressed the driving rhythms often broke into a satisfying groove and this offered a measure of accessibility amid the split tones and intense textures. The overall feeling was like standing too close to a slightly out of control street band and enjoying the sense of imminent catastrophe. The piece eventually wound down with a quiet trombone solo that trailed off, as if by exhaustion. Euphorium is an exercise in joyful anarchy, accurately captured in this performance despite what is surely a challenging score to play.
FLUFF (2012 to present), by Nicholas Deyoe followed, and this was a series of short pieces written for gnarwhallaby as a collaboration to “investigate the ensembles sonic potential.” These are short – ranging from 20 seconds to maybe 3 minutes – and exhibit a wide variety of rhythms, timbres and textures. They can be soft and mysterious, loud and piercing or quiet and tense. Often these short movements conjure images and in this performance there was one FLUFF that conveyed the creaking of a wooden floor late at night, producing a distinctly eerie feeling. Another had all the roar and thunder of two cars racing away from a stop light. FLUFF is an on-going project and, according to the program notes: “Ultimately, more than 20 movements will comprise the cycle, which Deyoe is gleefully going about in an occasional and out-of-order fashion.” Five new movements were presented at this concert.
Quartet (2014) by Colin Wambsgans was next and this began with a series of forceful tutti chords, sustained over several seconds. Matt Barbier’s trombone put down an effective foundation and there was a grand sense of assertion and confidence in each succeeding blast. It was like hearing a ship’s horn in the harbor – a feeling of consummate power. Although originally calling for a bassoon, Richard Valitutto stepped up playing melodica as re-scored by the composer, and this added a sense of tension and urgency to the massive chords. As the second movement opened, the chords became quiet and questioning and the overall effect was increasingly subdued and tentative. The melodica became more of a presence and added a shrill sense of anxiety as each sequence sounded. The passages became higher in register and more uncertain – the confident sounds of the first movement now completely absent. The piece concluded with some timid scratching sounds in the cello that quietly faded into silence. Quartet managed to capture the wider emotions present in this country over the last few years: a feeling of massive confidence that has given way to anxiety and uncertainty – as this piece tellingly describes.
After a short intermission Muzyczka IV (koncert puzonowy), Op 28 (1970) by Henryk Górecki was performed. This is a trombone concerto in an intense, dynamic style by Górecki that predates his more widely known minimalistic Third Symphony. The first movement, furioso, marcatissimo is a series of frenetic, booming passages led by the trombone that explode like cannon fire on a battlefield. The outbursts are separated by a few seconds of silence, and this only intensifies the sense of chaos – even so the playing here was tightly controlled. The sound and fury builds to a climax and then stops suddenly and we are left to hear a solemn piano chord. Another loud burst from the ensemble ensues and with the following silence the piece moves into the second movement, tranquillissimo, ben tenuto. Here the piano leads with its pensive chord, striking like a cathedral clock tower in the darkness. The clarinet and trombone play a somber melody, as if in eulogy for some overwhelming catastrophe. As the piece concludes, the piano continues alone until the last chord slowly dies away. This is very powerful music and the playing in this performance was transcendent. The acoustics of Boston Court were up to task and accurately transmitted all of the emotion present in this piece. By reviving this trombone concerto, gnarwhallaby has done a great service for those with an interest in the music Henryk Górecki.
D-S-C-H (1969) by Russian composer Edison Denisov was next and this begins with a single, crisp piano note followed by a series of rapid cascading passages from the other instruments. This pattern continues, sometimes with the piano sounding two or more notes prior. The ensemble sound is angular, with sharp edges, but cleanly played. Part way through, the mood changes to an almost lethargic feel as the trombone, clarinet and cello play slow, independent melodies while the piano weaves a line of notes that dart in and out of the texture. The interplay between the piano and the others was nicely choreographed and the clarinet line seemed to be particularly vivid.
The concert concluded with Lullaby 4 (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe. This piece begins softly in the piano with a line that combines a sense of mystery with tension. A sudden fortissimo chord crashes forth, shattering the quiet like a lightning bolt. The soft piano returns with a simple melody, but there are ominous growling sounds in the cello and trombone that build tension until another crashing piano chord sounds. More quiet music follows, but with unsettling effects – an upturned wine glass is applied to the rim of the trombone bell adding to the unease. These moments of increasing anxiety are the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that ring out at unexpected intervals as the piece progresses. Having heard the West Coast premiere of this piece in a different venue, this second hearing at the acoustically drier Boston Court revealed much more detail and complexity in the quiet portions. A recording of Lullaby 4 is clearly in order.
A CD titled exhibit [a] by gnarwhallaby is available and contains D-S-C-H, the Górecki trombone concerto and several of the FLUFF pieces. exhibit [a] is available from populist records.
Brian Walsh – Clarinets and Saxophone
Matt Barbier – Trombone and Euphonium
Derek Stein – Cello
Richard Valitutto – Piano and Melodica
On Friday October 3, 2014 Cal Arts opened the WaveCave, a new experimental sound installation space and hosted a reunion concert by alumni on campus at the Roy O. Disney Music Hall. The WaveCave occupies a room just off the lobby of the concert hall and is intended to be a permanent venue for sound art installation. The space will be filled with Experimental Sound Practices alumni works for the Fall of 2014 with current student works premiering in 2015.
