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Vijay Iyer and the Brentano Quartet in a live performance of sections from Mutations at Greene Space

Over the past two decades, Vijay Iyer has recorded some 18 albums of bold, genre-defying and original music that navigates the fine line between composition and improvisation, between jazz and New Music.  Although his restless musical imagination roams easily through both Carter and Monk territory, unearthing insights that evolve and morph over time, the gestures have largely been identifiable as jazz.   His new and first ECM recording—Mutations—unveils more of the composer side of the 42-year-old New Yorker’s prolific bag.  The title composition–for string quartet, piano and electronics—was written nearly 10 years ago but is recorded here for the first time, with considerable care, by Iyer and top chamber players Miranda Cuckson, Michi Wiancko, Kyle Armbrust and Kivie Cahn-Lipman,  under the magic ear of Manford Eicher.

Is Mutations jazz or is it contemporary classical or some sort of Third Stream, as envisioned by Gunther Schuller?  Does it matter?

“I find myself at the intersection of several music communities where people have different understandings and assumptions about what music is,” he says.  “When you talk about genres you’re really talking about different communities of people each of which has people who have a shared understanding of music.  But, those assumptions shift as we are exposed to different approaches and sounds so we are constantly redefining what music is. ”

In other words, he isn’t much interested in labels or categories.

“As you can imagine, from the perspective of an artist who makes music and has lived pretty intimately in both the jazz and classical worlds it is not useful think about labels or categories.  It’s more useful to think about what can I do with these particular people.  Because when you talk about genres you’re really talking about communities and people who have a shared understanding about what is music.  When you’re exposed to something new, that can expand or alter your perceptions.”

Lately, Iyer has become the Pharrell Williams of the New Music community—a musician who has worked over 20 years to become an overnight success.   Although Iyer’s music is unlikely to dominate the planet in the same resistance-is-futile way that Williams has, he has plenty to be “happy” about, too.  In the last two years, he’s won a MacArthur Genius Award, gotten a tenured teaching position at Harvard, landed a big commission and retrospective at BAM this coming December and released an extraordinary new album on ECM.

“I’m a kind of late bloomer in terms of becoming a professional musician,” Iyer told me after a performance of Mutations  at The Greene Space a couple of weeks ago. I had intended to get into physics and got an undergraduate degree in math and physics at Yale.  After that I went to Berkeley to work on a Ph.D.  The music was always there and I never stopped playing.  I just wasn’t sure I could make a living at it.  I wound up getting an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts, focusing on music cognition.  Fortunately, I had some success in performing and it encouraged me to keep going.”

What makes that success even more remarkable is that despite having studied the violin for 15 years, beginning at age three, he is virtually self-taught as a pianist.

“I began to gravitate toward the piano when I was six although I didn’t approach it in a formal way.  I was drawn more by the physical connection.  I didn’t find the jazz interest until high school and particularly after discovering Thelonious Monk.  He’s my all-time favorite composer and musician.  I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much from him–about rhythm, and tempo and immersion into the music.”

Iyer was born in Albany in 1971 and raised in nearby Fairport. He played in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and took improvisation and music theory courses at Eastman School of Music while in high school. His parents were science technicians who had immigrated from Tamil Nadu  but he grew up in a prosperous “conventional” American environment.  Although he is interested in Indian music and culture and has incorporated some elements into his music, his jazz “roots” and influences are distinctly African-America.

Listen to the sublime “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” and the other jazzish pieces on the Mutations CD and you’ll find yourself immersed in the sonic world of Monk and Randy Weston, as channeled through a devoted and gifted student/master.  The center piece–Mutations 1-10–is something else entirely.

Commissioned by Ethel in 2005, the 10-part composition for piano, electronics and string quartet is a gnarly kaleidoscope of timbres and asymmetrical rhythms, anchored by occasional droplets of melody from Iyer on piano and electronics, and enlivened by steady—if a little tentative—bursts of improvisation by members of the wonderful recording quartet.  In the program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Written in the period when the 9/11 tragedy still gripped New York and not long after Iyer and his wife, Christina Leslie, a computational biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and their new daughter settled in New York.  Mutations reflects some of the edgy feelings of alienation, fear and despair of that period, leavened by moments of hope.

