On October 28th, a triple bill at Spectrum in NYC:
Mivos Quartet performs Yvonne Wu’s piece “Utterance,” the winner of their annual call for scores.
Iktus Percussion will showcase an evening of “clever, outrageous and adventurous” theatrical music by Rick Burkhardt, Paula Matthusen, and Paul Pinto (whose new album minis/Trajectories is out now).
Quiet City will perform as a sextet: Vasudevan Panicker (piano), Pat Muchmore (cello), Tiffany Chang (percussion), and three guitarists from the Glenn Branca Ensemble: Luke Schwartz, Arad Evans, and Greg McMullen. The set will include pieces by each of the guitarists and a Muchmore cello solo.
More info and RSVP on Facebook
On Saturday, October 8, 2016 Jacaranda Music presented a pre-season event titled Intimate Letters featuring the Lyris Quartet in a concert preview of their new CD by the same name. Intimate Letters contains newly-commissioned pieces by four different composers, each writing a work of musical commentary and reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janácek. “Intimate Letters” is the nickname given by Janácek to this piece, inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger with whom over 700 letters were exchanged during a span of 11 years. The practice of commissioning new works that look to the past has lately become fashionable, and this project by Jacaranda and the Lyris Quartet involved composers Bruce Broughton, Billy Childs, Peter Knell and Kurt Rohde. The four world premieres comprised the first half of the concert, and a performance of String Quartet No. 2 by Janácek followed the intermission. The spacious sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica was mostly filled for the concert and the event included an after-party that was held in the adjacent courtyard.
The first piece in the program was Fancies, by Bruce Broughton, who wrote in the program notes: “Fancies is essentially a rhapsody/fantasia built upon the opening figures [of String Quartet No. 2 ], the most obvious being a motor rhythm that reappears throughout the piece.” Accordingly, Fancies began with a strong, repeating tutti figure, complete with rapid runs and lively trills. The tempo was brisk, but not frenetic, and the clean playing by the Lyris Quartet gave a solid coherence to the ensemble. The busy sections morphed and mutated as the piece progressed, alternating, at times, with slower stretches that often had a tinge of questioning doubt. Of all the new pieces on the program, Fancies seemed the most closely related to the early 20th century music of Janácek in form and gesture. Mr. Broughton is a well-known composer of film scores and TV themes; his versatility and craftsmanship make Fancies a vivid re-imagining of the Janácek style.
Intimate Voices, by Peter Knell, followed and in many ways this was the converse of the Broughton piece, opening with a slow, soft chord and sustained pitches. Intimate Voices is built around four notes, G, C, F# and D, that appear as the viola solo heard in the first minute of the first movement of String Quartet No. 2. This has a delicate, nuanced quality that is calm and settled, like drifting along at sea on a windless day. As the piece progressed the tempo occasionally moved ahead, but always returned to the slower, more deliberate pace of the opening. The long tones allowed for some lovely harmonies to develop and the playing by the Lyris Quartet was full and balanced. Intimate Voices is a serene and peaceful work, artfully developed from just a tiny fragment of the Janácek composition.
Inside voice, by Kurt Rohde was next and this began with a rapid series of strong tutti phrases, nicely realized with precise playing. Stretches of sustained tones appeared among the busier sections, but overall the feel was actively robust and searching. As Kurt Rohde writes: “At the onset, inside voice has a clear focus; it is intent on a specific course only to become distracted; it comes into focus then develops a new interest.” There were strongly syncopated passages that on occasion were separated by a few moments of silence; you could see that the players maintained good visual communication in order to coordinate their entrances properly. As the piece moved forward – through both the smoothly harmonic and the briskly complex – the sections seemed to evolve from feelings of expectation, to isolation, to anxiety and finally, exasperation at the finish. Inside voice is a technically challenging piece, ably played by the Lyris Quartet, and one that accurately captures the varied emotions and restless character of String Quartet No. 2.
Unrequited, by Billy Childs was the final new piece performed, and this opened warmly with lush harmonies and slow, sustained phrases. At times one could hear a tinge of remoteness and even loneliness in the passages. This had a sad – almost melancholy – feel, as Billy Childs noted in the program notes: “The first thing – the only thing, really – that popped into my mind was the tragedy of unrequited love.” The harmony and counterpoint were effectively matched and perhaps a bit more conventionally familiar as compared to the other pieces on the program. As Unrequited progressed, it became, at times, more actively complex and these sections were nicely navigated by the Lyris Quartet. At other times it turned dramatic, mysterious or quietly plaintive. Towards the finish, a haunting viola solo arose and was passed to the violins as the piece concluded on long, mournful chord. Unrequited is a masterful recounting of the essential emotions underlying String Quartet No. 2.
After the intermission, all four movements of String Quartet No. 2 by Leoš Janácek. “Intimate Letters” were performed. Billy Childs described this piece perfectly in the program notes: “The first time I heard Janácek’s quartet performed live, the emotion of the piece jumped out at me: the wild shifts of tempo, the beautiful and plaintive melodies, the stark dynamic contrasts.” All of this was brought brilliantly to life in the playing of the Lyris Quartet. The changing moods – from a bright, strident feel to the calm and settled passages to dramatic uncertainty – were fully explored with precision and intensity. More significantly, the full performance of String Quartet No. 2 illuminated the newly-commissioned pieces in a way that revealed the essential character of each.
