TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.
The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.
Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.
Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.
Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.
Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”
Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott
Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.
I’m sad to report that composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has passed away at age 87. He continued to be active until the very end, with a premiere just last month. Orpheus singt (video), a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke for a cappella chorus, was performed by SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, directed by Marcus Creed.
Gregg Smith, one of the most prominent choral conductors in the United States, has passed away at the age of 84. With his Gregg Smith Singers, Smith brought a wide variety of repertoire to all corners of the US and abroad. In particular, he specialized in American music – folk songs, spirituals, hymns, and contemporary repertoire. As a young singer, I had the privilege of singing under Smith’s direction on several occasions. He was an extraordinary teacher.
It seems appropriate to include this particular selection, performed by the Gregg Smith Singers, in an arrangement by Virgil Thomson.
Friday, July 8, 2016 at Boston Court in Pasadena found Vicki Ray featured in a concert presented by Piano Spheres, the long time champion of new music in Los Angeles.. Fifty Shades of Pianissimo was the fitting title for the concert which consisted of a single piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1984), by Morton Feldman. A sizable audience gathered to hear this extraordinary piece, filling the larger Main Stage performance space at Boston Court. A video by Clay Chaplin accompanied the 75 minute work that was played continuously, without intermission.
As Ms. Ray took her seat at the piano the entire theater was darkened, and a prolonged period of meditative silence established the mood before the first notes were heard. A series of soft single notes then sounded, and a slow, meandering melody arose that carried an air of quiet mystery. This continued with the occasional appearance of a two-note interval or – more rarely – a single chord. After a few minutes of quiet playing the video appeared on a large screen behind the stage, consisting of an edgewise view of the keyboard. As the piece progressed, faint ghost-like shadows of moving hands could be made out. This morphed into a series of successively more abstract views of the piano, with the images multiplied across the screen. All of this complimented the music perfectly.
The later music of Morton Feldman is famously quiet, subtle and always in the moment. The composition of this piece hinges on the metering, as described by Feldman in the program notes: “For Bunita Marcus mainly consists of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars. Sometimes the 2/2 had musical importance, like at the end of the piece. Sometimes the 2/2 acts as quiet, either on the right or the left or in the middle of a 3/8 or a 5/16 bar, and I use the metre as a construction – not the rhythm – the metre and the time, the duration which something needs.” In addition to the quiet, contemplative feeling – which in itself commands concentration – the phrasing of For Bunita Marcus unfolds by what seem to be two independent but parallel lines of single notes, whose interactions of pitch and time invite the listener to evaluate the sounds of that brief instant. These interactions recur every few seconds, keeping the ear focused and the hearing constantly engaged. The audience responded accordingly, with undivided attention and complete silence for the duration of the work.
New music concerts are normally held in the Branson room at Boston Court, a smaller space with generally reliable acoustics. The larger Main Stage is used primarily for theater productions and the performance of a subdued work such as For Bunita Marcus doubtless caused concern for the Piano Spheres brain trust. The piano was situated in the center of the stage, with the lid completely removed. There was a microphone just above and over the center of the piano interior, but it was unclear if this was for amplification or recording purposes. In any event, everything worked out satisfactorily. Each note was clearly heard and rang out cleanly into the silence of the audience, without loss of detail or nuance. The lighting and projection of the video were flawless and while there was some acoustic competition at times from the low hum of a ventilation motor, it was not a distraction. The Wild Beast at Cal Arts might have provided superior acoustics for a Feldman piece such as this, but the Main Stage at Boston Court met the challenge reasonably well.
By the midpoint of the performance the video shifted to a series vivid views of the night sky, often including thousands slow-motion trails of starlight. The effect was an amazing combination of the natural and the mystical. At times the star fields blended together in a sort of moving fog. At other times meteor trails could be seen arcing through the sky – it was very much like listening to the concert while sitting outside on a summer evening. The music also seemed to evolve at this point from spare sequences of single notes to a more fluid sound with a slightly faster tempo . The notes fell within the same upper and middle registers as previously and the dynamic remained a restrained pianissimo – Ms. Ray seemed to caress the keys as the quiet notes drifted upward and outward into the audience.
The stamina and concentration of the soloist was extraordinary throughout and For Bunita Marcus closed as it began, with the stage and house lights dimmed to complete darkness. A long silence of reflection followed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, many standing in ovation. This performance of For Bunita Marcus was a remarkable realization in sight and sound of the classic late 20th century music of Morton Feldman. Piano Spheres continues to bring to Los Angeles the gift of contemporary piano music carefully curated and brilliantly played.
On Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the Microfest series concluded with Beyond 12, a concert devoted to the music of alternate tuning, present and past. A full house turned out to hear Aron Kallay and Andrew McIntosh perform seven varied works from six different composers.
The first piece was Fugitive Objects (2007) by Kyle Gann, and this was performed by Aron Kallay at a keyboard that was programmed for pitch sets outside the conventional 12 tone equal temperament. Fugitive Objects opened calmly, with a series of solitary ascending notes, conventionally pitched. This was repeated and by the third time through, new and less familiar notes were heard combined with a deep pedal tone that supplied a simple but effective harmony. All of this had a somber, reflective feel, well within the sensibilities of a listener unacquainted with alternate tuning. As the piece progressed the incidence of unconventional pitches seemed to increase, but the melodic line remained clear and direct while Kallay’s sensitive touch added to the quiet, introspective demeanor. Fugitive Objects proved, through its pragmatic approach, to be the ideal piece to begin this concert.
Intonation after Morton Feldman 1 followed, the first movement of Les Duresses (2004) by Marc Sabat and performed by violinist Andrew McIntosh. This piece is the result of an extensive study by Sabat to create an etude for string players that would allow them to master the famously subtle intonation so characteristic of Feldman’s later music. This began with slow, sustained tones with an altogether quiet and solitary feel. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies emerged, and as the unconventional pitches made their appearance the intervals heard took on a very expressive coloring. This was played with great confidence by Andrew McIntosh who had to contend with both the quiet intonation and the unfamiliar tones. Towards the end a bit of tension crept in, especially in the higher registers, but overall, this movement of Les Duresses is an excellent study of the supremely understated Feldman style.
The Weasel of Melancholy (2014) by Eric Moe was next and this started off with a moving melody line, but with chords in the lower registers that added a somber quality. This had the dramatic flair of a piano concerto – without an orchestra, of course – but with all the familiar dynamic contrasts, trills and flourishes. The alternate tuning here often led to runs of notes that produced an untethered feeling, adding to the pensive atmosphere of this piece. The quantity of notes and the often complicated rhythms were a departure from the opening works in the program, but all were ably negotiated by Kallay. The underlying design and a strong emotional arc give The Weasel of Melancholy a helpful structure that guides the listener through the more expressively complex terrain created by pitch and texture.
Following the intermission, Andrew McIntosh returned to play Partita No. 5 (1715) by Johann Joseph Vilsmayr. This was performed on a Baroque violin and according to research done by McIntosh, Partita No. 5 is among the earliest known solo partitas for violin using an unconventional tuning. This piece was included in the program to illustrate historical tuning practice and in this case the scordatura was achieved by tuning the E string to D. The work consisted of eight short movements and the first of these, Prelude, opened with a fast, skittering line that was almost mirage-like with its rapidly changing textures and colors. The playing by McIntosh was disciplined and precise, bringing out all of the details of the complex surfaces – in this opening movement and throughout the entire piece. Partita No. 5 was an attempt by Vilsmayr to popularize contemporary French forms in his native Austria and so this work includes dance movements such as Gavotte, Menuett, Boure and the like. Some had straight-ahead rhythms while others were more stately and deliberate. The rhythmic gestures seemed always to be in the forefront and the harmonies secondary, as probably makes sense for a piece composed for a single treble instrument and intended for the hands of a proficient soloist. The scordatura seemed to provide a warm, unifying element to the different movements and the elegant Baroque ornamentation – a French influence – gave many of the phrases a notable flair. Partita No. 5 was perhaps the most conventional piece on the program and the familiar feel combined with the accomplished playing was received with sustained applause.
Next was A History of Elevators in Film (2014), by Holland Hopson. This is a keyboard piece in four movements and in addition to using microtones, A History of Elevators in Film is realized from a graphical score. The movements can be performed in any order and, as explained by Aron Kallay, there is software that detects what is being played on the keyboard at any given time and an algorithm adjusts the tuning accordingly. All of this begins with series of single notes, then some lovely harmonies built from repeating phrases that have a somber feel combined with a tinge of regret. A sudden crash on the keyboard rings out – full of drama – instantly changing the mood. This is repeated but with slight changes in the notes on each hearing. The mood shifts again as a gentle melody is heard, like raindrops falling on flower petals. This melody line also repeats, with new notes heard on each playing. A series of tones sound from the lower registers in the last movement and here the tuning is dynamically altered to give a sort of rubbery pitch that varies with time. For all its software and sophistication A History of Elevators in Film is an engaging an highly musical work that presents a remarkable variety of moods and colors.
