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gnarw22The 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.

gnarwhallaby is:

Brian Walsh – Clarinets and Saxophone

Matt Barbier – Trombone and Euphonium

Derek Stein – Cello

Richard Valitutto – Piano and Melodica

15 days ago | |
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the-wavecave2On 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.

balloon2The 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

20 days ago | |
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At Window Rock (of the actual rock) is with ETHEL's Kip Jones, dear friend James Bilagody, Jesse and Fiona Sherman.

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.

24 days ago | |
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[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

Samuel Vriezen

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.

29 days ago | |
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(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.

31 days ago | |
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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.

Duo Gazzana - ECM

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.

Duo Portrait

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.”

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southland_oliveros-rauch-web-104 copyOn 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.

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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.

southland_oliveros-rauch-web-56 copyAnother 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.

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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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On August 27, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, in its first appearance at the Proms, included, along with Debussy’s La Mer and the Tschaikovsky Sixth Symphony, Šu, a concerto for Sheng and orchestra by their compatriot Unsuk Chin, with soloist Wu Wei. The sound of the sheng, which is ethereal, if not down right ineffable, dominates the work. Not only does the soloist plays almost continually throughout the work, but the orchestra’s music grows out of the music of the sheng, expanding and amplifying it. Šu, whose title comes from the name of the ancient Egyptian god of air, begins with high motionless clusters of notes, which expand and move downward in register, developing tremors and vibrations as the work progresses. The whirring motion of these slowly moving harmonies eventually develops into genuinely fast music and then a short sort of thumping dance-like section, which evaporates, leaving reminisces of the beginning, literally echoed by instruments in the back of the hall (or in the case of the Albert Hall, from somewhere in the upper tier of the boxes). The delicacy and beauty of the sound of Šu and the profound mastery of the instrumental writing is remarkable and the impression of the work lasts long in this listener’s memory. Ms. Chin apparently had avoiding writing for Asian instruments until she encountered Wu Wei’s playing, and one can easily understand why the encounter changed her mind. His playing combines overwhelmingly virtuoso playing with irresistibly compelling musical expressiveness. I’ve been trying not to use the word “astounding,” to describe it, but…

On August 20, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, presented a concert which largely had a Spanish connection, albeit in a rather roundabout way. The concert began with the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, set in Seville, and its second half consisted of pieces by Ravel which are contributions, as the program said, to the rich repertoire of Spanish music by Frenchmen, Rhapsodie espagnole, Alborad del gracioso, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Boléro. The orchestra’s playing in all of this music was elegant, stylish, polished, and just about perfect. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this concert, and more closely allied with the goals of the enterprise which the orchestra is, though, was the bulk of its first half, which included works by the Israeli composer Ayal Adler and the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, both receiving their first UK performances. Adler’s Resonating Sounds presents, across its two movements, the first slower and the second faster and more intense, different realizations of the image evoked by its title: sometimes simple echoes of loud and forcefully jabbing chords, and alternatively immense motionless and rather ominous clusters succeeded by lightly swirling and shimmering textures of micro-polyphony. The title of Roustom’s work, Ramal, is the name of the pre-Islamic arabic poetic metre on which its rhythm is based. The irregular and jagged rhythm underlies a driving and intensely dramatic music which occupies the bulk of the work’s durations is occasionally broken by slower uneasy brooding moments. Although not overtly programmatic, Roustom intended it to suggest “the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria.” Both of these pieces received intensely vivid and rhythmically vibrant performances on the same level as those of the Ravel pieces that followed.

On the ninth of August, the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder, included, along with performances of works of Berlioz, Elgar, and Beethoven, the first London performance of Near Midnight by Helen Grimes. In a mood suggested by a poem of D. H. Lawrence, Near Midnight consists of an initial assertive clanging music whose echoes dominate and roll through the succeeding three sections, finally dying out at its end. The piece is thoroughly expertly written and orchestrated with spit and polish, in a thoroughly British manner heavily indebted to and reminiscent of Britten and Knussen.