Zephyrs, a sound installation by Mark Trayle is the initial work to appear in the WaveCave and included three separate assemblies consisting of a flask of glitter, a piezoelectric disk and electronics to actuate a valve in the flask and to drive the disk with ultrasonic square waves of various frequencies. A small amount of old glitter is periodically dumped onto the discs by electronic actuation and the sound energy applied to the disk causes patterns to form, change and disappear. According to the program notes “The ultrasound waves (and their lower frequency auxiliary tones) also create patterns of varying amplitudes and frequencies in the acoustic space.” The sounds that were audible were of a very high pitch and as one moved about they could be heard only in certain locations. Watching the glitter form and reform in patterns, seemingly on its own, was a fascinating visual component and created an effective focal point for experiencing this piece.
The evening continued with a series of pieces presented in the adjacent Roy O. Disney concert hall. The first of these was Body Wave by Daniel Eaton and this was performed by Matt Barbier and Daniel Eaton, both on trombones. A series of amplified electronic tones accompanied the horns and the first of these, a low pulse, filled the hall with a warm wash of sound. At one point the combination of trombones and electronics was powerful enough to evoke a train horn and the sound seemed to move from left to right. Later in the piece it felt like being inside a large machine, immersed in the sounds and pulses of its inner workings. The combination of amplified trombones and electronics worked well together, and this was a also a tribute to the sound system.
Noctiluca Scintillans by Cooper Baker was next and this piece was realized with a series of hanging tubes, microphones and software. According to the program notes, the system consisted of “Hanging acrylic tubes containing bead chains generate acoustic impulses that trigger and control the synthetic sounds… Each tube has a contact microphone embedded in its cap, and when a tube is tapped or shaken the vibrations are transmitted to a computer running custom signal processing software.” Cooper Baker used small mallets to strike the tubes, and it was much like watching bell chimes played. Some of the tubes produced a running, liquidy sound when struck, another sounded like something from an arcade game. Still others had musical chime-like tones. Cooper Baker was able to create different moods and textures during the course of this piece by striking the tubes in various combinations – sometimes the resulting sounds were soft and lovely, other times more intense and complex. Noctiluca Scintillans is an impressive attempt to connect computer-processed sounds to a device suitable for performance.
Loud Sleep by Stephanie Smith followed and this was an ingenious mix of small motors, bells, magnets and mechanisms suspended in the air by strings from a cross bar. Then entire installation fit on a small table and microphones were used to amplify the tiny mechanical sounds. The different mechanisms were started each in turn, and went clicking merrily away, going in and out of phase with each other. The result was a charming, almost organic sound – like listening to mechanical crickets. At one point it sounded like the room was full of ticking alarm clocks, but overall this piece produced a playful feel that was complimented by the simplicity of its concept and construction.
A more dramatic work came next, COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE by Ezra Buchla. The program notes state that this piece incorporates “Gesture and sound-inducing narratives [that] collide with software-induced limitations via nonlinear functional mappings in time and harmonic space, resulting in a spectrum of shifting tensions between intimate somatic texture, crystalline tonality, abrasion and emptiness.” Mostly electronic in nature, although at times a viola played by Ezra was incorporated into the mix, the low rumbling, roaring and moans gave a convincing approximation of what it must be like inside a body cavity. A heartbeat could be distinctly heard. There was a sense of being semiconscious and the overall feel was one of a bleary melancholy. As the piece concluded the tension escalated as higher pitches joined in, culminating in a sort of slow scream. COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE certainly delivered on its title and effectively conveyed the listener to its unique point of view.
Slices by Casey Anderson followed and this was a work combining small slices of field recordings from the Salton Sea processed through a series of band pass filters. The calling of birds could be distinctly heard, and this was balanced with less identifiable street noises from the same location. Casey Anderson operated a touch pad to produce filtered bursts in rapid sequence and the result was reminiscent of the crackling sounds of radio static. The bandpass filter frequencies were set lower as the piece progressed and this changed the character of the individual bursts. A laptop, cellphone and tablet were all routed together to produce the signal processing chain and this proved surprisingly reliable in performance. Slices is a good example of how much can be done with off-the-shelf technology.
The next piece was helpfully titled Performed in Accordance with the California Balloon Law, SB 1990, by Todd Lerew. A rubber balloon some 2 feet in diameter was used in conjunction with a contact microphone and, according to the program notes “Since the balloon is now effectively a diaphragm of exaggerated size, its natural frequency of feedback for a given distance from the speaker becomes unstable.” It took some doing to get the balloon, speaker and microphone aligned in just the right way, but a series of tones and harmonies could be heard as Todd moved the items about. At one point the balloon was tapped with a small mallet and this produced different tones from the speaker. A smaller, metalized balloon was used and this increased the intensity and frequency of the pitches. The larger balloon was immersed in water and the tones produced took on a distinctively damp character. All of this was more along the lines of a demonstration – there were no musical intentions evident and the generation of the pitches was a bit hit and miss – but the creation of the tones and their relation to the materials and surfaces involved proved to be an instructive lesson in the physics of sound.
The concert concluded with 2 by Scott Cazan. This was realized with a 4-channel mixer, laptop and amplification system filling the space with sonic energy that acts on the inner ear directly. A delay between the front and left channels was modulated by the mixer and this gave rise a complex set of otoacoustic sounds. The position of the listener and the pattern of sonic wave reflections in the space combined to produce different levels of intensity throughout the audience. The energy in some places was such that a few listeners were seen to plug their ears. A series of high, bright pitches were heard – and they did seem to be coming from directly inside the listeners’ head. Different tones were discernible, all very pure, but the frequencies were extremely high – on the threshold of hearing for some of us. The significance of 2 is the ability to transmit pitch directly and the means for achieving this may prove to be of importance in the future.
