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Photo by Beata Rzeszodko-Rosen

The indefatigable Marvin Rosen is marking 20 years of broadcasting his indispensable radio program “Classical Discoveries” on WPRP in Princeton, New Jersey (and on the web) and to celebrate the occasion he is doing two special programs this week; one, tomorrow, May 29  from 5:00 till 11:00am and another broadcast on Wednesday, May 31, from  5:00 till 11:00am.   Marvin’s two main interests in music are old music–Baroque and before–and new music–composers who are still breathing or still modestly still warm in their graves.   He was probably the first person with a radio  show to begin championing the music of living composers and certainly the only one to have survived for two decades.   He even beat us (Sequenza21) by a couple of years.

Marvin became seriously interested in classical music in 1966. There was always great music playing in his home, he says, and after relatives took him to Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” in New York City, he was hooked.

“That was probably the greatest inspiration for me and my love of serious music. There has ever been a better or more inspirational classical music teacher.  I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone quite like him I again. I feel very blessed to have grown during that time.”  (Ed:  I must confess I trace my love of classical music to the same source although my exposure to those concerts was entirely through television.)

Marvin went on to acquire a doctorate in music education from Columbia University and become a full-time music educator with the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton.   He was managing the record department at Princeton University’s store in 1997 when he got a chance to fulfill his childhood dream of being a disk jockey after a volunteer position opened up at WPRB.  

“I still have my first playlist,” Marvin says.  “It is handwritten, since we didn’t go online until 2001. There were works by Bach, Mozart, and Scarlatti on that program, there were also works by Philip Glass,  Richard Yardumian, and even Lennon-McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.”

Hundreds of playlists later, Marvin is still as enthusiastic as he was on day one.  Even the prospect of getting out of bed at 3am on a snowy day in Princeton cannot discourage him from making his appointed rounds.   He is ably abetted in this passion by his wife Beata Rzeszodko-Rosen who acts as kind of volunteer co-producer, archivist, webmaster, marketing consultant and cheerleader.  (She gets up, too.)

Among the folks whose music you’ll hear this week are Antonio Caldara, George Crumb, Daniel Dorff, Ross Edwards, Eriks Esenvalds, Joep Franssens, Vladimir Godar, Galina Grigorjeva, Amanda Harberg, Jennifer Higdon, Gao Hong, Alan Hovhaness, Haji Khanmammadov, Wojciech Kilar, Vladimir Martynov, Claudio Monteverdi, Robert Moran, Victoria Poleva, Jaan Raats, Arnold Rosner, Andrew Rudin, Terje Rypdal, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, Alex Shapiro, and others.

On behalf of the Sequenza21 gang, past and present, we send many congratulations and much love. Thank you for being such an important part of the now thriving new music community and for showcasing the work of so many talented people.  On a personal note, thank you for turning me on to the music of Alan Hovhaness.  The world needs more people who do what they love and love what they do.  You’re a mensch.

If you miss the show, a Playlist and MP3 File *(available after the broadcast till June 15, 2017).

1 day ago | |
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The Spectral Piano

Book review

The Spectral Piano

From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age

By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt

Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)

By Christian Carey

Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.

Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.

As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.

In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.

4 days ago | |
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On Thursday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, directed by Louis Karchin along with conductor David Fulmer, will present a program of works by Arvo Pärt, Fred Lerdahl, Lisa Bielawa, and Sheree Clement (a new piece commissioned by League of Composers/ISCM) at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Tickets are $25/$15 for students/seniors

Below is my program note for the concert, which should supply some background in advance of the concert.

 

Program note: Season Finale: Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM

By Christian Carey

 

One of the fundamental ways in which the League of Composers fulfills its mission is by programming a diverse selection of music. As with past “season finale” concerts given by the League’s orchestra, tonight’s program encompasses works from the United States and abroad in a variety of styles. Commissioning and highlighting new work is a particular focus; the concert includes a world premiere (written by Sheree Clement and commissioned by the League).

 

The concert begins with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Arvo Pärt’s important first forays into the tintinnabuli style for which he has become best known. The composer’s style has often been described as minimalism (“holy minimalism” by opportunistic broadcasters and less-than-kind critics), but this strand of repetition-based composition is quite different from American varieties. Rather than being based primarily on unfolding repetitive processes, like the approach taken early on in music by Glass and Reich, or being based on the omnipresent ostinatos of post-minimalists such as John Adams and Michael Torke, Pärt’s approach is based on melodic formulations: canon and monodic stepwise melodies set against bell-like triadic sonorities. While the materials themselves are simple, they are variously combined in an accumulation of gestures that is anything but.