Late in the afternoon of August 20, preceding the concert of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, performed works written by the winners and the highly commended contestants of the BBC’s Inspire competition for pre-college composers, chosen by a panel of judges including composers Stuart MacRae, Anna Meredith, Martin Suckling, Fraser Trainer, Judith Weir,and Radio 3 Editor Jeremy Evans. The pieces were written for ensembles ranging from duos (La Trahison des Images, for ‘cello and piano, by Harry Castle, and Dithyramb, for bassoon and piano, by Mattew Kitteringham) to chamber orchestra (Mirror, Mirror by Matthew Jackson, Study in Anarchy by Rob Durnin, and Dis-pulsed by Harry Johnstone), with other varied instrumentation in between (Two Cells, for flute, oboe, and bassoon, by Nathaniel Coxon, Underneath for vocals and beat boxer, by Anna Disley-Simpson, The Unteachable Lesson for string quartet, by Edward Percival, Furu Ike Ya? For timpani and tape by Electra Perivolaris, and Two of Three Pieces for pierrot ensemble and percussion by Thomas Carling). There was also one family affair, since among the winners were Pilgrimage, for harp and two percussionists, by Thomas Sparkes, and The Throstle, for soprano, flute, cello, and piano by his older sister Sophie Sparkes, which set a text by their father, Edward Sparkes. The works were given serious and respectful attention and highly polished and eloquent performances. The concert also included the first performance of Darkened Dreams, commissioned by the BBC from Tom Harrold, an alumnus of the Inspire program and a current graduate student at the Royal Northern College of Music. The work, for instruments with a tape part whose source sounds were submitted by listeners of Radio 4’s PM program; it was in fact broadcast immediately on Radio 4. The other performances were recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3, along with works by Jacob Davies, Tammas Slater, Toby Hession, and Kieran Timbrell, which were recorded for the broadcast, but not performed on this concert.

That broadcast, along with the other concerts can be heard at programmes/b007v097/episodes/player

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The birthdays of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, both of whom turn 80 in 2014, is one of the major focuses of this year’s Proms. Each has a complete Proms Portrait matinee concerts in Cadogan Hall dedicated to their music on August 30 (Davies) and September 6 (Birtwistle), and Davies’s birthday, on September 8, is marked with a late night Prom in the Albert Hall. Unfortunately I will not be around for any of those concerts, but I have heard other concerts marking the birthdays.

On August 9, in Cadogan Hall on a Saturday matinee concert combined the birthday strand with another theme of this summer’s Proms, presenting orchestras new to the festival and from far afield. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, presented a concert which included Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, with Håkan Hardenberger as the trumpet solo, and Davies’s Sinfonia. The Birtwistle, for trumpet with vibraphone and strings, written in 1987 for Hardenberger, was intended by Birtwistle, who had, he said in the short discussion before the performance, cubism on his mind, as a study in discontinuity, cross cutting six kinds of music, with different tempi, figuration, and textures, in disconnected and apparently illogical ways. Birtwistle also apparently had Stan Kenton on his mind, and there is from time to time a sort of whiff of jazziness in the music, although that may be as much an effect of the sound of the vibraphone as the actual notes.

The Davies Sinfonia was written in 1962, after he had studied in Italy with Petrassi, but before he had gone to Princeton to study with Sessions and before he had begun work on Taverner, the central work of his early career. It was written under the influence of the Monteverdi Vespers and makes use of procedures from that work. The work is in Davies’s earlier, post-Webernesque Euoprean modernist style, but nonetheless has in it the beginnings of the isorythmic cantus firmus procedures that one recognizes in slightly later and possibly more characteristic piece such as Antechrist.

Both of these works received very strong, very strongly characterized, and highly persuasive performances. The concert began with a Symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and also offered, between the Birtwistle and Davies, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, and ended with Rakastava by Sibelius, a very beautiful piece for strings and percussion, of whose existence prior to this concert I had been completely unaware.

Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic on August 14 in Proms concert at Albert Hall that featured Davies’s Fifth Symphony, along with works of Sibelius (Finlandia and the Second Symphony) and Frank Bridge (Oration for ‘cello and orchestra, with Leonard Elschenbroich as the soloist). Written in 1994, when Davies performing career had moved from working with The Fires of London to conducting orchestras, mainly the BBC Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Symphony is in one movement and reflects Davies’s involvement at the time with the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which had figured in his repertory. The Symphony which at first seems to be in discontinuous shards, consists of the braiding of a fast music with increasing intensity and emphaticness and an equally impassioned and forward moving slow music with a motionless music providing moments of stasis in the overall progress, which in certain respects resembles the arc of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. It is a highly dramatic piece and it received a very dramatic and impassioned, although somewhat under-shaped performance. This Prom was preceded by a Composer Portrait concert at the Royal College of Music in which Davies talked to Andrew McGregor about his chamber works Antechrist, Runes from a Holy Island, and Six Sorano Variants, which were given excellent performances by Musicians of the London Sinfonietta Academy.

Two nights earlier The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, presented the suite from the second act of Davies’s ballet Caroline Mathilde, along with the Violin Concerto of William Walton and more music of Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony. Walton’s rather elegant and glamorous concerto is just the sort of piece that one would have written for Heifetz, who, in fact, commissioned it and gave its first performance, and it received a suitably luxurious performance from James Ehnes. Davies’s ballet is about the misadventures and eventual downfall of the title character, the sister of George III of England who, at the age of 15, was married to the Danish king Christian VII and who became the lover of his person physician, with attendant unfortunate personal and political consequences. The music from the ballet is, compared to more austere and abstract works such as the Fifth Symphony, relatively easy listening and depicts fairly clearly the story line of the choreography. The performance mirrored the clarity and sonorous beauty of the orchestral writing.

Davies’s birthday is also being celebrated by other festivals. The North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in North Yorkshire between August 24 and August 30 features a work by him on each of their concerts. I heard the concert on August 25 in the beautiful Victorian Gothic Church of St. Helen’s and All Saint’s, in Wykeham, in which the Quartetto di Cremona began the concert with the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 74 and ended it with Davies’s 6th Naxos Quartet. In the between another quartet, consisting of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Simone Brown, Meghan Cassidy, and Jaimie Walton played the Berg Lyric Suite. The 6th Naxos Quartet is a big, thirty minute long, impassioned piece which interpolates into a fairly traditional four movement layout, two short “arrangements” of plainsong hymns for the third Sunday of Advent and for Christmas Day, the day the piece was finished. All of the performances on this concert were outstanding.

The Proms was also marking the 80th birthday of the British born American composer Bernard Rands with the first UK performance of his Piano Concerto performed by Jonathan Biss and the BBC Scottish Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz. The Concerto is an imposing work which presents the soloist as a predominant member of the ensemble rather than, as Paul Conway’s program note said, “a protagonist striving heroically for supremacy over massed accompanying forces.” After a bright and lively first movement, entitled Fantasia, the second and third movements, were not clearly enough differentiated, especially in terms of tempo, as opposed to speed of figuration, to remain as separate impressions on this listeners memory.

On August 17, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze presented a concert entitled “Lest We Forget,” to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. The first half consisted of works written by composers who died in the war. The German composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), who died in the trenches of Galicia on the eastern front, was represented by Music For Orchestra from 1912, which was steeped in the language of late German romantics particularly Strauss. The Elegy for Strings in memoriam Rupert Brooke (who had himself died in the Navy in the war) by Frederick Kelly (1881-1916), who died in the last phase of the battle of the Somme, reflects more of the language of Debussy. Both of these works were indications of great potential as yet unrealized, especially the Stephan. A much stronger and more personal impression was made by the Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who also died on the Somme. He was a more fully developed composer, and several of his works, including these songs, which he wrote with piano accompaniment, but were performed here in a orchestration by Phillip Brookes, are fairly well known and not infrequently performed. Two of them, Loveliest of Trees, and The Lads In Their Hundreds, are, I think, particularly good. They were sung, more of less perfectly, by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a beautiful sound and perfect British English diction; it is hard to imagine anyone ever doing them better. The concert ended with the Vaughan Williams Third Symphony, written after the war, but formed by his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the conflict. I was very excited to hear this piece, which I’ve know since I was in high school, but had never heard live. The performance was all that one could wish for. There were a number of other Vaughan Williams pieces on the Prom presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, on August 13: The Overture to the Wasps, The Lark Ascending, and his big ballet (or as he called it ‘a masque for dancing’) Job. These performances were rather less radiant than that of the Symphony, but they did bring to mind what a very good composer Vaughan Williams was, and, especially in pieces like Job, people often don’t remember, a modernist.