This was followed by Two Commas, Movement III of Les Duresses (2004), more solo violin music by Marc Sabat. Andrew McIntosh again performed and noted that Sabat’s work is characterized by a high degree of precision and attention to detail. The piece began with three groups of repeating tones with a consistent rhythm and strong beat. Each of the repeated phrases contained slight variations that effectively added to the nuance and coloring. The persistence of the rhythmic pattern acted as a framework, allowing the piece to neatly unfold. Two Commas is a subtle work whose artistry is discovered by the listener through superior technique, as evidenced by the soloist in this performance.
The final work on the concert program was The Blur of Time and Memory (2014) by Los Angeles-based Alex Miller and this was a keyboard piece based on a tuning devised by the composer. This began with a strong opening line, with many dark sounds and pitches. Although the tuning was definitely exotic to the ear, the harmonies that developed from this material were simultaneously dramatic and intriguing. The dynamic changes added to the imposing sound and as the piece reached a crescendo, the combination of unorthodox pitches and the muscular playing of Aron Kallay sailed past a feeling of tension and into anxiety. The Blur of Time and Memory illustrates the evocative power and emotional punch that can result when a composer goes all in with alternate tuning.
The centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is ocassion to celebrate. After Augustus Arnone’s three recitals earlier this season playing Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, now his group Collide-O-Scope Music is treating us to another rarely performed gem: Babbitt’s Arie da Capo (1974). It’s the major mixed ensemble chamber work from Babbitt’s middle period, and named in dedication to its original performers, the Da Capo Chamber Players, whose flutist Patricia Spencer is also now a member of Collide-O-Scope and is part of the ensemble performing Arie this Friday—now that’s authenticity!
Babbitt drinks tea
Arie ca Capo rewards the listener on repeat hearings, which thankfully are possible. Although premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Arie was recorded by Harvey Sollberger and the Group for Contemporary Music (Nonesuch 1979) and later by Ciro Scotto (Nimbus 1987). As with most of Babbitt’s mature works, its sectional structure maps out a variety of textural combinations (or shall we say combinatorics). Each of its five sections presents a solo instrument in an aria against the other four accompanying players: clarinet, cello, flute, violin, and then piano each has its turn in an intricately shadowed limelight. Moreover, each of the five arias contains a quintet, trio, quartet, trio, and quintet again. (The relation between its rhythms, textures, pacing, and precompositional structures are discussed in a 1988 Perspectives of New Music article by Ciro Scotto.) Of Babbitt’s works, this one especially abounds in loquacious social interplay. It will be conducted by Robert Whalen and played by Arnone (piano), Spencer (flute), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Gregor Kitzis (violin), and Valeriya Sholokhova (cello).
Additionally, Arnone will again tackle the solo piano work Tableaux (1973), from the same time period as Arie, and Patricia Spencer will play Babbitt’s later work None but the Lonely Flute (1991).
Charles Wuorinen, a composer associated with and influenced by Babbitt but whose music sounds nothing like Babbitt’s, is represented on the program by his trio for piano flute, and bass clarinet (2008)—a polished and vibrant neo-baroque surface full of bustling energy and clarity.
from Chris Bailey’s Timelash
Christopher Bailey’s rapidfire Timelash (1999/2016), also to be performed, bases its “quasi-morse code rhythms” on the first 16 measures of Babbitt’s violin and piano work Sextets. Resonances of carefully selected harmonies are also explored in this piece (of which further details here.) On the same program, a composition by Lou Bunk exploits the pliability of the clarinet, presenting cross-sections and intersections of three distinct themes, separated by silences.
Continuing the tradition begun earlier this season, this concert’s intermission will feature an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert D. Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades.
Collide-O-Scope: Chamber works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Bunk, and Bailey (mid-concert discussion with Robert Morris) Friday, June 17, at 8pm, $20, $15 (Students/Seniors). Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St., NYC.
In a sea of pianists sailing toward contemporary shores, the vessel of Alessandro Stella stands out for its hydrodynamic contours. Stella has performed widely across Europe—more recently, in South America—and was central, among other projects, in reviving Giacinto Scelsi’s early chamber works under auspices of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation.
On Midwinter Spring, his first recital disc for Italy’s KHA Records, he presents works by Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Peteris Vasks. Even without the program in hand, one can already feel the possibilities for continuity and artful contrast between these composers. All three have gained worldwide notoriety for larger-scale symphonies, concertos, and choral masterpieces. Yet their piano repertoires, given due attention here, have yielded some of the more vital statements of classical expression in recent decades.