 

Whereas Pärt’s piece doesn’t include a single accidental, Sheree Clement’s Stories I Cannot Tell You, revels in a labyrinthine chromaticism. There is also significant attention paid to timbre: a panoply of orchestral combinations and colors supply this work with still more intricacy and mystery. The portentous quality of repeated notes from a bass drum delineates and unifies the piece’s three connected movements. While the composer avows that Stories is not specifically programmatic, her program note is filled with visceral images and powerful emotions – which are equaled by the music’s expressionist quality – descended from Schoenberg yet firmly on 21st century footing.

 

Originally composed for American Composers’ Orchestra and the pianist Anton Armstrong (who also performs the work on this program), Lisa Bielawa’s Start is the last section of The Right Weather, a four-part work whose movement titles derive from the key words of a quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: Roam, Wait, Beckon, Start. It is not a minimal work per se, although it shares some features with minimalist compositions. Start uses the aforementioned trope of American minimalism – the ostinato – as the motor in a variegated postmodern atmosphere. In addition to local ostinatos, there is an overarching repetitive process at work as well, a fascinating structural device that starts as a repeated single note in the slow section midway through the piece. Gradually, this “big beat” accumulates more and more pitches until it is a rearticulated chord and then – in one of the piece’s culminating gestures – an emphatically presented cluster. In a craftily enigmatic close, we are treated to an echo – a triad with a split third – presenting both major and minor in countervailing tension.

 

Fred Lerdahl supplies his own 21st century reset of a 20th century style; in this case, neoclassicism. Composed for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Time and Again is a lithely scored but powerfully articulate piece. Initially, this music was sketched for truly Spartan resources: as a duo for violin and cello called Give and Take. While there is an element of “theme and variations” here, the material isn’t exactly reiterated. Rather, continual transformations, particularly in the rhythmic domain, take place. Three large sections of development speed and slow the material in myriad ways, creating an unpredictable whorl of gestures. The coda builds a sustained unison to a cadence that is deflected by one final, puckish flourish.

Composer Christian Carey is an Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He edits the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (christianbarey.com).

5 days ago | |
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Geoff Nuttall is looking for a few good rocks. One for each hand of 60 random patrons who show up at Charleston’s Dock Street Theater this Friday at 11 am or 1 pm for the first 2017 concert of Spoleto Festival USA’s immensely popular Bank of America Chamber Music Series. The rocks will be there for a piece called Trans for Percussion Solo and Audience, written by composer Lei Liang. The percussion solo will be performed by the legendary percussionist Steven Schick; the audience part will be performed by the 60 patrons who have been armed with rocks.  The same program opens with Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor and closes with Glinka’s Divertimento Brilliante from themes from Bellini’s La sonnambula, with another modern piece by this year’s composer-in-residence Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, sandwiched in between.

“I am not really that thematic in approach to programming,” Nuttall says. “You want the individual pieces to work together but you also want each of them to be distinctive and stand out on their own.” He favors, what the architect Robert Venturi, once described as “a messy vitality over obvious unity.”

Nuttall is a consummate showman who has shown up just about every year with a different hair style—ranging from wavy to spiky to blond, Marcello Mastroionni to Gomer Pyle in length. Audiences love it.

But, don’t be fooled, the Spoleto chamber music schedule is a demanding one. Eleven programs, each played three times, over a 16-day period. “Not for the faint of heart,” Nuttall says.

The opening program is a typical day at the office for the always surprising Nuttall, first violinist and co-founder of the improbably still-cool-after-28-years St. Lawrence String Quartet, lecturer and Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, and Artistic Director of the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series, a post he inherited in 2009 from–and with the blessing of–the venerable pianist Charles Wadsworth, who guided the program for three decades (not to mention his leadership of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for many years.)

It was an inspired choice. Nuttall is one of those rare people who can explain complex music in a way that is engaging, entertaining and often downright funny. The New York Times labeled him the “John Stewart of classical music”, in fact, his comedic style is closer to that of Charleston native Stephen Colbert.

Born in College Park, Texas, Nuttall’s family soon moved to London, Ontario, Canada where he spent a few happy years skating on ponds and playing hockey until someone discovered he had violin talent and packed him off–at the age eight, while he still had his fingers and teeth–to Lorand Fenyves at The Banff Centre. He went on to the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto, where he received his bachelor of arts.