Most of the pieces in this concert were realized by strictly electronic means, and the stage was a swarm of cables, laptops, junction boxes and microphones. Sensibly, there was a minimum of stage lighting for this concert and the darkness helped the audience to concentrate of the sound. The awkwardness of watching people operate computers was reduced but this is clearly an area that needs attention – how to overcome audience expectations of what will be observed during a performance of experimental music. Visual esthetics aside, however, this concert was an intriguing look into the future of sound generation and how it will be used as material for art.
More experimental works will be presented on October 25, 2014 at the Wulf.
The WaveCave Gallery Photo by Cooper Baker
At Window Rock: ETHEL’s Kip Jones, dear friend James Bilagody, Jesse and Fiona Sherman.
For the past decade, the nationally acclaimed string quartet ETHEL has served as the Ensemble-in-Residence of the Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP). To date, ETHEL’s residency has impacted almost 18,000 students, premiered over 150 works by Native American children, and touched more than 15 schools throughout Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. For about three weeks, the quartet conducts intense, one-on-one tutorial sessions, readings and rehearsals to help student composers refine their works. They then showcase the children’s pieces at school performances, all culminating at the public performances at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which are recorded and sometimes later aired on National Public Radio (NPR). In the post that follows, ETHEL founding member, artistic director and viola Ralph Farris reports on the quartet’s most recent residency.
by Ralph Farris
From late August through early September, NACAP students (ages 13-21) participate in composition intensives in schools across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, under the expert tutelage of superstar Native American composer Raven Chacon and his brilliant associates Trevor Reed, Blair Quamahongnewa and Mike Begay. Resident ensembles then visit these schools and workshop with the young composers on their new works, working out all the nitty-gritty details in service of the composers’ intentions. This new music is then performed at school assemblies – showcasing the young local talent, and celebrating these students’ work, right there, in their home communities. The resident ensembles then pick up and drive 100+ miles to the next school, and do it all again the next day.
After a fortnight of criss-crossing the Southwest, the resident ensembles ultimately arrive at Grand Canyon National Park, where the festival presents ALL of the new student pieces in a marathon concert. Each year there are some 30 pieces presented; the event is recorded and each student is provided a CD of their own work – for future study, for college applications, for sharing with grandmother…
Several of our NACAP students are now in music school; several of them are pursuing other career paths. All of them have been deeply moved – as has ETHEL – by their work with NACAP. Through this festival, these young people see themselves anew – they find their voices. And in turn, ETHEL has found new depth, new color, new joy – in ours.
NACAP itself has received numerous honors, including NewMusic USA’s New Music Educators Award, Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, and an Award from The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities(!). Our NACAP students have even been visited by John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.
What an amazing thing that happens each year in the Southwest! What a gift it has been for ETHEL to be a part of this extraordinary program!
ETHEL has enjoyed inspired collaborations with groups and soloists through our tenure with NACAP. In 2011, we were very pleased to welcome the Sphinx Organization’s powerhouse Catalyst Quartet as the NACAP Fellowship Quartet. This season, we were thrilled to work with trombone ensemble the Guidonian Hand, as well as ETHEL’s former (and founding) member, Mary Rowell. Under the auspices of this festival, ETHEL has toured the Southwest with Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuoso Jeff Peterson, Bluegrass legend Dean Osborne, and Taos Pueblos’ master of Native American flute, Robert Mirabal.
We have also premiered so very many new works at the festival – hundreds of pieces from our NACAP students, as well as music from John King, Neil Rolnick, Hannis Brown, Steve Huber, and members of ETHEL, past and present.
ETHEL has performed the music of our NACAP students across the world – at the Tempe Historical Museum; on a convict settlement in Tasmania; in the Chicago Zoo; in a reclaimed Dutch sewage treatment plant; at a Russian communications museum. Our residency at NACAP has been featured in documentary film, “Strings on the Rez,” (Molly McBride, Director); on the air (Performance Today; Hopi Radio; a WNYC Radio Diary – Beth Fertig, Producer); in numerous print and online articles, and on mobile phones the world over (courtesy of Holland’s Ringtone Society).
Without a doubt, our 10th NACAP’s season highlights were our two celebratory touring performances – at the Heard Museum (Phoenix, AZ), where we premiered Raven Chacon’s “Double Weaving;” and at the Navajo Nation Museum (Window Rock, AZ) with Navajo Singer/Actor/Activist James Bilagody, where we showcased a celebration of 10 years’ work with the young people of Navajo Nation. To share the music of these amazing young Native American artists in these two extraordinary spaces was an incredible honor.
We are ever grateful to NACAP’s founders, Clare Hoffman and Robert Bonfiglio for inviting ETHEL to take part in this amazing work. To all our dear NACAP friends – The GCMF board, the Grand Canyon Village community, Rene West, the Pearce Family, Ranger Bob, Eve Watson, Tom Riggenbach and NavajoYES, Dan Crank, the Bilagody-Glasgow Family, Dean Neasham, Ben Taylor, all our fellow resident ensembles and composers, the amazing teachers in all of the NACAP schools, and most of all, to the NACAP STUDENTS – ETHEL is ever grateful. You are in our hearts – and our music - always.
[Editor’s note: Samuel Vriezen is a brilliant Dutch composer, performer, poet, polymath… oh, let’s just say the list goes on. I’ve known Samuel — online, at least — for the better part of 15 years now, following his artistic and aesthetic progression, getting into stimulating conversations and sharp smack-downs along the way. Just the other day Samuel approached me with an essay that he’d been working on, that he felt might be ready for a wider audience through a place like S21. Of course I immediately agreed; Samuel has one of the sharpest minds I know, and whatever rolls around and finally drops from it to the page is quite likely worth a bit of our time to read.]