To begin, Stella offers 16 selections from Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano, a collection of melodies written for stage and screen. First published in 2009 and divorced from its visual contexts, Simple Music has taken on a life of its own, not least of all in 2010’s Themes from the Songbook, released on ECM New Series. Yet where that album had a distinctively Piazzolla-esque veneer (due not least of all to the participation of bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi), here the themes breathe nakedly. Stella plays with an expressivity so holistic that one can practically hear him singing through the keyboard. A dancing quality that recalls the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou pervades these vignettes, each born of a nostalgia that, while distant at first, over the course of a listen morphs into something uniquely one’s own. Contrary to what the title would have us believe, there is nothing simple about this music, as evidenced in the way Stella approaches particular pieces. Whether in his evocation of moonlight in No. 23 (“Bear’s Kiss”) or the chromatic inflections of No. 25 (“Hamlet”), Stella’s attention to detail reveals incarnate patience.
Following these, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976) comes across even more cinematically. Images of stardust and other cosmic beauties may be easy go-tos for the reviewer’s metaphorical toolkit, but in this case any such descriptions would be apt. In the expanse of Pärt’s seminal tintinnabulations, the human heart begins to feel like a small satellite indeed. Stella’s treasure-seeking becomes more obvious in his choice of Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka. Pärt’s 1977 composition describes a far more intimate universe. Its transitions from legato to pointillist notecraft indicate a robust inner child in composer and performer alike.
Balta ainava (White Scenery) by Vasks brings about a logical conclusion. Composed 1981 and played exclusively on the white keys, it is, like the preceding works, as potentially infinite in resonance as it is fundamental in construction. Stella lays down its block chords with extra-musical awareness, giving each cluster room to breathe. Arpeggios in the left hand are contrasted by two-note motifs in the right, like footprints pressed into the album’s cover scenery toward unknown destinations. The uncertainty of it all makes it that much more inviting, and combines elements of Kancheli and Pärt with an indefinable third.
In the interest of gaining insider perspective, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Stella, who was kind enough to elucidate some of the finer points of this project.
What inspired you to put these three composers together on one album?
What is common to these three great composers is a deep spirituality and an extraordinary ability to shape time and its perception.
The program is very cohesive, but I imagine that as the performer you have insights into how each piece is different from the others. Can you talk about compositional, emotional, or structural differences between them?
Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks have many things in common, being from the same generation and geographical area. Nevertheless, each has his own history and, of course, a recognizable style. Kancheli’s miniatures are based on his music for cinema and theater, which he wrote over a period of decades. Many are actual songs, like the first track of the album—the famous “Herio Bichebo” (see video above)—and are written in a tonal style. Some fragments and themes are recurrent in other compositions of Kancheli. The composer himself has said that he can’t always remember where a particular theme first appeared. The two Pärt compositions are the cornerstones of his tintinnabuli style, the result of seven long years of research and creative silence. This is a style in which the rigor of the tintinnabuli voice contrasts with the exceptional freedom of the principal voice. Lastly, the Vasks piece is built upon two fundamental ideas that alternate, vary, and repeat themselves in a hypnotic continuum. However, I must emphasize that what attracted me the most about these three composers, in addition to their distinctive features, is the role silence plays in their music. Each pause and resonance is of crucial importance and represents the music’s very essence.
How much preparation did you require to make this recording sound the way you wanted it to sound?
For some time I would play this music almost every day for my own pleasure and enrichment, until it was clear to me that I wanted to record it. I played, sang, recorded, and listened to this music for months. It was similar to the work of a sculptor who achieves the ultimate result by removing material until only that which is essential remains.
You once told me how pleased Kancheli was with your performances of his work. Can you expand on your communications with him throughout the recording process, and after?
About two years ago, I wrote to Maestro Kancheli explaining that I wanted to record some of his miniatures. He was enthusiastic about it and gave me his authorization, giving me as much freedom as possible in matters of selection and interpretive choices. About a year later, I sent him the CD as soon as it was finished. I was deeply moved by the words he expressed about my work. Last February (2016), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. The Italian Embassy in Georgia organized a concert in Tbilisi in his honor, so I had the great privilege to give the premiere in Georgia and to play his miniatures for piano in his presence. It was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life.
Alessandro Stella (left) and Giya Kancheli (right) in Tbilisi, 2016
What is the overall message of the album for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from it?
Every new album is the result of deep reflections. The finished album is often different from how I thought it would be and this work of progressive “polishing” is essential to me. The idea, the initial intuition, however, usually does not change. If anything, it guides me in the right direction. It has always been clear to me that Midwinter Spring was supposed to be a journey out of time, insofar as we are used to perceiving it in our everyday life. Through this apparent simplicity, the music of Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks makes us connect with our deepest life experiences. Everything in this album was conceived to serve this purpose: the drama of the track order, the cover, the pauses, even the title. I hope this album will be an intense emotional experience to those who listen to it; an experience they will be willing to repeat.
Have you performed this exact program in a live setting? If so, what were the audience reactions?