Among the guest artists, Nuttall has scheduled this year are percussionist Steven Schick, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, pianists Pedja Muzijevic and Stephen Prutsman composer/cellist Joshua Roman, Swiss-born pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and the Rolston String Quartet, a young Canadian ensemble that won the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition—an award won by the St. Lawrence many years ago.

Nuttall admits his programming choices are often influenced by the guest musicians who he chooses to perform.

“I’ve wanted to feature a percussionist for awhile now and when Steve Schick, who is one of my favorite musicians, agreed to do it, I started looking for pieces that would work. But the repertory for percussion is so specific, there’s only so much to pick from. And because it is so specific there has to be a certain balance in the rest of the concert. That’s why I chose the Iannis Xenakis contemporary solo percussion piece “Rebonds” for the first concert—to really showcase Steve’s outstanding musicianship. But then it’s balanced out with Vivaldi.”

Another modern piece on the program this year was written specifically for Schick by composer Gustavo Aguilar and is called Wendell’s History for Steve: Part I. It’s a solo work in which Schick improvises on various percussion instruments while reciting poems by the cow patty poet Wendell Berry.

There’s lots of Vivaldi on the program this year which require the talents of counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo but also provides an occasion for what looks to be an entertaining bit of fun. On June 10 and 11, Costanzo will sing “Crying,” a song written and famously performed the counter tenor Roy Orbison.

“I learned that Roy’s widow had once asked Anthony to perform it at a benefit and I said ‘We’ve got to do that.” Steve Prutzman put together a dynamite arrangement and it’s going to be great.”

That’s the kind of surprising programming that has made the Chamber Music Series the most consistently popular and enduring element of Spoleto Festival USA.

“I am amazed at the dedication of Charleston chamber music fans,” Nuttall says. “The Dock Theater seats about 450 people. We perform to 33 different audiences during the Festival and there is rarely an empty seat during any of the concerts. I don’t know any other city in the world—big cities included—where that would happen.”

Schedule is here.

6 days ago | |
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Refractions

Daniel Corral

Populist Records CD PR012

Jeremy Kerner, electric guitar; Isaura String Quartet; Corral, music box and laptop

LA-based Populist Records has released another treasure trove of unusual ambience. Daniel Corral’s Refractions, featuring the composer on music box laptop alongside electric guitarist Jeremy Kerner and the Isaura String Quartet, captures a compelling ambient composition. Delicate strains from guitar and strings are offset by bell-like interjections from Corral’s music box and swaths of sustained sounds from his laptop. The piece begins with all of these various textures and gradually is winnowed down to the music box, supplying minimal punctuations and offset repetitions in a slow ritardando until the piece’s delicate denouement and eventual close. Given the deliberate limitation of resources and lassitude of pacing, this slowly evolving piece of music is spellbinding in its execution. Rather than foregrounding the incremental shifts of material, the listener is encouraged to bask in a wash of sounds, varied and lovely timbres that are deployed with enough independence to seem to have minds of their own.

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6 days ago | |
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On May 6, 2017 Populist Records presented a CD release concert at Automata in Los Angeles featuring Refractions, a new album by Daniel Corral. The Koan String Quartet and guitarist Jeremy Kerner joined Corral playing music box and laptop to perform the entire album. A full house was in attendance on a chilly but otherwise quiet Saturday night in Chinatown.

The evening began with two improvisational duos in the Persian tradition by Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori who arrived with violins and a recorded drone. The first of these duos began softly with sustained tones in the violin against the calming  drone. The second violin entered in counterpoint, and this added to an exotic – but never alien – overall feel. The violins traded off between the sustaining melody and active counterpoint and at length, smoothly beautiful vocals by Baranghoori filled the room. The program notes explained that “The singing will be a poem in Farsi and will be decided upon in the moment – the development of the piece and the mood will dictate the poem.” Although the tones resembled our European major mode the “intonation is different than the even-tempered major scale.” In any event, the result was astonishingly expressive. There was a mournfully stoic and nostalgic wistfulness in the singing that seemed to draw from several thousand years of Persian history – perhaps the cultural memory of some great loss. That both music and poetry were improvised on the spot was all the more impressive given its beguiling effect: this was clearly the product of a very long and sophisticated tradition.

The second improvisation was built around the same recorded drone and was similar in form, but somewhat darker and more dramatic in tone. The string passages were busier and contained a bit of uncertainty while the vocals felt more plaintive and yearning. All of this simply increased the already high level of expression heard throughout this music, adding to the remarkable artistry.