OUTSIDE OF MUSIC — On the role of the audience
Heiner Goebbels, composer, director and a major presence in contemporary German music theatre, gave a presentation at a conference devoted to Gertrude Stein and the arts in May 2014 in Copenhagen, on his use of Stein’s work. For him, Stein’s vision of a theatre piece as a landscape to be enjoyed rather than a drama to be followed was highly inspiring for his own theatrical conceptions. In passing, Goebbels made a very interesting remark. All you need to make theatre, he claimed, is an audience. What he meant was that it is the audience that completes the theatrical experience. If you present an audience with any staged image, you practically don’t even need actors any more, as the audience will invite itself into making it a theatrical experience, into filling in the drama itself. You just need to give it a landscape, something to look at, well staged and probably with stuff happening in it; but what the theatre really only requires is the audience.
This struck me as a strongly theatre-based approach to the audience, one very much about presenting a spectacle, about the experience of watching and presenting, perhaps even about ‘communication’. My own focus as a composer being mostly on chamber music, I couldn’t imagine myself making such a statement at all. In chamber music, you really need some performers – something that is even true of a piece like 4’33”, which only requires (a) dedicated performer(s), more or less inviting the audience to become a performer itself.
The next day at the symposium, Andrzej Wirth, a major figure in German theatre one generation older than Goebbels, was interviewed. Wirth, who had collaborated with Brecht in his youth, and who had himself used Stein’s work in his productions, seemingly made the exact opposite claim during his talk: the audience, he said, is an obstacle, something that threatens to get in the way of theatre. The point being that the theatre is what happens, what people on stage do, the whole action of it, rather than its passive consumption (a position that fits the tradition of the Brechtian Lehrstück well.)
Instinctively, I found myself more sympathetic. The idea that an audience is needed for something to be music is quite evidently not true. If I play piano at home, just because I feel like it, there is no audience. There is only me, the performer, working at the music, and even if this involves my hearing and listening in the process, it doesn’t make me into my own audience. In fact, it has always been my feeling that the vast majority of music that gets practically made by humans does not involve an audience. For instance, ritual music – and let’s interpret ‘ritual music’ broadly: a birthday song at a party or a stadium of supporters chanting to inspire its team could be an example just as much as liturgy being chanted or a village tribe honoring its ancestors. Likewise, there is music that is merely play, or a way to pass time. There is humming to yourself; there are the songs that are part of children’s games; there is practice, which is playing for the sole purpose of getting better at playing. Work songs, campfire songs, protest songs. Clearly, to think of such events in terms of ‘performer’ and ‘audience’ would be to miss the point completely. All these things are music; none of them involve an audience.
Yet it is not quite satisfactory to see the audience as an obstacle. Even if it should be true that the main thing that happens would be the process among actors or musicians, that does not necessarily imply that the audience has no role to play. Surely it must have one, or we wouldn’t spend so much time organizing concerts. But what is this role?
You might think it obvious what the role of the audience is, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even easy to ask the question about the role of the audience, accustomed as we have become to see it in certain fixed ways, foreign to what I have in mind here. It’s easy to frame the concept of audience in discourses about economical or social issues, about communication, or about individuality and taste. All these bring presuppositions to the idea of audience, bringing in values that I prefer to avoid. But to clear up the issue, it’s good to look at them nonetheless, not so much to argue for or against such values, but to see why they’re not relevant to the question.
Take economics. It’s obvious that sometimes, it takes a lot of money to do music well. We all have to eat, but even if we would be happy to rehearse or play for nothing, there can be costs, like renting a hall or rehearsal space. An audience can help cover the costs. But this cannot be the core importance of having an audience in music. To see it that way would be to subordinate what music is about to what the market is about, as if the purpose of making music would be to sell it to some consumer. Perhaps that is true for purely commercial music but certainly not in general.
This economic idea is easy to accept because it fits a certain moralism of capitalist culture. The value of things, is says, is the price people are willing to pay for them, and if the music we play doesn’t pay our bills, then it has no value and we are foolish to engage in it, almost morally wrong. We’re at best being selfish, anti-social. Behind the economical reason for having an audience stands the idea that we make music to do something for society, that it has a role to play, and that the audience can guarantee that the music we make is not merely some sort of useless waste of creative energy. It says that music can do something for an audience, or for society, and looks at music mostly from that angle.
However, what it fails to explain is what society, and the audience, is doing for music in return. That is, if we think of music only in terms of its social function, it’s clear what society can do for music – approve of it – but if we think that music is not essentially reducible to social function, then it wouldn’t really be a problem if society disapproves, or even fails to notice. Additionally, if all the audience can do to music is to approve of it, that severely reduces its options. Surely being in the audience should be something deeper than having one more opportunity to press the ‘like’ button.
There is a reverse side to this type of morality provided by democratic capitalist culture, which is the idea of individualism. This says we’re all different, there’s no accounting for individual taste, and minorities have rights too. We could pursue some socially irrelevant music because it somehow makes us feel good personally, as individuals. It’s perfectly OK to make music for very small audiences, or even to make music only for yourself. The problem here is not so much that this is wrong – it is in fact a good thing that we can have marginal musical cultures in addition to the dominant ones. The problem is that it still fails to develop the notion of audience in an interesting way. Say I make music only for myself. That is tantamount to saying I am sufficient as my own audience. But what this audience does for the music is, again, basically, press the ‘like’ button. Surely, I’m making music for a more interesting type of effect.
Additionally, if I really only make music for myself, it’s doubtful that the word ‘audience’ really applies to what I do, there being no distance between creator and listener. It’s missing out on an important dynamic that could exist between artist and audience, and in fact the idea of personal gratification is in danger of leading to a musical culture that is perfectly sterile.