I presented the program for the first time live last December (2015) in Liverpool. After playing this music at home and in the studio for so long, sharing it with an audience was a truly special experience. I was afraid that the ritual of the concert would contrast with the extremely intimate nature of this music. But in the end, its extraordinary evocative power created an atmosphere of “magical suspension” during the concert. And this was confirmed to me by the beautiful words of the people I talked to afterward.
This music might easily be interpreted as melancholy, but there is also something hopeful about it. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you make sure that balance is preserved when you are playing it?
I totally agree with this and this idea is at the center of the entire album, starting from the title, Midwinter Spring. Taken from a verse by T. S. Eliot, this expression evokes the hope for a new life, as expressed by the branches coming out of the snow on the album’s cover, symbolizing hope for rebirth. All of this is inherent to the music. Melancholy is the dominant feeling of the program, but there is much more in this music: in an instant you get carried from a sense of deep desolation to nostalgia for something that no longer exists; from the unreality of a dream to a sense of hope. The music itself evokes all these possibilities. And the artist has to grasp them and follow them, just letting the music talk to him.
Most New Yorkers are walking about, minding their own business, completely oblivious to the international sonic earthquake vibrating through their midst all week: The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF). The first wave of the festival (seven concerts) took place as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last week. Yet the lion’s share of the festival is happening right now: 28 more concerts during June 13-19, at Abrons Arts Center on Grand St., for a total of 35 concerts. Yes you read that correctly: 35 concerts of electroacoustic music, including some 350 works, by almost as many composers from all around the world! Indeed a mammoth undertaking organized, produced, and presented miraculously by Hubert Howe, Travis Garrison, David Reeder, Howie Kenty, and a highly dedicated energetic staff.
The variety on offer is astonishing. There are pieces for live instruments or voice and electronics (live processing or premade sounds); pieces for synthesized sound, sampled sounds, and both together. Some works feature video. Other works feature graphics generated through live video feeds of the performer, or graphics generated through movement. Concerts are heard alternately in two small traditional auditoriums and a cozy cocoon-like space with 16-channel surround sound, seating in the round, amongst stratospheric ceilings. Sound art and visual art installations are mounted in the hallways and foyers. The concerts are at 12:30, 2, 4, and 8pm; workshops and paper presentations on such topics as “Oral History as Form in Electroacoustic Music”, “Orient Occident: An Alternative Analysis,” and “Wireless Sensing” occur in the mornings, at NYU.
Among the international cast of composers and performing artists heard in the festival are Tania León, Ken Ueno, Alice Shields, Clarence Barlow, Elizabeth Hoffman, Simon Emmerson, Alvin Lucier, Shelly Hirsch, Annie Gosfield, Phil Niblock, Alan Licht, Judith Shatin, Michelle Jaffe, Maja Cerar, Marianne Gythfeldt, and Arthur Kampela. Most of them are on hand and the casual atmosphere is conducive to conversation with and among participating artists.
Togo seed rattle
One of the most interesting works I heard was Precuneus; Sonic Space no.8—Iteration No.4 (2016) by Michael Musick. This is a work for live performer and “sonic ecosystem.” And yes, it sounds as great as that sounds. During the performance, Mr. Musick gently wafted throughout the stage, as if in a trance, while playing sometimes a recorder and sometimes a Togo seed rattle and other percussion instruments. Meanwhile Mr. Musick’s software reacted in the most delightfully musical way. Its “digital agents” listen to the live sounds and spontaneously extract features from them and then generate new sounds sculpted by these features. These sounds percolated and jiggled all around the hall in a delicate lavander tornado for the ears.
Zhaoyu Zhang’s Night Snow brought my ears close up and inside mysterious objects and intriguingly close to strange materials in action—as though my ears were intimately touching the source of the sounds, quiet sounds of brushing, crushing, caressing, burning, scraping, and feathering. Deeper sounds were felt more than heard, creating an altogether visceral experience, evoking what the ancient Chinese poet Juyi Bai’s calls the four senses: tactile (cold), visual (bright), feeling (to know), and auditory (to hear)
On the same concert, Larry Gaab’s Weird Orbits Need Explaining seemed to use the lyrical gestures and sweeps of melody to steer the trajectories of other sonic material. An eerie yet friendly vocality emerged. So much I wish I could go back to hear again
violinist Maja Cerar in action
The highlight of the late afternoon concert was Xiao Fu’s Longing, a ravishing audio-visual kinetic spectacle that lasted nearly a quarter of an hour, involving two performers supported by a crew of four who manipulated hand-held projectors and sound. It is based on a song of the Huang He Ge from the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Beautifully colored hand-painted animation of Chinese calligraphy was projected on a video screen with computeized sound before two women emerged in flowing costumes, gracefully dancing and singing (both). One of them later played the flute against the sonic digital backdrop while a new, and highly original, ornate style of colorful animation permeated the visual field, zooming and granulating. Strikingly colored calligraphic imagery punctured the progression toward a taut climactic episode in which the second performer dramatically played an accelerating drum pattern against flickering virtuosic lines of the flute.