After a short intermission the balance of the evening was given over to a complete performance of Refractions, the new CD by Daniel Corral. The Koan Quartet took their places along with Jeremy Kerner on electric guitar and Corral on music box and laptop. Refractions began with quiet plinking by the music box and soft, wispy sounds from the Koan Quartet as the players moved their bows lightly over the strings, barely intoning the high pitches. There was a nostalgic, wistful feeling to this as the notes from the music box approximated something like a lullaby. This placid feeling was extended by the gentle tones now coming from the strings.

As the piece progressed the passages became shorter and stronger, but somewhat less connected. Pizzicato figures and the guitar added to a more complex texture – and the music box contributed a series of short trills – but the leisurely pace and generally soft dynamics maintained the overall sense of mystical serenity. The electronics morphed into a quiet rattle and eventually the string players joined in, softly rapping and knocking on their instruments. When the arco harmonies occurred, they were especially lovely in contrast. The increasingly sharp percussive effects – and the more disconnected character of the piece by the 35 minute mark – seemed to suggest some contention between the electronics and the strings. Towards the end however, the music box returned to prominence with its lullaby and the soothing chords now heard in the strings restored order at the finish.

The acoustics of the small Automata space seemed to work in favor of this very subdued music. The Isaura String Quartet performed on the CD, and this is more intimate yet – Refractions is clearly the kind of work that benefits from precise mastering in the studio. The live performance, however, did not suffer in any way and the playing throughout was precise and controlled. The cool ambient tranquility of Refractions is a much needed antidote to the raucous confusion that infests our daily lives; this music works to elegantly recharge us in a moment of restorative calm.

Refractions is available directly from Populist Records, in physical CD format or digital download.

The Koan Quartet is:

Eric K.M. Clark, violin
Orin Hidestad, violin
Cassia Streb, viola
Jennifer Bewerse, cello

17 days ago | |
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On Friday, May 5, 2017 wasteLAnd convened at Art Share in downtown Los Angeles for a concert titled Matter/Moving, featuring works by James Tenney, Catherine Lamb, Erik Ulman and Michael Pisaro. A good-sized Cinco de Mayo crowd filled the space to hear performances by Scott Worthington, Matt Barbier and Scott Cazan in a concert characterized by unusual subtlety and sensitivity.

The first piece was Beast, by James Tenney and featured Scott Worthington on double bass. This opened with a series of low, sustained tones – a generally warm droning texture, but with some rough edges. The sound was more or less continuous with no pulse, save for the slight pause during the bowing. The double-stopped chords often changed slightly as they were played – when a tone went up slightly in pitch, there was an added element of tension or uncertainty. When one of the tones went down in pitch, the feeling was often more introspective and profound. The tones were sometimes very close in pitch, but not exactly, and this created something of an unsettled feeling. When the tones fell into a familiar harmonic relationship there was a sense of settled well-being. Beast continued in this way – a series of sustained chords where slight changes in pitch provided the harmonic propulsion for the passage. Although these changes were often slight and subtle, the pleasantly deep register of the double bass kept the listener engaged throughout. One could easily imagine a great beast, sighing and lightly snoring while curled up in a deep slumber. Beast is quintessential James Tenney, played in this performance with quiet authority by Scott Worthington whose ear and technique were flawless.

Matter/Moving, by Catherine Lamb, followed and for this Scott Worthington re-tuned his double bass and was joined by Matt Barbier on trombone and Scott Cazan presiding over the electronics. Matter/Moving began with a thin, high tone from the bass that was matched in pitch by a sine tone from the electronics and followed by silence. This was repeated with the addition of a second note by the bass at the end of the passage. After another short silence, the bass and electronics were joined by Barbier’s muted trombone, with all three sounds very close in pitch.

Matter/Moving proceeded in this way, with the sequential sounding of all three tones and their subsequent interactions derived from slight variations in pitch. In some cases the three pitches were so close as to produce zero-beating. At other times they combined to produce a more comfortable harmonic configuration. The clean sine tone from the electronics seemed to remain steady while the other two instruments worked off of this to create the various harmonic colors. Sometimes the feelings produced were introspective and profound, while at other times more questioning and uncertain. Towards the finish the electronics began to dominate the texture and this produced a somewhat bleak and alien feel. The bass began to climb higher in pitch and this introduced a bit of tension as well, like arriving at an desolate landscape. The playing was precise, disciplined and controlled.