In the original program notes, Iyer writes:   “With Mutations, and with all of my music, I am interested in probing this loose constellation of concepts: change, stasis, repetition, evolution, attraction, repulsion, composition, improvisation, noise, technology, race, ethnicity, hybridity.”  I suppose he had to write something.

Iyer’s classically-oriented pieces like Mutations  and Time, Place, Action, a new piano quintet he wrote for the Brentano which is not on the ECM CD but had its New York premiere recently at the 92Y,  present special challenges.  It is one thing for Iyer, a born improviser, to add unexpected piano or electronic rifts against the backdrop of a notated string quartet; it is quite another to ask musicians who are trained to play notes exactly as written to improvise.

“Having been an improviser and having studied and played the violin for many years, I have a kind of insider sense of what it feels like on both sides of the boundary,” he says.  “Classical musicians don’t take improvised solos like jazz musicians but they do make choices and decisions—they’re very good at interpreting, they’re interacting all the time;  they choose how tempos breathe, for example, and how to play in tune so they do make many moment-to-moment micro-decisions.  I was interested in what could classical musicians “choose” to do when presented with passages where they get to decide what to do.  For example, there are places where they are instructed to repeat this as many times as you like or choose how to play a rhythm

In the past, Iyer has produced, or co-produced, his own recordings.  For Mutations, he worked directly with ECM’s legendary founder and producer Manford Eicher, who is reputed to be something of a perfectionist.

“There are what I call ‘producer’s knob’ producers,” Iyer says.  “They turn the volume up or down and feel like they’ve done their part.  Manford is not that guy.  He was involved in every aspect of the production, even to the music itself.  It was great to work with someone who has the knowledge and experience to be involved to that level.”

Things seem to keep getting better and better for the soft and carefully-spoken Iyer, (whose diffidence is either very charming or very annoying.  I can’t decide.)  In January he became the first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in Harvard’s Department of Music.   Harvard’s catalog describes his course, “Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio,” as “an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers” meant to “engage with a range of contemporary musical perspectives and practices.” Part of his mission, he says, is to fill in the blanks for young musicians about what has happened in jazz over the past 50 years or so since the era of bebop.  (There is no hope for those of us old farts who believe jazz died with the appearance of “Bitches Brew.” Ok, I make an exception for Steve Lacy, who was a personal friend.)

Perhaps the thing that animates Iyer most when you talk to him is the progress his nine-year-old daughter—who began, like dad, at three—is making on the violin.

“She’s awesome,” he says.  Coming from someone as achievement-oriented as Vijay Iyer, that’s high praise indeed.

2 days ago | |
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On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.

3 days ago | |
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Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in

Marc Day and Patrick Fennig in “Brother Brother”

In June I sat on a panel organized by Opera Cabal, in their visit to the Kitchen to produce Georg Haas’ Atthis, with two other critics, John Rockwell and Zachary Woolfe. While the audience was sparse, they were generally attentive and the talk, which began with the question of whether or not we missed City Opera, was varied and interesting.

I was surprised, though, by how much we ended up talking about the Metropolitan Opera, and how Rockwell and Woolfe’s critical thinking is so involved in the context of not only what the Met produces, but the general standpoint that the long-standing repertoire is the thing that matters. The Met demands that much attention in terms of both time and money, and the professional critics (I’m making a value-free distinction between those who are paid for every review they write and those who are paid for some of the reviews we write) pay that much more attention to the Met and that house’s peers: it’s their job.

This is certainly no criticism of Rockwell and Woolfe, especially the former, who has done so much to advocate for contemporary opera. It actually made my contributions more valuable, because while I certainly see plenty of things at the Met (almost a dozen performances this past season), what happens outside that house matters to me more. Nothing against good productions of operas of lasting value (though the grand opera tradition, as seen on stage, includes too many mediocre works), but as a composer I’m most concerned with the state of the form now, what other composers and companies are doing with it.

When I answered the opening question, I was even more surprised to realize that I didn’t miss City Opera. The loss of the company is still painful, but what involved me the most with them was what George Steel was doing to produce modern and contemporary work, and this past season, starting with City Opera’s swan song of Anna Nicole, I saw enough new work (on a necessarily smaller scale), and missed so much more new work, that it was clear to me in retrospect that contemporary opera is in decent enough shape. Smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts Center and Experiments in Opera are making new work, and they are free of the burden of having to maintain a redundant version of the repertoire that the Met has a lock on.