In commissioning this look at String Quartet No. 2 through the artistry of four contemporary composers, the Lyris Quartet has found an important way to engage Jacaranda subscribers in the support of original new music. Whatever your view on the drawing of artistic inspiration from masterpieces of the past, the excellence of these new works, the masterful playing of the Lyris Quartet and the engaging subject matter insured the success of the Intimate Letters concert.
The Lyris Quartet will perform the Intimate Letters concert again on Tuesday, October 25, 2016 – 8pm at Monk Space in Koreatown.
The Lyris Quartet is:
Alyssa Park, violin
Shalini Vijayan, violin
Luke Maurer, viola
Timothy Loo, cello
Saturday, October 1, 2016 was the Noon to Midnight event at Disney Hall consisting of a series of new music concerts, many by local groups. The event ran more or less continuously – here are some observations on what I was able to see and hear.
At 3:30 PM wasteLAnd set up shop in the BP Hall area to perform three pieces, including a world premiere by Nicholas Deyoe commissioned by the LA Philharmonic. The first piece was Invisibility (2009) by Lisa Lim for solo cello, performed by Ashley Walters. The opening section began with Ms. Walters holding a bow whose hair had been twisted into a coarse rope and this gave rise to a series of rough, skittering runs that immediately challenged the listener’s expectation of how a cello should sound. Ms. Lim writes, “The ‘invisibility’ of the title of the piece is not about silence, for the work is full of sounds. Rather, I am working with an idea of the invisible or latent forces of the physical set-up of the instrument. What emerges as the instrument is sounded in various increasingly rhythmicized ways is a landscape of unpredictable nicks and ruptures as different layers of action flow across each other.”
The result was musical, but with a density and texture that explore completely new territory. The acoustics of the BP Hall space, however, were not up to the task of transmitting the subtle details of this to the large audience, and the ambient noise of passersby on the adjacent walkway obscured many of the finer nuances. Midway through Ms. Walters changed to a standard bow, and the piece became much smoother, more delicate and more familiar. The rhythms increased a bit in complexity and the resulting sound seemed somewhat stronger out in the hall. Finally, Ms. Walters grasped both bow types – one in each hand – and continued with an amazing show of virtuosity by using them simultaneously. This produced a wonderful mix of rough and smooth textures as the “… different layers of action flow across each other.” Invisibility expands the sonic language of the cello in new and intriguing ways and this deft performance by Ms. Walters was received with strong applause.
Tout Oreguil… by Erik Ulman followed, featuring Èlise Roy on woodwinds and soprano Stephanie Aston. Ulmann is the featured composer for wasteLAnd during the current season. Ms. Roy and Ms. Aston began Tout Oreguil… with interweaving lines – a stabbing and thrusting feel from Ms. Roy – whose cutting sound seemed to dominate in this space – and a smoother, more connected sound from the voice of Ms. Aston. This interplay produced a gently haunting feel and midway through Ms. Roy switched to a bass flute whose deep notes added a sense of mystery. The longer, more connected notes now coming from the soprano might have enhanced this, but the acoustics of the BP Hall space were working against subtlety. Towards the finish, a nice counterpoint in the voice restored some balance. Tout Oreguil… is an intriguing work with artful passages and fine phrasing, deserving of a more intimate venue.
The final piece from wasteLAnd was Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, by Nicholas Deyoe and this world premiere was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic. Scored for flute, soprano, cello, bass and trombone, this opened quietly with high pitches in the strings soon joined by a warm soprano lead. The text for this piece was by Allison Carter, but the marginal acoustics of the space precluded any clarity here. This is soft music and was most effective when the soprano voice of Stephanie Aston dominated over the muted accompaniment underneath. The emotive range of Ms. Aston’s singing was especially beautiful and ultimately transcended the inaudibility of the text. As the piece progressed it acquired a more agitated feel, primarily in the muted trombone, and the color turned a bit darker in the strings. The precise playing here – and a somewhat louder dynamic – worked to offset the ambient noise. The interplay of the various instruments also helped, but invariably it was the soprano vocals that decisively enhanced the atmosphere of this piece. Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along is a finely crafted work, containing great empathy and compassion, and deserves to be heard in a more suitable venue.
At 4:30 PM in the Keck Ampitheatre outdoors, Monday Evening Concerts presented percussionist Jonathan Hepfer who performed two solo pieces. The first of these was Le corps á corps by Georges Aperghis and this was sung in French by Hepfer who also played a single drum by hand. The vocals were very expressive, combining a variety of inflections and sounds as well as words. There were quietly smooth sections that alternated with sharper and louder segments. Some ingenious head movements – and moments of posing in complete stillness – created an engaging choreography. Even without understanding a word of French, Le corps á corps continuously entertained those sitting in the almost full ampitheatre.
Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988), by Alvin Lucier followed and this was simplicity itself, consisting of a single triangle held up to the microphone. Hepfer began by setting a moderately rapid, steady beat and then proceeded to methodically modify the sound of the triangle by holding it in various ways and by striking it in different locations. The initial sound was a sort of dull clicking – Hepfer had grabbed one arm of the triangle – and as he slowly loosened his grip the sound contained progressively more overtones, adding a noticeable sparkle. This cut through some of the inevitable noise present in an outdoor venue downtown, although the Keck Ampitheatre is fairly well enclosed. As Hepfer continued to change the position of his hands and the location of the wand, the triangle issued an amazing variety of sounds, volumes and timbres. These changes were often subtle, but this served to increase the focus of the listeners. Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra is a remarkable exercise in the discrimination of small changes in sound from a transparently simple instrument.
Jacaranda occupied the main auditorium in Disney Hall at 5:30 PM for Trance Room, a concert of works by David Lang, Hans Abrahamsen and Steve Reich. The first piece heard was sleeper’s prayer by David Lang, commissioned by the LA Philharmonic and this was the world premiere. Lang’s work tends toward the spiritually introspective this new piece was scored simply, for pipe organ and boy soprano. Lang chose as his text some paraphrased Jewish bedtime prayers remembered from his childhood. The pipe organ began by laying down a nice moving line that worked effectively as counterpoint to the simple melody in the soprano. This had a lovely Medieval feel to it and would be at home in any church or cathedral. The soprano, who looked to be about twelve years old and whose name was unfortunately missing from the program, must be given much credit for his solo performance of an important work in a major venue before a large audience. Once or twice his voice seemed lost in the vast spaces of Disney Hall, but he bravely persisted and his exquisitely pure tones soared delicately above the busier notes of the pipe organ. This timbrel purity of the voice and the simplicity of sleeper’s prayer make this sweetly elegant music.
Schnee (Snow) by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen followed, and for this a small chamber ensemble consisting of two pianos, strings and woodwinds took the stage. Soft, very high tones in the violin began the piece, soon joined by a quietly simple piano melody and a few clicks and taps. There was a period of silence, and the sequence was repeated. All of this was very subtle – almost inaudible – but it precisely evoked the sense of a light snowfall just beginning outside a big picture window on a deep winter night. The quiet rusting of the snow, a light gust of wind and the needle-sharp, icy tones all combined to paint a vivid picture in the imagination. As the piece proceeded, the second piano, woodwinds and percussion entered, adding a brighter, more blustery feel; you could practically feel the snow drifting outside. A soft, distant melody is heard, perhaps coming up from the town across the frozen landscape. Schnee artfully captures all of the elements that make the memory of a winter snowfall so wistfully nostalgic.
The final piece performed for the Trance Room concert was Eight Lines (1983) by Steve Reich, to mark the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday. Donald Crockett conducted the full Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble. Eight Lines begins in a bright 5/4 meter with repeating syncopated lines from the two pianos and sustained tones from the strings. Woodwinds enter with complimentary phrases and the piece soon develops that solid groove so typical of Reich’s music from this period. The various instruments enter, add a new line for a while, then withdraw. A key change midway through made for a smile and the audience seemed to respond to the rhythmic optimism of this piece for the entire 16 minutes. Eight Lines feels like a compact version of the earlier Music for 18 Musicians; Jacaranda played with precision and verve and was repaid with sustained applause.
Noon to Midnight will be remembered as a great success for the Green Umbrella series – and a credit to John C. Adams who curated. Our local talent rose to the occasion and the enthusiasm of the large crowds attending should be a sign to the LA Philharmonic management to expand these kinds of events in the future.
The first Green Umbrella concert of the season was held on Saturday, October 1, 2016 at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The LA Philharmonic hosted Noon to Midnight, a series of ‘pop-up performances’ and events that included works by numerous local contemporary composers and music ensembles, two sound installations, and an evening concert by the LA Phil New Music Group titled Four World Premiers. Some 16 different events were scheduled over the entire day, starting at noon, and were sited at various venues within the Disney Hall complex. The combination of a sunny fall morning, minimal downtown traffic and a large, enthusiastic crowd made for a festival atmosphere, with everyone moving cheerfully about, partaking of the various presentations.
Nimbus, a sound/performance installation created by Yuval Sharon and Rand Steiger, was invariably encountered first, suspended as it was in the space above the long bank of elevators that lead from the parking structure deep beneath Disney Hall up to the lobby. Described in the program as “…an installation that transforms a transitional space into a performance site…” Nimbus is a fanciful simulation of a rain cloud – the fluffy, cotton-candy variety – whose interior lighting and music accompaniment change with time over the course of the day. Twenty-plus sections of music were written for Nimbus by Rand Steiger and recorded by members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, (or created from recorded samples), sung by guest vocalists and even electronically extracted from filtered escalator noise. The mystical sights and sounds of Nimbus perfectly set the mood as people ascended upwards to the lobby. The soprano voices of Kirsten Ashley Wiest, Ashley Cutright and Hillary Young singing in just intonation were especially memorable for their feathery, ethereal glory. An added touch was the continuous procession of uniformed performers holding hand bells and striking solemn tones as they rode up and down the escalators among the entering patrons.