Like the Tenney piece, Matter/Moving has no definite pulse or rhythm. The dynamic of this piece is also subdued – barely reaching mezzo piano – but this allowed the listener to better focus on the interactions of the tones. With an economy of musical materials and its minimal structure and form, Matter/Moving is a surprisingly expressive exploration of the hidden vocabulary of similar pitches.

Following a short intermission Coronation of Sesostris, by wasteLAnd’s featured composer Erik Ulman, was performed by Matt Barbier on solo trombone. This began with a single, loud tone that tapered off over the course a few seconds. After a short silence another was heard at what sounded to be a step higher. This continued with each succeeding pitch, as if moving up a scale. The powerful intonations by Barbier rang out through the space and then slowly decayed with a noticeable loss of energy as it quietly trailed off. The initial feelings of strength and confidence of each note morphed uneasily into a contrasting tentativeness and uncertainty. As the piece proceeded, however, more complex and rapidly-played passages emerged with ever greater variation in tone color and dynamic. The higher and lower registers of the trombone were heard. There was power and there was delicacy. Mutes appeared and were changed with great dexterity. The piece now took on a regal and powerful character – in keeping with the kingly title – before returning to the original single-tone sequences as the piece concluded. Coronation of Sesostris is a vivid portrayal of the uncertainties and ambitions surrounding the assumption of power – and could also be a challenging audition piece for the virtuoso trombonist.

The final work of the evening was No key but a possible movement, by Michael Pisaro. Scott Worthington and his solo double bass returned to center stage, along with a computer and large speaker by way of accompaniment. The piece began with a short pizzicato passage of four notes in the bass followed by answering tones from the speaker. The pre-recorded electronic track was created from processed samples of Worthington’s bass and this blended seamlessly with the live playing. The call-and-response sequence continued, with the pitches between the bass and electronics often closely matched. Eventually Worthington and the recording began conversing in bowed passages and this added a bit of drama. The closely tuned pitches began to interact and there were times when the sustained sounds achieved a distinct zero-beating growl. The low rumbling tones increased to a powerfully swelling roar, almost like standing inside some great machine.

Towards the middle of the piece some quiet was restored and long, sustained tones from the bass and speaker came together into a sweetly sorrowful and beautifully expressive mixture. Nothing touches the feelings like the lower register of a double bass, and this was brilliantly realized in both the playing and recorded accompaniment. The warm, deep sounds filled the room and then gradually subsided. The speaker then began issuing a series of soft rushing sounds, introducing a new sense of motion and activity. This eventually grew to a roar, overwhelming the bass tones entirely before fading to a whisper. At this point Worthington began applying his bow to various unconventional parts of the double bass – the strings below the bridge, the wood of the bridge itself, the purfing and even the tuning pegs. All of this produced a soft, wispy sound, similar to the that heard from electronics just prior. When the bow was again applied to the strings of the double bass, it was with such a light touch that only a quiet scratching resulted. At length these sounds faded into silence, concluding this remarkably expressive work. No key but a possible movement is a masterful exploration of the profoundly moving depths attainable by a double bass in very skilled hands.

It was announced that Wolfgang von Schweinitz will be the featured wasteLAnd composer for the 2017-2018 season, beginning in the fall.

The final wasteLAnd concert of the current season, Air has no residence, will feature the playing of gnarwhallaby and will be given at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood on June 2, 2017.

20 days ago | |
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matt mitchell - forage

Matt Mitchell

FØRAGE

Screwgun Records

In recent years, saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has frequently collaborated with pianist Matt Mitchell, most notably in Snakeoil, a quartet in which the two are joined by clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith. Thus, Mitchell approaches Berne’s music from a unique and intimate vantage point, one ideal for the first solo interpreter of Berne’s intricate compositions. On FØRAGE, the pianist incorporates Snakeoil tunes as well as other Berne works to craft an imaginative and exhilarating program.

“PÆNE¨” opens the recording with material from The Shell Game, Berne’s 2001 release for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, on which the saxophonist performed with keyboardist Crag Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey in a trio called Hard Cell. The original rendition of the excerpted composition, “Thin Ice,” opens with spacey synths playing a decidedly angular version of a chord progression in straight quarters. Taborn is joined by an altissimo register sax solo that then moves suddenly downward into a wide-ranging post-bop excursion; all of this is reinforced by Rainey’s questing and aggressively punctuated drumming. Mitchell’s version distills the essence of “Thin Ice,” interpreting its 6/8 section with an imaginative gloss on all three musicians’ approaches from the original recording. Thus, the synthesizer’s chords are put into the middle and upper register of the piano in less rangy spacing. Rainey’s drumming is imitated by syncopated soprano register verticals. What was Berne’s melody glides between these two formidable layers (plus additional comping and bass notes to boot), supplying a gradually revealed essay of considerable interest.