Something should happen between musicians and the audience. Often, people use the word ‘communication’ here. The purpose of music, it is thought, is to communicate with the audience. Therefore, the role of the audience is to be communicated with. Surely this involves more than mere approval, since the effect of communication can be the transmission of some deeper sensation. If this sort of communication has taken place, the music has succeeded, and the audience is there to make it possible for music to succeed.
Again, however, this doesn’t suffice. For starters, the word ‘communication’ has some problems. In my experience of having been in audiences myself, it’s not really ‘communication’ that I’m looking for. We tend to speak about ‘communication’ in more or less formal settings, generally having to do to efficiency. For example, if we say that we communicate well with a friend or partner, we mean we can get on the same page easily. But what I’m really after when talking to friends is not that sort of efficiency, it’s rather about having a good time, sharing jokes, surprising one another, being together in a space for some time that feels good. No information needs to have been transmitted at all in a conversation to be inspiring and important. Communicating and just talking or conversing refer to very different qualities of being together.
Additionally, ‘communicate’ is so often used in a one-way set-up only, and that makes it into a dangerous metaphor for what happens between music and audience. Communication has become a technique of public relations, a technology, usually employed by advertisers or politicians or the like. The object is to present something with clarity, to transmit information, or to influence my feelings about some product or party. But I don’t go to a concert to acquire information, and I really don’t like getting the sense that some performer is hankering for my approval. If I feel being communicated to, I feel let down, since I hope for something stronger from a musical experience.
Again, it’s a question as well of what I, in the audience, can mean for the music. It’s a flimsy idea that music should have as its goal to influence me, as if I’m only a passive receptacle for its effect. Indeed, when performers talk about communication, they usually also talk about what they receive from the audience in return for their playing. But then the question becomes, what is being returned exactly? The best I can do in an audience is, usually, be very attentive, and think or sense or feel along with what happens. I am not aware of having something to ‘communicate’ back to the music, something to make clear, some idea to promote, so once again communication doesn’t seem the most apt metaphor. The best that I can return is the intensity of my attention. But what does this attention do for the music? How is it developed and enriched merely by my attentive presence?
The question is interesting, precisely because we so easily take it for granted. So many discussions about music bandy about the ‘audience’ in some way or other, as if it were at the centre of music. We say music is meant for an audience, or we measure its success by its audience, or we analyze its techniques in terms of what they do to an audience. A lot of talk about new music is bemoaning the lack of audience, or about the necessity of building one, or about what to do when it remains absent. Often it seems like the audience is the most important thing there is in music, but it remains entirely unclear why. So, what is the role of the audience in music? Meaning, what important thing does it add to the music that is played? How does it contribute to the event? What does it produce?
One way in which an audience can develop the music is after the fact. If I attend a concert, I can for instance give feedback. Likewise, I could talk about what I heard to others, or help spread the word. Thus I can contribute to generating the whole culture around the music. Collectively, we digest the event. All of this could help music in a practical sense, and would not happen had I not listened attentively. But, once again, it doesn’t strictly speaking require an audience to have a music culture – think for example of the culture of home madrigal singing.
Such contribution to music culture is an effect, rather than the essence, of having an audience. The important thing already happened during the performance. I had an experience there, one of being part of the music, and that allows me to remember it, value it, and if it was inspiring even militate for it. Yet what was this part I had?
Perhaps my part was simply to share in the event. To be present, to be a witness. This indeed corresponds to my experience of successful concerts. It is less a case of being the recipient of a message directed towards me, than it is of witnessing something magical and important unfold. In my most intense concert experiences, I don’t experience the music as some conduct of communication interposed between a performer and myself. Rather, it is something magical that happens within the space in which we are both present.
In fact it is hard to say where the music is located in a performance. It is not between the performer and me, but it is not in the performer either; it may seem to be between performers, or between a performer and his or her instrument. But it is also all over the performance space. In musical performance, when it is successful, things happen, but other than on a purely technical or music-theoretical level it is hard to say what these things are exactly, what has made them happen, or where they have happened.
The German-Dutch composer Antoine Beuger, publisher of the Wandelweiser composers group, likes to compare composing to the creation of musical situations that have a particular atmosphere. If this atmosphere is welcoming, it may be conducive to the experience of such special events. Making music then is not a question of mastering, possessing or expressing such events, but of opening up the conditions that make these important experiences possible, and when they do, they do not really belong to anybody. Not even to the performer, who only was there to interpret the score and thus help generate this sonic atmosphere. Beuger has often spoken of music, but also people, as being “auch da”: there too. This extremely basic formula does suggest that indeed, what an audience can do, is simply be there, to share the experience.
Perhaps so that the musicians will not be alone? Or the sounds? Maybe, but it is necessary to go one step further in order to explain what an audience can do for music. If what the audience confers to the music is primarily its being present and attentive, this does not yet set it apart from the role of the musician, or explain why one could be so eager to present music in a concert setting.
Something more is needed still. We do have a number of important hints already: the audience remembers the music, witnesses it, makes sure it is not alone, is there ‘too’. But all this in a way that indeed is apart from the performers themselves. This mode of being there, present but apart, may be precisely what the audience has to add.
Why is that apartness important? As Gertrude Stein famously wrote: “I write for myself and strangers”. One way we could read that, is that we actually need to have the assurance that there could be somebody interested in our work that we do not know. If there were no strangers, we would basically be doing everything by, with, and for ourselves and our own circle. The danger of this is precisely that we remain in known territory, as there is only the inside experience of our activity. Normally, we have the experience of knowing what we’re doing, and of knowing what we’re experiencing. But if there are strangers, we have the guarantee that our experience is not the only experience. In the case of music, this implies that we are no longer masters of the music that we play. The presence of somebody else guarantees that there will be something about our music that we do not know. This is liberating.