AV artist Michelle Jaffe
The overflowing diversity of creativity witnessed in this festival is simply inspiring. What I described above is only a snippet of what happened on the first day. After today there are still five days left. So most of the highlights are yet to come. It’s well worth the trip to this somewhat neglected corner of Manhattan, between Chinatown and the Williamsburg Bridge.
While in the neighborhood, check out the gourmet ice cream shop Ice and Vice on East Broadway, or Cafe Petisco, also on East Broadway, Cafe Katja on Orchard, or Ost Café on Grand, one block east of Abrons.)
The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF), June 13-19, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street, near the F/M train Essex st. station) Each show $15 (evening shows $20); day pass $40; festival Pass at $160.
The 12th annual Dog Star series of concerts are in full swing all around Los Angeles and the venue for Sunday, June 5, 2016 was The Wild Beast, located on the Cal Arts campus. An evening of experimental music was presented in a concert titled The Theater of an Open Space and some 30 performers were on hand to realize reference works by John Cage, Manfred Werder and Pauline Oliveros. Additionally, two new pieces were presented by Casey Anderson and Todd Lerew.
The first half of the concert consisted of four complimentary works given serially and without pause. Four segments of Variations IV, by John Cage formed a framework while From Unknown Silences by Pauline Oliveros, 20121 by Manfred Werder and 0’00”, also by Cage, were woven neatly into the continuous 32 minute performance. The first segment of Variations IV began with the players of the ‘orchestra’ arranged around the interior of The Beast according to a drawing a the center showing lines of direction and spatial locations. The players followed a timed score and at various intervals certain familiar pitched or non-pitched sounds were heard – the rap of a hammer, a ringing alarm clock, a coffee mug vigorously stirred or the knocking of rocks together – and suchlike. These sounds were separated by a few seconds of silence. Sometimes the player would move towards the center while performing – then return – and sometimes the sounds from two or more players overlapped.
At first the familiarity of these sounds evoked their normal mundane context in the mind of the listener. As the sequences were repeated, however, and especially the ones that involved movement of the players toward the center, the proceedings acquired a more ceremonial character. The movement of the players became choreography and the actions took on an imagined symbolic character. All of the segments of Variations IV had a similar pattern, but with some minor modifications involving the number of sounds heard concurrently or the number of players in motion. From Unknown Silences, the Oliveros piece, fit perfectly within this framework with a similar sequence of independent sounds, preceded and followed by periods of silence. The feeling here was perhaps more introspective and acute. Cage asks us to consider familiar sounds in the context of performance; Pauline Oliveros invites us to listen deeply to solitary sounds, processing them in the silence that follows. The two works intertwined seamlessly.
At about the midpoint the players rose and gathered together in the center, exchanging scores they had written during the first half, and this action marked both the Manfred Werder contribution and the 0’00” portion of the program. The last two sections of Variations IV followed these new instructions, with the materials and form similar to the opening. All of this was a bit reminiscent of Water Walk – another Cage composition – that asked us to evaluate ordinary sounds in a musical context. Variations IV aims for same sensibility, but from the perspective of the familiar as ritual. This was ably expressed by the 30 performing players of the orchestra.
Following an intermission, SCRUM, a new work by Casey Anderson, was presented. This began with all 30 players arranged in a single group in the center of the space. There was clapping, talking and the sound of portable radios as the individuals began to move out into the space and remix. In a short time they had formed two groups facing off against each other across a line marked on the floor. The clapping in one group became synchronized while those opposite held up their portable radios. This confrontational equilibrium was held for short time, and the two groups dispersed again out into the room, vocalizing and humming.
This process of aggregation, confrontation and dispersal continued as the piece went along, and, as detailed in Anderson’s written score, the actions of the performers were more intentional and structured than it first appeared. Each performer selected an activity at the beginning and searched among the others for someone doing the same thing – this might be clapping, singing or some similar activity. As the score states, the goal is “…to build an incrementally expanding ensemble: solos become duos, duos become trios, etc. “ When two groups reach 8 members, the remaining performers join one or the other and form the opposing lineup at the center of the space. When a balance is achieved, one of the performers breaks through the assembly tagging the other performers, who then cease their activity. The groups disband, spreading apart, and the cycle repeats.