Because the scattered events of Noon to Midnight overlapped somewhat in their starting times, it was impossible to see everything. Here is a summary of some of what was happening during the day.
The festivities began at 12:15 with the world premiere of Porcupine for tent, quintet, bows and elbows by Ana PRVACKI, by Veronika Krausas. This was commissioned by the LA Phil and featured five players from the bass section clustered under an opaque, white tent. The tops of the instruments looked like so many tent poles as they played within. Occasionally an arm could be seen in outline, or a bow would project momentarily into the top of the tent. This added a kind of choreography to the piece – when the playing was rapid or intense, the movement of the tent followed accordingly. In slower or quieter sections the stillness of the fabric tended to focus attention on the sound. The piece had enough variety – solemn and quiet stretches along with fast runs and busy phrases – so that the motion of the tent exhibited a number of different appearances. The formal feel of the bass music coming from inside was countered by the playful vision of a moving tent, and the overall effect was something like watching a living organism, moving and shaking as if animated by the music. By including this unorthodox motion and movement of the tent, Porcupine for tent, quintet, bows and elbows by Ana PRVACKI adds an important dimension to performance that is otherwise masked by our standard expectation of performers in tuxedos.
At 1:00 PM wild Up appeared in the main auditorium, led by Christopher Rountree who conducted four original pieces by participants in the 2016 National Composers Intensive. This is a program that “…offers young composers aged 18 to 30 the opportunity to gather in Los Angeles for an immersive multi-day workshop and have their works performed…” Rountree explained that the pieces chosen for this concert were selected on the basis of clarity and consonance with the composers’ voice.
Una Corda by Katie Balch was first and this began with a strong tutti chord dominated by percussion that projected an otherworldly feel, pleasantly spacey and not scary. The texture was clear and balanced with effective orchestration in all sections. Una Corda included a prepared piano, ably manned by Richard Valitutto, and this produced a distinctively percussive sound that added nicely to the atmospherics. Repeating figures rippled precisely through wild Up and at times the rhythms became active and intense. A full tutti crescendo surged upward towards the finish as a lovely trill in the piano trailed off into silence. Una Corda is a well-crafted soundscape that displays full command over all of its musical elements.
Wired, by Ali Can Puskulcu followed and this immediately lived up to its title with a large chaotic crash in all parts – eventually brought to order by the steady beat of a bass drum. As the piece proceeded, it turned even more frenetic at times, but always coherent as the phrases flashed by. A fine viola solo about midway through provided a more tranquil stretch, followed by a loud piano crash that immediately re-escalated the tension. Improbably, a quoted fragment of what sounded like classical Christmas music found its way into the mix, playfully underlining the eclectic nature of Wired as it galloped off into yet more frenzied passages. All of this was cleanly played by wild Up, who artfully discharged the high energy inherent in this piece. At the conclusion Ali Can Puskulcu bounded onto the stage to acknowledge the applause, his animated liveliness the very definition of ‘wired’.
Sear, by Tina Tallon was next and this was an ambitious attempt to portray through music the effects of a perforated ear drum and resulting tinnitus as experienced by the composer. Sear begins with thin, very high pitches combined with a sort of rough, scratchy sound in the upper strings – an effective simulation of what could be a harsh ringing in the ears. After some moments this was followed by the soft sounds of air blowing through the horns and woodwinds, and the clicking and scraping from various other instruments. The piano strings were plucked, producing actual musical tones, and these slowly increased in intensity. More musical flourishes followed in the xylophone, flute and trombone, building to a strong crescendo that included a booming bass drum and distorted electronics. Ms. Tallon reports that some 2000 tiny bells – the kind you can get for Christmas tree decorations – were used to recreate the piercing upper harmonics of tinnitus and this proved very effective. Quiet returned, and the soft clicking and whispering resumed – only to build again into a harsh, almost painful surge of sound that reached new heights in volume – before ending in a sudden silence. Sear was a powerfully cathartic experience for the audience, who responded with cheers and fervent applause.
The final piece of the wild Up concert was gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond by Thomas Kotcheff. This began with a series of forceful tutti statements followed by quiet, and then repeated. This alternation between powerful and soft continued with some nice piano playing by Richard Valitutto in the quieter stretches. A series of crescendos followed, led by some brilliant snare drumming, while a hint of tension crept into strings. A tutti section, dominated by excellent guitar playing followed, building up to a strong orchestral sound complete with raucous piano crashes. As the piece concluded, an extended coda brought to mind the climax of a big piano concerto. gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond is a wild ride, fueled by the boisterous yet disciplined playing of wild Up.