Of course, when making music by ourselves, we do not really ever fully grasp its meaning either. There’s always something elusive about it, something we can’t entirely control, some sort of secret, even if we are very proficient performers. You could say that the performer is facing an inner secret of the music. But if, as a performer we are alone with the music, we are at least entirely free to negotiate our experience with it. We are free to roam about in it as we like, and we will never quite encounter any limits, an outside to our own musical process.
The listener in the audience adds to this his or her very strangeness. He or she liberates the music from being this limitless private experience of the musicians. The listener confers an outside to the process of music making, creating an extra interval, an extra dimension to the musical space, that without the listener would not be there. This creates the space for music to have an outer secret as well, and to become a mysterious happening of things that are so hard to locate precisely.
The importance of the stranger is at the same time the danger he or she presents: simply, the fact that he or she is unknown to us. We do not know how the stranger will react to our music, what he or she will have heard. The stranger might perhaps even have a violent reaction. This danger is not reducible. It is precisely the stranger’s gift to the music. As the music is heard by strange ears, it becomes indeterminate what there is to hear. By listening, by adding an interval, an apartness, the stranger confers a limit onto what could otherwise have remained limitless. But just by doing that, the audience gives the music an open world to exist in.
(image source ensemble: Périphérie)
A common theme in my reviews is that new music is what and where you make it. ensemble: Périphérie ascribes to the same philosophy. The group, founded in 2010 by composers Luke Dahn and Joseph Dangerfield, contains performers from all over the United States; they get together a few times a year for a week of intense rehearsals and a short tour. Make no mistake, though; while the rehearsal time may be brief, these musicians are skilled and the performances are high-quality.
The group started its Fall 2014 tour at the University of Minnesota Morris, where pianist Ann DuHamel is on the faculty. (Full disclosure: So am I.) The concert opened with Karim Al-Zand‘s work Hollows and Dells (2010) for viola and piano, played by violist Stephen Fine and DuHamel. The work, cast in three movements, is based on the composer’s recollections of attending an English-style boarding school, and features paraphrases and arrangements of stacking songs, hymn tunes, and a reel that can only be described as a moto perpetuo. It is a fun and exciting work, and was performed with a high level of fun by Fine and DuHamel.
The second piece, Tomasz Skweres‘s Direkt (2006), is a setting of Psalm 14 for soprano, flute, and cello. One of the longer pieces on the program, it taxes the skills of all performers, with substantial use of extended techniques for the players. Soprano Michelle Crouch ably negotiated the intense vocal line, which required both control and power, and flutist Rebecca Ashe and cellist Kumhee Lee tackled their difficult parts with aplomb.
Co-founder and co-artistic director Dangerfield was represented by Broken Obelisk (2013). Originally for saxophone and piano, this version was played by clarinetist Yasmin Flores and DuHamel. The work was inspired by Barnett Newman’s sculpture of the same name. This effective piece showcases the sound of the instruments beautifully, and uses modes and little bluesy licks to great effect.
If it’s Minnesota, you’ll find some Libby Larsen. Flores, Fine, and DuHamel presented two movements of Black Birds, Red Hills (1987). This work, which draws inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, provided a solid close to the first half of the program.
After intermission, co-founder and co-artistic director Dahn’s Confessions of St. Augustine (2009, rev. 2014) was performed by Crouch, Flores and DuHamel. Originally for soprano and orchestra, this adaptation for soprano, piano and clarinet used two texts by the 4th-century theologian for a work that was by turns austere, intense, and expansive. Dahl did a fine job condensing the orchestral textures for the reduced forces; the interplay between the players signified a great familiarity with each other.
For any other group, a program this ambitious would have been sufficient for a full evening of exciting and interesting music. In this case, however, the organization also presented George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae (1971), which counts as a venerable war-horse in new music circles. For this performance, flutist Ashe and cellist Lee were joined by Dangerfield on piano. The trio handled the extended techniques with grace and style, and gave the work a solid, powerful interpretation.
For a group that only rehearses and performs in short bursts, ensemble: Périphérie (which draws its name from a quote by Henri Dutilleux) shows a maturity and skill that should serve as an inspiration to other ensembles. The group played Carnegie Hall in October 2013 to outstanding reviews, and their devotion to quality performances of challenging music should resonate with other composers and performers. Here’s hoping they come to your town sometime soon.
In 2011, pianist Raffaella Gazzana and violinist Natascia Gazzana, better known as Duo Gazzana, made a quiet, if colorful, splash with Five Pieces, their first record for ECM’s New Series imprint. Navigating a recital comprised of works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janácek, and Silvestrov, the Gazzana sisters, in close collaboration with producer Manfred Eicher, demonstrated an acute sense of programming, technique, and integrity. Despite the title of their debut (named for the Silvestrov composition of the same name), which contained only four pieces, Silvestrov’s Hommage à J.S.B. (2009) comprises the heart of this truly pentagonal sequel. The Ukrainian composer offers three short movements: two Andantinos and one Andante, each the band of a deeper and more nuanced spectrum. The end effect is one of suspension. Although originally written for Gidon Kremer, the Hommage is uniquely informed here by the Gazzanas’ attention to detail. “The music of Silvestrov is not difficult in terms of notes,” Raffaella tells me in a recent interview, “but it’s so particular. In a way, you have to isolate yourself from the noise of life. He’s a composer who belongs to another time, bringing these beautiful melodies, as if from the past.” Indeed, as Wolfgang Schreiber observes in his album notes, the Gazzanas share in the spirit of the music they have selected, which like them finds newness in the old. Their unwavering commitment to urtexts only serves to emphasize what is unwritten in them, thus coaxing out hidden messages and spirits.