The activity, sound and movement in SCRUM was in marked contrast to the quieter pieces from the first half of the concert, and the dynamic ebb and flow of 30 players through the space energized the audience. The moments of confrontation between the assembled groups added to the drama and became a metaphor for the political posturings in this election year. SCRUM is a lively and insightful work, allowing the audience observe the dynamics of human confrontation in the artful abstract.
The final work of the evening was Small Objects in the Weather, by Todd Lerew. The configuration for this piece had six performers standing along one wall equipped with a large piece of aluminum sheet metal and when these were shaken there was a credible simulation of thunder. The other players of the orchestra sat cross-legged on the floor in a semicircle, awaiting events. A ‘conductor’, facing the others from the front, reached for a very large noisemaker – as you might have for New Year’s Eve – and this was let loose with a loud explosion and a shower of confetti. Ringing from the orchestra was heard as the players struck metal rods on the concrete floor. A large sheet of thin copper foil was passed around and torn into pieces of various sizes. These sheets were vigorously shaken by the players and this produced a convincing likeness of the sound of a driving rain. More loud explosions followed, along with the sharper pop that came from a smaller variety of New Year’s noise makers. The floor and the players were soon covered in a layer of confetti and streamers.
At one point everyone began blowing into bird whistles – the kind for children filled partly with water – and the combined sound was an impressively vivid facsimile of strong wind in a storm. More large confetti explosions followed and the orchestra was heard humming in unison. The pitched changed downward as each additional blast was set off and ultimately the volume dissipated until a only soft tones were heard. The conductor grasped two mallets and began a quiet roll on a large gong, just barely audible at first, and the proceedings took on the aspect of a solemn ceremony. At this point, another player began to fire off a series of small noisemaker pops across the orchestra. It seemed, at first, like some sort of blessing, but took an ominous turn as the player nearest the stream of confetti would stop singing, almost as if shot. A crescendo in the gong roll added to the brooding atmosphere and the piece ended quietly thereafter.
Small Objects in the Weather is a persuasive and energetic meteorological metaphor, artfully created from ordinary materials, but a performance that ultimately delivers unflinching commentary at its conclusion.
The Dog Star 12 series of concerts continues through June 18 at various venues around town.
The players in the orchestra for this concert were:
Casey Anderson, Isaac Aronson, Justin Asher, Rachel Beetz, Erika Bell, Jennifer Bewerse, Shawn Broukhim, Archie Carey, Scott Cazan, Danny Clarke, Daniel Corral, Jordan Dykstra, John Eagle, Ben Finley, Morgan Gerstmar, Erik Heep, Samantha Hopkins, Todd Lerew, Mari, Liam Mooney, Lucas Morin, Michael Pisaro, Sepand Shahab, Stephanie Smith, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci, Andrew Tholl, Micaela Tobin, Colin Wambsgans, Scott Worthington.
On Friday, May 27, 2016 WasteLAnd presented a concert titled subterranean tracings at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles. Five works were presented including new pieces by Michelle Lou and Nicholas Deyoe. An overflow crowd turned out on the start of a holiday weekend and packed the roomy Art Share performance space.
The first piece on the program was for Chris Marker by Brian Griffeath-Loeb and the impressive forces deployed on the stage consisted of bass clarinets, euphonium, tuba, cello and double bass. For all of their potential power, however, the sounds coming from the instruments were small and subtle – a soft tapping on the cello, a light flapping of the valves on the euphonium, the occasional pizzicato note. A low trill in the bass clarinet added some movement and the accumulated clicking and clattering began to form a sort of rhythmic percolation. A low, guttural sound in the euphonium was heard, followed by a single tutti chord and extended silence. The knocking sounds reappeared, accompanied by the sound of rushing air moving through one of the horns. The piece proceeded in this way – a soft clatter of various sounds, a loud tutti chord and then silence. Even in the absence of musical tones, the sparse percussive texture provided an engaging continuity. The overall effect was a something like hearing a car cooling down in the driveway after a long hot drive on the freeway. for Chris Marker is a quiet piece, inviting the listener into contemplation and reflection while immersed in a new sonic landscape.
Next was A way [tracing], by Jason Eckardt, for solo cello. Ashley Walters was the featured soloist and this began with a strong flurry of notes at a brisk tempo. More rapid passages followed producing an active, bouncy feel while other sections seemed almost angry with a variety of heated phrases and aggressive sounds. A way [tracing] is a complex and challenging work – for both listener and soloist. The swirling texture and often agitated phrasing was accurately and confidently played, a showcase for the virtuosity that Ms. Walters dependably brings to all her performances. Enthusiastic and sustained applause followed.