Later in the afternoon, another local ensemble, Gnarwhallaby, convened in the BP Hall space to present three pieces. The first was the world premiere of Heart / Lung by Michelle Lou, commissioned by the LA Philharmonic. This begins with a mystical rattling, the sound of bells in the amplified electronics and a soft trombone tone. Mechanical sounds emanating from the electronics created a sense of being inside a machine. Three of the Gnarwhallaby players – the clarinet, cello and trombone – were removed from the keyboard a distance of some 30 feet. Although playing into microphones, this separation, the unconfined acoustics of the BP Hall space and ambient crowd noise from the adjacent walkway all combined to obscure the various sounds somewhat, flattening and diluting the texture. The instruments were often muted, providing a soft, empathetic counterpoint to the electronic sounds of the machinery. The idea of separation to enhance this contrast was well-founded, but a more intimate space might have worked better for Heart / Lung. Even so, the feeling of labored breathing came through effectively, and towards the end the mechanical sounds became rougher and more distressed before ceasing at the finish. Heart / Lung thoughtfully invites the listener to ponder the contrast between the mechanics of heart/lung function and the actual humanity of being alive.
For the second piece, hatsik-1, by Ramon Lazkano, the players of Gnarwhallaby re-positioned themselves closer to the piano. Hatsik-1 begins with a series of mysterious phrases from the piano, soon accompanied by sustained tones in the clarinet and trombone. This piece has a dark feel, especially in the loud tutti chords led by the piano. The piano trades short phrases with the other instruments and the tension continues to increase, especially in the higher registers. The piano answers with a series of forceful cluster chords that are followed by a strong trombone response and high clarinet notes, increasing the tension still further right to the finish. The ambient conditions in BP Hall once again worked against any delicacy or detail, but hatsik-1 was powerful enough in its scoring – and in the playing by Gnarwhallaby – to carry through.
The final piece was Muzyczka IV (concert puzonowy), Op. 28, by Henryk Górecki and this has been a staple of the Gnarwhallaby repertoire for some years. This piece was written before the more well-known minimalistic Symphony No. 3 by Górecki and is an intense and forceful work requiring trombone playing on a heroic level. Matt Barbier has completely mastered this and Muzyczka IV proceeded in the first section with all its compelling dynamism – as if a pitched battle was unfolding before the audience. Despite all the musical fireworks – and with Barbier in full cry – the acoustics of the BP Hall worked against even this mighty sound, noticeably lessening its effect. At the tranquillissimo, ben tenuto section, there is the slow dirge-like melody in the clarinet and trombone that beautifully evokes a solemn melancholy – and this, sadly, was mostly obscured by the ambient crowd noise. The haunting, church-tower chords that ring out from the piano likewise suffered, vastly reducing their impact. Muzyczka IV (concert puzonowy) is a vivid portrayal of the finality of loss and Gnarwhallaby absolutely owns this work. All the more reason to regret the marginal listening conditions that confronted the large and appreciative audience.
There was much more happening at Disney Hall and a second review will cover some of the concerts presented later in the afternoon. The informal atmosphere, the excellent performances and the large audiences combined to create the ideal environment for new music here in Los Angeles. John C. Adams once again deserves much credit for organizing this first Green Umbrella concert of the season from among mostly local talent. Disney Hall management take note!
Steve Reich turns 80 today. I can’t think of a better way to fete the composer on record than DG’s recent reissue of the 1974 recording of Drumming. Performed by Reich and “Musicians,” it presents one of the seminal works in his catalog. Drumming rounded out the first “phase” of his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), and it was followed by pieces that explore intricate pitch relationships and, from the 1980s onward, an increased interest in historical context and dramatic narrative. The triple LP set also contains the vital works Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Six Pianos.
A new piece by Reich will be unveiled at Carnegie Hall on November 1st. Thus, he remains an imposing presence in the field of contemporary classical music. Happy birthday Mr. Reich, and many more.
Out today on Nonesuch is John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a concerto for violin and orchestra of symphonic proportions. Composed for soloist Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson, it also features Chester Englander as a “shadow soloist” playing cimbalom.
The program is, deliberately one suspects, somewhat veiled, but uncannily timed. It deals with the disempowered status of women, a given in the original Arabian Nights, and how they regain their voice and, ultimately, a sense of sanctuary from persecution. This is a theme that remains sadly relevant to current events, both abroad in far too many countries (and for far too many exiles and refugees) and in the United States’ disarrayed electoral politics.
Josefowicz plays marvelously, with a bravura demeanor that displays the courage of the title “character” and abundant virtuosity to boot. Robertson conducts St. Louis in a compelling and multifaceted performance, etching the details of the piece’s vivid orchestration and, while never overbalancing the soloists, bringing tremendous power to bear. When Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) premiered, it was a watershed work for his compositional language, signaling a shift to a broader palette of harmonic and historic reference points. It appears quite possible that this is another pivotal piece in the composer’s catalogue.
On Wednesday, September 21, 2016 the innovative Soundwaves concert series continued at the Santa Monica Public Library featuring the music of Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams as performed by the group Just Strings. Alison Bjorkedal, John Schneider and T.J. Troy comprise Just Strings, who specialize in performing music in just intonation. Ms. Bjorkedal brought two harps – one orchestra-sized instrument tuned in Pythagorean temperament and a second smaller Celtic harp also tuned in JI. John Schneider came equipped with two guitars and there were an array of percussion items surrounding T.J. Troy.