All of the Proms concerts can be heard at

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Not only is it hard to describe Benedict Mason’s Meld, which was given it’s first performance on the late night Prom given by the Aurora Orchestra and the choral group Chantage, conducted by Nicholas Collon, on August 16, it’s hard even beginning to think about how to describe it. All of the advance notices of the concert were particularly, and unusually, vague about the details of the work, and even the program claimed to be not at liberty to divulge much information about it. In the concert itself, which began with the Mozart 40th Symphony (played from memory) and also included Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, a short and very attractive piece for violin and hurdy-gurdy, played (also from memory) from the organ loft by Alexandra Wood and Stevie Wishart, the fact that something was up was indicated by the emptiness of the arena and gallery of the Albert Hall, the domain of the promenaders. One noticed a number of people who are continually there as promenaders in very good seats in the stalls.

Once it was underway it was clear that Meld was going to use all of the Albert Hall, up, down, inside, and out. It began with a mysterious and halting throbbing music coming from some place outside of the hall which turned into a march for a parade of players across the gallery at the top of the hall. Suddenly there were four bass players in the lower tier of boxes, echoing a group of ‘cellos and basses in the gallery, and then, suddenly without one having noticed their getting there at all, the entire upper tier of boxes was filled with pairs of players and singers, who sent volleys of pizzicato notes ricocheting around the hall, succeeded by skittering and scurrying flurries of notes. After a period of time when different kinds of groups with different instrumentation would seem to simply appear in lots of different places, a bevy of horns started moving over the arena area and the stage, and eventually through the audience, followed by other people, playing various percussion instruments, sometimes moving very fast, pursuing, as the poet says, urgent voluntary errands. Then there were some small groups of players in the arena, seemingly menaced (I’m not sure if there’s another word for it) by one or two people wearing some kind of stoles of clacking blocks. The sequence of events is somewhat hazy in the memory, although the events themselves were striking and memorable. During all of this, the music–the actual notes being played–which had a fairly high level of complexity, was always full of detail and held one’s interest.

After a while the delight and excitement about what would happen next began to ebb somewhat, but not so much that anything ever got, for lack of a better word, boring. I found myself, though, wondering about what the shape of the piece being presented in this all enveloping environment and its structural argument might be. I was reminded of a place in the final scene of The Years by Virginia Woolf where one of the characters asks herself whether, if one could get far enough above life, one might be able to see a pattern in it. After a while longer I found myself thinking of another Woolf and wondering if Meld wasn’t a pageant, in some ways like the pageant in Between the Acts, including in its outlining some kind of (unspecified–in the case of the Mason) loosely historical progression. Pageants are a series of more or less static and not necessarily closely connected tableaux whose larger scale succession, thematic in some way, but not plot based, rather than the immediate flow of the individual moments give the work’s structure and continuity. At some points in Meld we seemed to be in fact offered some kind of excerpts of a pageant, in the bit with the clacking stoles, and also in a segment where most of the chorus and some players coalesced in the arena, first rolling balls of some kind and appearing to play some kind of game (cricket?), then formed several small groups doing what appeared to be some kind of folk dancing, and then made one big ring around the perimeter, before forming two groups that then sat for a few moments in seats in opposite sides of the stalls, muttering. At a certain point one began to wonder when and how it was all going to end, and eventually it did, but I can’t remember how, although I think it was more with a whimper than a bang.

There was never any point in this almost hour long work which was not engaging or at which the material, musical or otherwise, seemed anything less than first class. The performance, by 93 players and 49 singers, was astounding–completely committed and assured. They were playing without music, although everybody seemed to have receivers and earphones, and some of them seemed to be wearing cameras, so its hard to know exactly what information they were getting from that. The program listed a person responsible for staging and choreography (Mason), a movement director (Chris Tutor), and two people who did a click-track (Felix Bastian Dreher and Griff Hewis). The work involved in planning and executing the whole effort must have been mammoth, and it was brilliantly accomplished.

The recording of this Prom is available at

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