Radiating outward from the Silvestrovian center are two richer, denser works: Poulenc’s Sonate pour violon et piano (1942/43, rev. 1949) and William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano (1922/23). Dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the Poulenc sonata is, in Raffaella’s estimation, a product of its time, as is clear in the first in third movements, designated “Allegro con fuoco” and “Presto tragico,” respectively. These are extroverted, almost flailing. Stravinsky looms large in the final, especially, but there are also—unwitting, perhaps—nods to the late Romantics and Ravel as the piece nears its enigmatic coda. “After expressing the suffering of the war,” Raffaella observes, “Poulenc wanted to finish with this dreamy catharsis. This was his character, shy but also enjoying life. He was, I think, a very elegant man, and in this sonata you can hear that.” Poulenc purists take note: the Gazzanas’ interpretation corrects mistakes left in the original French edition prepared by Max Eschig, which elides key signatures in the last page. After careful study of the facsimile, they believe to have arrived at the definitive version.
Although more obscure, Walton’s Toccata was the subject of Raffaella’s dissertation and is no less possessed of elegance. Nataschia’s opening proclamation stirs the piano’s waters with relish and fortitude, giving way to a virtuosic and starkly exuberant foray, pocked by haunting, probing depressions. Although written in the composer’s 20s, it smacks of maturity and daring-do. Raffaella: “I am always impressed by the piece’s improvisational elements. At the time he was working on it, Walton was planning a jazz suite for two pianos and orchestra. Although it never panned out, you can hear this influence throughout the Toccata. The beginning contains no tempo or bar divisions. You just have to go with it.”
Two further works draw the album’s outer circle. First is Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style. Originally composed for two 1965 films (Adventures of a Dentist and Sport, Sport, Sport) by director Elem Klimov, Schnittke arranged these five selections for violin and piano in 1972. Its moods are crisp and compelling. Especially moving are the Minuet and the spirited Fugue. Only the final movement, marked “Pantomime,” has the surreal touches one might expect of the composer. Still, it is playful and fragile, ending with a mystery.
Tartiniana seconda (1956), by the 20th-century Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola, concludes. Referencing Tartini, this divertimento spreads a beautiful carpet across its four Baroque-inspired movements. “This piece enjoys great popularity in Europe,” Raffaella explains, “especially in Italy. It makes exclusive use of canons, pastorale, and variations: all forms that belong to the past.” At times ponderous and lyrical, at others swirling with ornament and invention, it culminates with a set of emphatic statements from both musicians. Of all the pieces on the album, it is the most architectural. This is no coincidence: “It helps to have the score in hand when listening, because it’s as much for the ears as it is for the eyes. In the opening Pastorale, for instance the piano plays the violin’s lines exactly, but staggered and in reverse, while in the second Variation, it plays the exact reverse, bar for bar.” The Tartiniana also gives contrast to the freer forms of Walton, lending finality and flourish to this exquisite sophomore program.
Coinciding with the release of this disc was the Duo Gazzana’s North American concert premiere when, on May 2, they performed as part of 2014’s Look & Listen Festival in New York City. For this performance, they chose the Silvestrov and Poulenc pieces from the new album, and enchanted the audience with their grace, sensitivity, and mutual resonance. Hearing this music live brought home a vital point in relation to the album’s core philosophy. Because the nature of past and future is immaterial, the only true reality of this music can be the here and now of performance and listening. On this point, Raffaella has the final word: “Chamber music has ever been one of the most beautiful expressions of liberation, one that tests the ability of performers to listen to one another in dialogue. These peculiarities attract us and in our interpretations we try to emphasize them. All the study we put into these pieces is just the grammar. But grammar must be spoken to come to life. Nowadays, it’s easy to speak without caring what other people think. Chamber music ensures we never fall into that trap. Sure, there are good performers, but it’s obvious when they’re performing only for themselves. Chamber music is, quite simply, enjoyable. It’s so beautiful to share it with such a caring musical partner, and with the listener in turn. When you do something out of love, you transmit this love to others. And people can hear this.”
On Tuesday, September 9, 2014 the Southland Ensemble presented a concert of the music of Pauline Oliveros at Human Resources in the arts-friendly Chinatown district of downtown Los Angeles. The performance space, with its wide open floor and lively acoustics was the perfect place given that the works of Ms. Oliveros typically include a theatrical component. The seating, arranged logically around the perimeter, was completely filled by those attending.
The concert opened with Sonic Rorschach (1971) and for this groups of electric fans were arrayed in the corners to provide white noise, as called for in the composers notes for this piece. A member of the Southland Ensemble was also stationed in each corner to model a contemplative pose for the audience as they filed in. After a dozen or so minutes, when all were seated and quiet, the ensemble rose together, each holding a percussive whip – two wooden slats joined by a hinge. At a signal, all the whips sounded simultaneously with a single loud crack that reflected nicely off the cement walls. The single sonic pulse from the whips was delivered with remarkable precision, given that the players were several dozen feet apart. The performers then resumed their seats as the piece concluded, immersed in the meditative white noise of the fans. Sonic Rorschach is scored for a duration of 30 minutes – and this performance was probably close to that – the time spent in meditation was a useful prelude to the rest of the concert.
Thirteen Changes (1986) followed, performed by Eric KM Clark on violin. For this piece there was recorded narration of thirteen phrases such as “Standing naked in the moonlight – Music washing the body.”, “Rollicking monkeys landing on Mars”, “A singing bowl of steaming soup”, etc, and these preceded a short impression of the text by the violin. This was also accompanied by recorded samples and audio effects – skittering and swirling, or at times a wash – and various other recorded sounds. Eric KM Clark created all of this and his voice read the text. In one sequence there were the sounds of a forest coming from the speakers, and the violin answered with a sort of mooing, matching the organic character of that segment. A distinct sentimentality is brought into the recorded mix by the violin. This seems characteristic of Ms. Oliveros work – which seems to exist at the conjunction of human emotion and ambient sound. The playing by Eric Clark was controlled and precise and nicely complimented the evocative recordings.