The concert opened with Yup’ik Dances (1995), a collection of short pieces by John Luther Adams. An active environmentalist, Adams has spent most of his composing career in Alaska, inspired by both the landscape and the people there. Although not precise transcriptions of Native indigenous music, Yup’ik Dances is informed by their sturdy directness. He writes : “These little pieces are part of a larger cycle based on traditional dance songs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. It is my hope that they convey something of my deep admiration for Native cultures, as well as my love of the forests, rivers, lakes and mountains of this place.” Invitation to the Dance begins Yup’ik Dances and a light percussive drumming lays down a solid beat. The harp dominates with an appealingly exotic, but never alien melody. Overall, this has a warm and welcoming feel. Jump Rope Song followed, and this featured a simple back-and-forth between the guitar and harp, trading playful passages. The percussion was tacet, but the rhythm was ably carried along in the strings.
Shaman’s Moon Song was next, and this had a more purposeful feel as the drumming rejoined the ensemble. A dramatic melody from the strings added to the sense of importance as the piece proceeded, leading up to a nicely executed ending. Juggling Song featured the guitar and harp interweaving rapid phrases and rhythmic patterns so that even without the percussion there was a convincing sense of balance and motion. Yup’ik Dances concluded with It Circles Me and this had repeating, syncopated harp passages offset with a strong guitar counterpoint in the lower registers that was very effective. There was a slightly vexing feel to this, even as the light drumming contributed a reassuringly regular beat to the texture. Yup’ik Dances is an artful sketch of indigenous Alaskan music, elegant in its simplicity and yet realized with fullness by the players.
Harp Suite #1, by Lou Harrison followed and this is a collection of miniatures composed from 1964 to 1972. Jahla (1972) was first and this opened with finger cymbals and a lightly tapped tambourine. The harp joined with a quick rhythmic figure that established a nice groove as the piece progressed. The intricate development in the melody gave this a light, airy feel. Music for Bill & Me (1967) followed and for this Ms. Bjorkedal took up the smaller harp. A slow, deliberate melody arose that evoked a quiet, introspective ambiance. The distinctive character of this had all the markings of Harrison’s well known Asian influences. Avalokiteshvara (1964) was next and this featured two sets of small xylophones played by T. J. Troy and John Schneider that issued a complex set of repeating patterns. This established a solid, purposeful groove, and the orchestral harp entered with a syncopated melody that was most effective. Avalokiteshvara was precisely played by Just Strings, who imparted all the virtues of classic minimalism in good form.
The suite concluded with Beverly’s Troubadour Piece (1967) and for this the finger cymbals, bongos and the smaller harp wove a series of different rhythms in and around each other in a delightful pattern – all projecting a courtly, almost formal feel that was perfectly suited to the title. Harp Suite #1 is a brightly beautiful group of pieces, expertly played in this performance, and a telling example of how much Lou Harrison could extract from even small musical forces.
Another Lou Harrison piece, Lyric Phrases (1972) followed, and this began with the scraping of a stick on a gourd by T. J. Troy. A light knocking here also set a steady beat. The guitar joined in with the melody and the orchestral harp repeated a two-note repeating rhythm underneath. All of this had a light, easy feel with an overall sound that was reminiscent of near eastern music. The optimistic character of this piece filled the room with a cheerful buoyancy, abetted by the fine ensemble playing.
The concert concluded with Athabascan Dances (1995) by John Luther Adams and this series of five short pieces formed a natural book-end with the opening suite. Grandpa Joe’s Traveling Song was first, and this included the orchestral harp, guitar and what looked to be a group of rattles from the percussion that set down a rhythmic groove. There was a rural, almost country music feel to this – a sound more familiar than that of the Yup’ik Dances. A nice harp solo was heard towards the end followed by a da capo finish. They Will All Go was the next piece and here bongos were played with a mallet to set the beat while the harp carried a light melody above counterpoint in the guitar. This graceful lyricism here clearly revealed the influence of Lou Harrison, longtime mentor to JL Adams.
Deenaadai’ followed, slower and more dramatic. The harp, guitar and what looked to be a small dulcimer all contributed separate melodies – barely connected – and yet the sum of them coalesced nicely. Deenaadai’ sets a serious mood, crowned by the sounding of mystical bells at the end. By contrast, Grandpa Joe’s Hunting Song had a bright, happy feel, and a more dance-like rhythm. The joy of time spent in the outdoors and in nature was clearly evident and it seemed, again, like our own country music but with a generous Asian influence. Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man completed this set and conveyed a solemn, declarative sense that also felt a bit distant. Odd rhythmic figures were scattered throughout in a way that increased the solitary feel. As this piece progressed, it became more animated with the addition of a strong, rattling percussion. The guitar and orchestral harp engaged in a lively duo, as if duplicating the potlatch gift-giving ritual. As Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man approached its conclusion the drumming and strongly syncopated harp produced a more plaintive feeling, as if summarizing the plight of a lonely man in the clannish Athabascan culture.