On “TRA¯C¸E?S´,” Mitchell reinterprets “Traction,” material from The Sublime And., a 2003 live release by another Berne band called Science Friction, a quartet with guitarist Marc Ducret joining Berne, Taborn, and Rainey. The most relentless cut on the album, it features incendiary lines from Ducret in tandem with a fierce ostinato from Berne that eventually evolves into a mayhem of upper register howls and bristling leaps. It is remarkable how, sans the amplification employed by Ducret and Taborn, Mitchell is able to create such a sizzling version of “Traction.” The pianist’s approach leaves little from the original to the imagination, encompassing a plethora of polyrhythms and unabating riffs as well as pointed soloing of his own. Even though inherently it is repurposed for the solo medium, the intensity of the original crackles here, never more so than in the endless, forceful rearticulations of the coda. “RA¨A°Y” also interprets music from the Sublime And.: here the piece is “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” a tune that in the original version combines an ebullient romp with passages of mysterious sostenuto. Mitchell employs “Van Gundy’s Retreat” as the latter half of “RA¨A°Y:” It begins with “Lame 3,” an established Berne composition that is slated for reinterpretation on the next Snakeoil recording. While rhythmically intricate like most of Berne’s work, it demonstrates a melodic delineation that is distinctive and memorable.

Mitchell amply demonstrates that he has made various regions of Berne’s voluminous catalog his own. Crucial as he was to its gestation, it is equally fascinating to hear him reinterpret the Snakeoil material. Both “A`A¨S?” and “ŒRBS” consist entirely of compositions from the Snakeoil albums on ECM, and “CLØU`DE¯” combines “Spare Parts” from the first (2012) album with a reprise of the aforementioned 6/8 section of “Thin Ice.” In these compositions, one sometimes hears Mitchell channeling his bandmates’ solos and accompaniment, allowing their spirits to be present in his music-making. However, just as often, the pianist takes things in different directions, lingering over a riff or harmony here, inventing a new countermelody there. Thus, Mitchell untethers his playing from the more circumscribed role he undertakes in Snakeoil.

Even Berne aficianados are likely to be stumped by some of the material here, including a previously unrecorded cut, “Huevos Expanded,” the basis for “SI^I¨N~,” a fetching, impressionist tinged ballad that serves as the album’s closer. Here Mitchell fashions undulating ostinatos and deftly pedaled passages to create whorls of colorful harmonies, buoyed by a gentle waft of swing. The piece serves as a reminder that, while at times the thread between them is tenuous, Berne’s work is not solely avant-garde in character; it also evinces connections to the modern jazz tradition.

As a whole, FØRAGE leaves one eager to take a two-pronged approach: first, delving further into Berne’s catalog to reevaluate his music afresh; second, to reacquaint oneself with Mitchell’s own compelling body of work. It is also exciting to learn that more things are afoot with Snakeoil. In the meantime, FØRAGE supplies a potent combination of captivating compositions and abundant musicality. Recommended.

22 days ago | |
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Saturday, April 29, 2017 and Human Resources in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles was the location for the Experimental Music Yearbook concert that featured a new work by Carolyn Chen and a set by the visiting Happy Valley Band. The wide open spaces of Human Resources were just right for the expansive choreography of Ms. Chen’s Signs of Struggle, and a perfect venue for the booming exuberance of David Kant’s amplified Happy Valley Band ensemble.

First up was Signs of Struggle by Carolyn Chen and this began with four players filing silently into the performance space – unoccupied save for a large drum on the floor surrounded by various found objects. Two of the performers were blindfolded, and led out into the open space, turned around several times until disoriented, and then left to wander blindly about. The other pair seated themselves at the drum on the floor.

The wandering pair, no doubt using aural cues, eventually met and began to struggle, as if wrestling. The pair sitting at the drum had a clicker, and when this sounded all movement stopped, resuming again after a second click. The wrestling pair worked their way to the drum, engaging one of the two seated there. The three now wrestled their way back into the open space, each pulling in different directions and constantly engaged, while sliding and crawling along the floor. Eventually all four were drawn into one rolling scrum, each struggling to keep the others from moving in any given direction. The blindfolds had been removed by this point and all were in continuous physical motion with the heavy breathing of the players clearly audible. This contest of strength became almost comical at times, provoking a few scattered laughs among the audience.