Bye Bye Butterfly (1985) was next, and this was the playing of an entirely recorded piece as improvised by Ms. Oliveros. This is a dual-channel tape composition incorporating two Hewlett Packard oscillators, two line amplifiers, a turn table and two tape recorders in a delay configuration. The composition was created in real time and begins with a high, pure tone that is alternately steady and varying in pitch, reminiscent of an old radio tuning in a far-away station. This had a mysterious, alien feel, but soon a chorus of female voices was heard, mixing with the tone to create a kind of rough harmony. Ms. Oliveros has written that this piece represents “..not only a farewell to the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”
Notwithstanding the feminist dimension to this piece, the combination of pure sine tones and vocals mixing smoothly together created a new and interesting context: when the vocals diminish, and the oscillator is suddenly heard alone – the listener invests an empathetic quality to it, and the alien coldness of the first hearing falls away. This mixing of overtly human and purely electronic dissolves the dividing line between the two, and the listener becomes aware of entirely new possibilities. It is this ability to conjure a completely new point of view that doubtless makes Bye Bye Butterfly one of the more popular Oliveros compositions.
Next came Song for Margrit as performed by Jon Stehney. This piece comes off more as theater than music, and begins with Stehney standing in the center of the space, arms held slightly outward with upturned palms. There is a cough, some sniffling – the word “I” is loudly spoken – and Stehney walks towards the audience. All of this is distinctly human activity but the odd movements evoke a more remote, mechanical presence. There is more walking along the edges of the crowd, with Stehney sitting for a few moments in the seats. He then rises and returns to the center of the space, shuffles, and then, unexpectedly, emits a musical hum – and this decisively changes the context. The performer becomes fully human in that instant and the remote feel of the previous actions are completely displaced by that short burst of music. Stehney exits, and the observer is left to ponder the nature of the reality just witnessed. In Song for Margrit, as with Bye Bye Butterfly, Pauline Oliveros artfully confronts us with material that contains alternate points of view.
Another theatrical piece followed, the playful Double Basses at Twenty Paces (1968). With all the mock solemnity due such an occasion, a tuxedo clad second walks to the middle of the performance space and sets up a music stand. Another second appears and meets the first in the center again, this time with stools, and they pace off in opposite directions. A conductor, played by Cassia Streb, and takes her position in the center. The two principles arrive – James Klopfleisch and Jacob Rosenzweig – carrying their basses. They are presented bows by the conductor with great ceremony and then, starting back-to-back, the two players pace off to their respective positions. The seconds, Orin Hildestad and Alex Wand, now attend each bass player and with a short ‘Allez’ from conductor Streb, the duel begins.
The ‘duel’ consisted, variously, playing in different styles and registers, of spoken explanations of bow types and other parts of the instrument, descriptions of the origin and manufacture of each bass and other such topics. Typically one player spoke while the other was playing, and it was all very light and entertaining. Eventually both bass players began to play in a soft, low strumming that gradually gained in power. The house lights were switched off and a large image of Beethoven’s death mask was projected on the wall as the last movement of his Fifth Symphony was heard through the speakers. This blended nicely with the sounds coming from the basses, but eventually the players added their voices to the mix with a series of howls and yelps. This seemed at first to be a strange combination but as the energy level from Klopfleish, Rosenzweig and the seconds increased, it took on a sort of organic unity with the recording. The controlled intensity of the Beethoven and the expressive vocals of the players melded together and the while listener could choose between formal classicism or primal scream – the message in the music was essentially the same. The overall effect was to create a gratifying connection between the old and the new; the long dead Beethoven and the immediacy of the live performance.
The concert concluded with Rock Piece (1979) and for this each member of the Southland Ensemble picked up a pair of rocks from a pile stacked in the center of the performance space. The composer’s notes state: “Each participant chooses a pair of resonant rocks to use a percussive instruments. After listening for environmental pulses each participant establishes an independent pulse with the rocks. The pulse is to be maintained steadily without any rhythmic interpretation or accents. While listening to the overall sound, if the participant perceives he/she is synchronizing exactly, or in a simple multiple or division by 2 or 3 of another participant’s pulse, s/he stops in order to listen and begin a new pulse that is independent in rate from all other pulses.”
The players started in a circle at the center of the space and moved outward from there, filling the Human Resources building with the clicking and clattering of rock striking rock. Listening to all this, the hearer often imposes a perceived rhythm for short stretches – even where none is intentionally created. At the same time one also hears the more organic and natural sound of rocks being struck randomly, like a rocky beach in a high surf. The perception of the listener oscillates back and forth between random, organic sounds and the self-imposed, seemingly intentional rhythms. Thus two realities exist that depend entirely on the context that the listener chooses to provide. Rock Piece is an engaging and surprisingly intricate piece that produces a sophisticated listening experience from the simplest of materials.
The Southland Ensemble has become a reliable resource for new music in the Los Angeles area, staging concerts of works by Christian Wolff and Alvin Lucifer in the past year. Their next concert will be December 19, 2014 featuring the music of James Tenney.
The Southland Ensemble is: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jonathan Stehney, Cassia Streb and Christine Tavolacci.
Special guests for this performance were Alex Wand and Jacob Rosenzweig.
Photos by Eron Rauch, used with permission.
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