All of the works performed by Just Strings in this concert were skillfully played and the alternate tuning smoothly realized. The small scale of these pieces by Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams served to highlight the importance of the craft and detail so artfully employed in the creation of this music.
A recording of many of the pieces performed in this concert is available from Microfest Records.
The next Soundwaves concert is Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 7:30 PM and will feature pianist Vicki Ray.
One of the noteworthy recordings released in 2016 is the Kepler Quartet’s third volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records). Johnston, who turned ninety this year, is well known for his work in unconventional tuning systems, namely extended just intonation. The complexity of some of his works in this system, notably the Seventh Quartet, included on Kepler’s volume 3, ranks up there with some of the toughest chamber works in the literature. Even a seemingly more straightforward piece, such as his Fourth Quartet, a trope on “Amazing Grace,” can provide both formidable pitch and rhythmic challenges. Recently, I was in touch with the violinists of the Kepler to discuss Johnston’s work and the new recording.
Eric Segnitz, 2nd violinist for the Kepler Quartet and producer
When did you first become familiar with Ben Johnston’s work?
I was aware of the original Fine Arts Quartet’s 1964 recording of Ben’s 4th Quartet (Amazing Grace) as a student in the late 70″s, from studying briefly with Leonard Sorkin–the FAQ 1st violinist who commissioned the piece. I subsequently played it several times for the Present Music concert series in Milwaukee, as well as Calamity Jane and her Daughter, Ben’s transcription of Harry Partch’s Barstow, and a few other works.
When you decided to go about recording the quartets, did you have any idea how long it would take to realize the project?
No idea whatsoever. But we made the commitment to Ben, to New World Records, and to ourselves to complete it–damn the torpedoes!
An article in the N.Y. Times (and other writers) have called Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet “the most complex ever written.” Do you agree? Why do you think it is so hard?
The crazy crawling harmonies, that’s obviously extremely complex. The challenge that is not-so-obvious is that he is dealing with the way time passes, movement by movement; time passing so quickly that it leaves you in the dust, time elapsing at a normal pace– but with a surreal 3D layering of palindromes offset by various cell lengths, or time dragging so slowly that it’s hard to fully comprehend the rigorous structure which exists. To me, that is the underlying brilliance of the piece.
How does the Seventh Quartet compare to the others in terms of difficulty?
In the sense of the sheer number of pitches involved, yes, #7 is the most difficult. But that is only one type of challenge posed by Ben. In Quartet #6 (also on this 3rd CD) for instance, every chord overlaps with the one both before and after it. Given the nature of the chords to begin with, that’s extremely challenging in it’s own right.. And I could cite multifarious examples of uncharted waters, throughout his 10 quartets.
I was recently speaking to a friend who heard your recording of the Fourth Quartet, loved it, and decided to work on it with a student quartet. He said that he was surprised that something that, audibly and on the surface, seemed so accessible to players was actually quite hard. Do you find that too – that “appearances can be deceiving” in terms of the complexity of these pieces.
Yes and no… he uses a genius-level grasp of musical craft to achieve a music that everyone can relate to in a spiritual/emotional way, if they give it that chance. It’s a music that resonates because, once again, it’s founded upon the natural order of acoustics.
Now that you’ve climbed this Parnassian mountain, what’s next for the Kepler Quartet? Which composers are you interested in performing and recording?
Even though we all play a lot of contemporary music, it might be useful to draw some connections to where this music came from. It’s easy to think of Ben as a maverick composer, a unique innovator, a specialist. He is, but also much more than that. He’s really a great composer in the traditional sense, and his music will only become truly appreciated in that larger context.
Sharan Leventhal, 1st violinist for the Kepler Quartet
How did you go about learning the quartets?
We dealt with them one at a time. There is a certain amount of work that needs to happen before the playing begins. Each pitch must be defined according to its role in the harmony within the just intonation system. Ben’s notation provides a tool for establishing the relationships in every chord, no matter where he has taken the progression. Adding and subtracting his accidentals places a pitch. The ultimate judge is your ear, because every note is determined by its function. Once you understand your role within a given chord, you will hear how to place your notes. Of course, as with any piece, we study the score, to understand its structure and the emotional intention behind the music. Rehearsing is a slow painstaking process of tuning and balancing each chord while gaining an intellectual grasp of the harmonic journey. As the sonic world comes into focus, it informs our choices about the timbre and shape of individual phrases. We worked through every single note of every single chord with the composer, uncovering copy errors, and getting his input on musical decisions.
Why do you think that the Seventh Quartet is so hard?
The 7th quartet is especially daunting because it has a hugely expanded pitch group. Ben travels so far along the spiral of pure harmonic progressions that there are over 1,200 discrete pitches in the octave. Actually, in some ways I didn’t find the 7th quartet the most difficult. For example, the 6th quartet is more musically obscure and difficult to grasp. The 7th quartet makes sense, but you have to be able to work (and hear!) the system.
How would you go about teaching these pieces to the next generation of string quartet players? Moreover, for those who want to learn Johnston’s tuning system, where would you suggest they turn?