At length, all four arrived back at the drum. Here they separated and began heaping found objects on the drum head. With each grabbing the rim of the drum, they began to pull and push, contending for the direction that the drum should take along the floor. The sound that the drum made as a result of these efforts became a remarkably strong metaphor for the physical struggle witnessed just prior to this point in the performance. The objects on the drum head created a swirling roar, punctuated by sharp raps as some of the pieces were thrown upward and fell back. The final contest over the direction of the drum continued for a minute or two before all fell silent at the finish.

We have all heard percussion parts that put us in mind of cannons or hoof beats – but this was much more powerful and vivid even though it was not particularly loud or dramatic. It was as if the physical drama in the first part of the performance prepared our brain to acutely receive the symbolic sounds of the struggle as portrayed by the prepared drum. The choreography of this piece is extensive – Carolyn Chen’s score, performance notes and sketches run to several pages. The physical exertions of the players – Liam Mooney, Erika Bell, Davy Sumner, and John Eagle – were met with extended applause. Signs of Struggle is an enlightening combination of physicality and musical symbolism that surprises the listener with its power of suggestion and stimulation.

After a short intermission, the chairs were rearranged to face the Happy Valley Band, who had arrived from the Bay Area with an impressive array of cables, amplifiers, speakers sound boards, monitors and computers. Along with leader David Kant on saxophone, there was Andrew Smith at the keyboard, Beau Sievers on drum kit, Alexander Dupuis on guitar and Mustafa Walker, bass guitar. In addition, three local players sat in on various pieces during the set: Eric K.M. Clark, violin, Casey Anderson, saxophone and Sam Friedman, harmonica.

The music of the Happy Valley Band is based on transcriptions of popular songs which are highly processed using sophisticated signal analysis software that separates out the component parts. This is a multi-step process that, according to Kant’s website “…determines notes by changes in pitch and amplitude. With adjustable thresholds, it is tuned to the character of the material tracked. If, for instance, the material is rhythmic, amplitude onsets may be weighted more heavily than pitch onsets, and vice versa.”

Ultimately, this data is mined for pitch content and a local pulse, and at this microscopic scale the transcribed result varies greatly from standard temperament and conventional rhythms. “The pitch notation is fully microtonal, notated to the closest twelve-tone equal-tempered pitch and modified with microtonal cent deviation indications. The rhythmic notation is transcribed to the pulse of the song. Rather than transcribing to a constant pulse, the rhythmic notation is transcribed to a map of where the beat actually falls in the recording.”

The goal is to reproduce in performance what the recording machinery has ‘heard’ during the recording process. The result is akin to analyzing the DNA of a popular song and then performing a sort of exploded genetic mutation to produce music that, although very complex and unique, is recognizably related to the original. During the performance the vocal track of the original pop song is heard, and this acts as a guide for the players as well as giving the audience some helpful context.

Hearing the Happy Valley Band play is a bit like standing in front of a blast furnace – the notes pour out at a furious clip, at full rock band intensity. The Human Resources performance space has large flat walls with a hard floor, and this tended to amplify the already powerful sounds, partly at the expense of the recorded vocal track. The first piece began with a loud crash of a chord followed by some complex drumming, and the waves of sound were soon rolling out over the audience. There was no common beat – and the various parts were rapidly played with a highly complex figuration. The playing by the musicians was frantic, and notated pages flew off the music stands gathering in heaps across the floor as the piece progressed. The overall feel, however, was surprisingly organic and cohesive. The harmonic connections to the vocal track were just strong enough to unify the separate streams of sound in the mind of the listener.

The more recognizable pieces with the strongest vocal lines tended to be the most effective: songs by Phil Collins, Elvis Presley and James Brown being perhaps the most memorable. It’s a Man’s World by James Brown had the best balance between the vocal track and the instruments, the band having dialed back a bit on the volume. A fine sax solo by David Kant a added to the close-knit feeling with the original. As the set continued, different players rotated in and out. In one piece, the amplified harmonica of Sam Friedman rose to the top of a swirling texture to dominate in a most pleasing way. There were crisp violin solos, saxophone licks and many artfully played passages that quickly materialized and just as quickly disappeared. The spirited ensemble and high intensity dynamics, however, did not overwhelm the intrinsic connection of the transcribed playing to the original piece. This charm of this music is that it is like hearing an old, familiar tune – from the inside out. The Happy Valley Band continues to experiment at the ragged edge, tinkering with the genetics of popular songs to produce powerfully unique music.