Michelle Lou, the WasteLAnd featured composer for this season, presented an untitled work that called for an imposing ensemble with no less than trombone, trumpet, horn, tuba, contrabass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, english horn, flute, cello and double bass. With Nicholas Deyoe conducting, this began with a low, fluttering in the bassoons – a sound felt as much as heard. Countering this were creaking and groaning sounds from the cello and bass, adding a measure of tension, followed by a large tutti chord from the woodwinds that added to the ominous atmosphere. A watery sound from the trombone gave the piece a nautical flavor, like being on an old wooden sailing ship creaking along on a foggy, moonless night. More powerful chords came from the winds at regular intervals, each increasing in volume, as if approaching some unseen danger. Rapid calls by the trumpet and trombone added urgency to the sense of warning while the clicking sound of ratchets markedly increased the tension.
This pattern continued: soft creaking, groaning and the strong intervening chords from the winds. As Michelle Lou wrote in the program notes, the piece “…attempts to take its time, sitting in its sounds and textures, repeating, moving but going nowhere.” All of this eventually climaxed in a series of forceful horn crescendos, and it was at this point that the players released about a dozen toy windup horses – the source of the previous ratcheting sounds – and they galloped madly off in several directions. More new sounds were heard and at one point wire barbecue skewers were inserted between the strings of the cello and double bass, producing a twanging clatter as they were struck and released. Finally a high tutti flourish in the horns signaled the conclusion of the work. Whatever the composer chooses to title this work – and surely ‘mechanical horses’ should figure into it – Michelle Lou has created an evocative sonic journey that commands the imagination and delivers the unexpected.
After the intermission Á bout de bras by Georges Aperghis was performed by soloists Claire Chenette on oboe and Brian Walsh, clarinet. This began with two very loud and piercing notes – very near each other in pitch – and this immediately seized the attention of the audience. A series of fast intertwining passages ensued, played simultaneously but without a common beat, and it was as if we were hearing a chattering conversation between two large birds. This continued as the piece progressed, the players standing directly opposite one another to facilitate communication. The sounds from each instrument streamed out continuously and the lengthy score stretched across three music stands. The interaction and precision by Walsh and Chenette was impressive, resulting in a seamless duo. The piece ended on a long crescendo and loud high note, as if punctuating the the preceding play. Á bout de bras is active and mercurial music that demands extraordinary technique, and in this performance the soloists delivered in dazzling fashion.
The final piece on the program was Lullaby 6 “for Duane”, by Nicholas Deyoe, another in a series works by the same name and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s late father. Deyoe also conducted, and a formidable ensemble gathered including trumpet, horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba, flute, oboe, bass clarinet, bassoon and double bass. Ashley Walters was the featured soloist for this work, a cello concerto. Nicholas Deyoe explained his approach in the program notes: “Rather than developing a concerto based on opposition, the ensemble material in Lullaby 6 exists as a result of what Ashley has played. She leaves a residue behind that begins to follow and attempt to develop and keep up, eventually warping itself into something unruly and chaotic. Both the chaos and the order exist because they have been created and guided by the soloist.”
Lullaby 6 opened with a sustained tone in the cello, closely followed by a loud punch from the low brass. Soft, low sounds in the brass framed a flurry of rapid notes from the soloist. A strong tutti chord and crescendo led to a solitary high note in the horn that established a mysterious, atmospheric feel. An extended cello solo followed, surging with complexity and increasing in volume until settling back into more sustained and softer tones. This pattern continued throughout, great breaking waves of sound with dramatic dynamics followed by lower and slower sustained tones. The brass and woodwinds provided powerful tutti chords between the cello passages. The ensemble playing was everywhere confident and precise despite the varied textures and colors called for in the score. Towards the finish there was an extended cello solo that was framed by some soft woodwinds and this concluded the piece with a wistful, plaintive feel. Lullaby 6 is a masterly work of complex composition and, in this performance, well-matched to the imposing talents of the soloist.
At the conclusion of the concert WasteLAnd Executive Director Scott Worthington announced that starting in September the group will perform on the first Friday of each month at Art Share LA. The featured composer for next season will be Erik Ulman and WasteLAnd will also make an appearance at Disney Hall.
Personnel for this concert were:
Élise Roy, flutes
Claire Chenette, oboe and english horn
Brian Walsh, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
James Sullivan, bass clarinet
Archie Carey, bassoon and contrabassoon
Aaron Smith, trumpet
Allen Fogle, horn
Matt Barbier, trombone, euphonium
Luke Storm, tuba
Ashley Walters, cello
Scott Worthington, double bass
Nicholas Deyoe, conductor
Photos courtesy of Richard Valitutto (used with permission)
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