I already teach Ben’s music at The Boston Conservatory. Every once in a while an adventurous quartet wants to make the attempt. Invariably, for the students it is a transformative experience. As one cellist said, “nothing will ever be the same.” Learning these works is a matter of learning how to hear—to be wholly immersed in vertical relationships, attuned to the harmonic series, and completely committed to the present moment. At the same time, one must listen forward and backward—anticipating root movement of chords to hear where pitches will belong ahead of time, or relating back to what has just happened. It is incredible ear training, and requires rethinking what pitch is, how it works, and how it can be manipulated.
When teaching these works, I like to start with #9. The first movement is a clearly defined C Major just tuned scale (with a cameo appearance by that interesting anomaly, the syntonic comma). Young players find it rhythmically challenging—the rhythmic complexities are based on the same ratios that define the intervals of the just tuned scale. The third movement is a simple hymn-like melody, with clear almost traditional harmonies. What makes it so fantastic and emotionally potent is the harmonic slide down two syntonic commas (from F Major to F- Major to F – – Major) and back up within the first phrase. This modulation is part of opening the tempered ‘circle of fifths’ to its naturally occurring spiral. Hearing it has a strong, visceral effect.
I have written an article (“An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnson,” American String Teacher, Volume 64, Number 3, 8/2014) that details how to approach these scores—how to tune the instruments’ open strings, how to do the math required by Ben’s accidentals). I think the article will also be made available on Kepler’s website, and that is definitely a good place to start. Without those preparatory steps, the score can’t be realized as the composer intended. Next, the players must tune and balance each chord, working back and forth between harmonies to understand progressions and internalize relationships. All this ultimately supports the interpretation of the music, making a much more powerful, visceral statement.
Opening Night at Miller Theater
Steve ReichPhoto: Jeffrey Herman
On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.
Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.
Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.
You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.
Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.
Composer, conductor, and pianist Richard Carrick has been named chair of Berklee’s Composition Department. Carrick is a 2015-2016 Guggenheim Fellow and co-founder and co-artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble Either/Or. He succeeds Arnold Friedman, who had been the department’s chair since 2012. Friedman remains on the faculty.
Carrick recently moved to the Boston area after living in Kigali, Rwanda, on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Musical Composition. In Rwanda, he was commissioned to pen a new official arrangement of the country’s national anthem for the Rwandan Military Band. During this time, he premiered five works in New York, Boston, Tel Aviv, and Kigali. Carrick has taught in South Korea, Japan, the U.K., Rwanda, and Israel through the Very Young Composers program, and returned to South Korea last year as a Gugak Korean Traditional Music Fellow.
“I’m thrilled to be joining the Berklee community and especially the versatile, diverse, and talented Composition Department,” said Carrick. “I look forward to finding more professional and educational opportunities for our students in the ever-changing musical world of concert music.
His latest release, Cycles of Evolution, incorporates pieces commissioned and performed by Musicians of the New York Philharmonic, Either/Or, Sweden’s Ensemble Son, Hotel Elefant, and DZ4. Carrick conducts or performs on all works on the CD, which includes his ‘apocalyptic’ multimedia piece, Prisoner’s Cinema. His recordings also include Flow Cycle for Strings; and Stone Guitars,which garnered acclaim in both the new music and guitar worlds. American Record Guide said, “It may change your perception of electric guitar.”
Either/Or has been called “first rate” and “a trustworthy purveyor of fresh sounds” by the New York Times, and won the 2015 Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Carrick has worked with celebrated composers including Helmut Lachenmann, Chaya Czernowin, Iancu Dumitrescu, Elliott Sharp, George Lewis, Alvin Lucier, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Rebecca Saunders.
“Dr. Carrick brings a perspective and set of experiences that our faculty and students can connect with immediately,” said Larry Simpson, Berklee senior vice president for academic affairs/provost. “He is fluent in the language and ways of the academy and equally accomplished in the world of composing and sustaining creative enterprises that move forward an art form in competitive environments. He also has extensive international experience that will prove valuable to faculty and students.”
Carrick has taught composition at Columbia and New York Universities and has presented master classes and lectures throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He was a cornerstone of the teaching artist faculty for the New York Philharmonic, through which he has mentored hundreds of young composers internationally.
A U.S. citizen born in Paris of French-Algerian and British descent, Carrick received his B.A. from Columbia University, PhD from the University of California, San Diego, and pursued further studies at IRCAM and the Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague.
Berklee’s Composition Department provides a thorough course of study in all areas of traditional and contemporary musical composition, including writing techniques, orchestration, and score preparation; and advanced training in instrumental, choral, and musical theater conducting. A faculty of 40 active composers and conductors, many with national and international reputations, prepare students for careers as professional writers and conductors. Although sharing similar methods with departments such as Jazz Composition, Songwriting, Film Scoring, and Contemporary Writing and Production, the Composition Department is mostly concerned with concert music. The department also works with creative multimedia, from traditional opera and theater to contemporary electronic and mixed media
"We have been very happy with our decision to use InstantEncore for our mobile app. The app is easy to use and a great way to connect with our patrons. The InstantEncore team also provides great support with helpful blog posts and quick email response."