A new album by the Happy Valley Band, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is now available as a vinyl LP and by digital download at Indexical.

23 days ago | |
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Linda Catlin Smith

Drifter

Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet

Another Timbre at105X2

Born in the US and residing in Canada for more than a quarter century, Linda Catlin Smith has become a fixture on that country’s cultural radar. She has been welcomed and feted as one of Canada’s own. For instance, she is only the second woman to win the Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music and has had a long association with the ensemble ArrayMusic, whom she served as Artistic Director. Several recordings have been released of her music, but last year’s Dirt Road won her critical acclaim and belated notice in the United States, ending up on many critics’ “best of year” lists (mine included). Released by Another Timbre, Dirt Road was merely a foretaste of that label’s commitment to Canadian music. Another Timbre has recently released a set of five recordings in its Canadian Composers series (another batch of five is due later this year).  Catlin Smith features prominently, with the double disc Drifter serving as Volume 1 in the series. Other composers include Martin Arnold, Isiah Ceccarelli, Chlyoko Szlavnics, and Marc Sabat.

Drifter’s program is performed by two chamber groups: Apartment House and Bozzini Quartet. The “drifting” in question is not itinerant hitchhiking, but rather the placid tempo pathways frequently chosen by Catlin Smith. The piano trio Far from Shore, played here by Philip Thomas, Anton Lukiszevieze, and Mira Benjamin,  is a case in point. Slow, soft music for the trio, often reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s approach (one that Catlin Smith acknowledges as a signature influence on her work) abides alongside passages of colorful piano chords. The spectrum moves from inexorably repeated constrained sets of pitches, to chromatic counterpoint, to whole washes of sound. The intuitive sensibility that Catlin Smith claims as her approach in preference to any dogmatic systemization clearly allows her to move through constantly changing musical terrain, all the while maintaining an organic sense of each piece. How does she manage this? An interview in the booklet accompanying the Canadian Composers set quotes her as saying,”Listening. Lots of listening.” One could do worse as a composer in any style to listen as carefully as Catlin Smith does.

Cantelina (2013) for viola and vibraphone, played by Emma Richards and Simon Limbrick, presents another of the composer’s interests, one in heterogenous instrumental pairings. Both here and in the Piano Quintet ( 2014), another of Catlin Smith’s predilections, exploring tightly knit counterpoint in close registral positions, is featured. The overlapping in Cantilena is quite fetching (it is a combination that should be explored by more composers and one I’ll keep in my own hip pocket) and it is equally affecting when writ large in the quintet. The title work is also for a seemingly challenging combination, piano and classical guitar, played by Philip Thomas and Diego Castro Magas, but Catlin Smith’s gentle daubs of coloristic harmony and unequal ostinatos work beautifully in this duo context as well. Mon Qui Tremblais (1999), played by Thomas, Benjamin, and Limbrick, has a pulse-driven piano part that is joined by sustained violin and bowed pitched percussion. An interesting notational device is used: rather than writing out all the notes and rhythms, the composer specifies that the musicians silently read a Rimbaud poem and use its speech rhythms to shape the musical work (for instance, the percussionist gets his attack points from the accented French syllables).

Bozzini Quartet appears in two string quartets by Catlin Smith. Folkestone (1999) pits a persistently high violin line against blocks of slow articulated, syncopated chords played by the other three members (these have an almost accordion-like quality in their spacing). Gradually, other lines emerge from the texture, with the cello playing a poignant solo dissonant with the rest of the harmony. The chordal passages begin registrally to disperse, bringing the locus of activity closer to the violin’s sustained flautando melody. Mid-register lines now break free and the chords move in double time for a brief stretch before ceding the terrain to widely spaced and again slowly articulated harmonies. This alternation of patterns includes still more elements to be introduced: pizzicatos, duets, flashes of quartal harmonic brilliance, and a bass-register cello melody made truly weighty by the registers it has balanced against before. Clocking in at more than 32 minutes, Folkestone is a substantial and thoroughly captivating composition. Gondola involves members of the quartet coming in and out of unison and a gentle boat-rocking pacing that Catlin Smith describes thus:”The title loosely refers to its slight undulation or floating qualities – a subtle motion or disturbance of the surface, like trailing the hand in water.”

Evocative imagery for truly evocative music-making. Drifter is an album (a double-album at that) worth savoring.

1 month ago | |
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