What does it take to produce an opera? Experiments in Opera has an infinitesimal fraction of the Met’s budget, easily less than 1,000,000th, so the composers who formed the organization—Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady and Matthew Welch—work together to produce each other’s pieces. I saw their season finale, Siegel’s Brother Brother, in the beginning of May at the Abrons Arts Center, and while the opera didn’t come off as a successful music drama, it has two important things going for it: it tries to expand the repertory and it made it to the stage—that itself is a success.

Siegel is trying to move narrative structure beyond linear story telling, something the world of contemporary opera desperately needs (as I said at the panel, I’m amazed that in a world with comic books, Pulp Fiction and long form dramatic TV, there is almost never any variation to the Verdian model). He is trying to convey a drama about the Wright brothers by telling the story of an additional pair of brothers, abstracted as Red and Blue. An interesting idea, but unsuccessfully executed.

Siegel wrote the libretto, and could probably have used some critical distance: the words don’t amount to much meaning. They don’t do much to provide human flesh to the Wright brothers (sung by countertenor Patrick Fennig and tenor Marc Day), and the fragmented, abstract dialogue for Red (Julian A. Rozell, Jr.), and Blue (Danyon Davis) make them poetic figures and put them out of the context of the drama. Red and Blue are also speaking parts, and although they are accompanied by music, they seem to belong to an entirely different piece.

Siegel fills in a lot of the narrative with a chorus, but this also works against his drama, because this is music the Wright brothers could sing, and by singing bring us closer to their experience and dramatic realization. They pop up, Day sings heroically at one point, everything goes up in flames. It doesn’t work. Siegel also doesn’t completely get beyond the challenge of his own minimalist idiom—the repetitive music relies predominantly on vibraphone (the accompanying ensembles were Mantra Percussion and the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, conducted by David Bloom), and as lovely as it often is, there is too little changes in quality and harmony to indicate that some kind of narrative transformation has occurred: the music doesn’t convey the dramatic idea.

Production- and performance-wise, the event proved that there is no lack of capable singers, musicians and directors (Mallory Catlett). The actors were miked, probably because the instruments were miked, but in the tidy acoustic of Abrons this should never have happened, and the vibes overpowered the actors and the singers too many times. Perhaps tight budgets mean insufficient tech rehearsals.

But the problems with Brother Brother are those of commission, people trying to do something new. No money means nothing much to lose, and an unsatisfying but honest attempt at something different is more welcome than another acceptable and predictable production of Strauss.

20 days ago | |
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ojai2014-12The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.

The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.

The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.

ojai2014-3 The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.

Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.

The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.

Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage.  Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.

For The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) the orchestra was situated on the stage and was comprised of the Knights with the addition of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. The singers and scenery were mostly in the foreground but there was some creative staging required to work within the friendly confines of the Libbey Bowl. The singers wore microphones and the normally reliable sound system worked as expected so that the music and the libretto were clearly heard. Unfortunately there was no listing I could find for the cast of singers who were all excellent.  Mary Birnbaum directed and Robert Spano was the conductor.

The opening scene is in heaven where we find Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in various stages of boredom and dissatisfaction. Mozart (sung by a soprano but with just the right amount of breeziness) busies himself with writing a letter to the Hollywood producers of Amedeus, inquiring about possible royalty payments and future scoring possibilities – this sent a loud giggle through the audience. Beethoven is mostly lost in thought but delights in running up huge scores in their scrabble games with enormous German words. The music is elegantly classical but turns profound when Beethoven (a bass) is singing. Haydn (a baritone) seems frustrated, and lacking any work to do, worries about his musical legacy. All are alarmed when Haydn reads from a New York Times article stating that ‘classical music is dead,’ and the music here suddenly turns from smoothly classical to faintly dissonant, as if a foreshadowing of the future. They sing together in harmony – “It is shocking how time has made us into caricatures of ourselves.” But then they pick up a nearby book – it is The Classical Style by Charles Rosen – and the music swells to an heroic theme as Haydn exclaims “It’s all about how great we are!” The three composers depart, seeking out Rosen on earth to persuade him to restore their legacy and relevance.

ojai2014-7The scene changes to the Rosen home. Charles Rosen is engrossed in cooking but is actually supposed to be going to an academic symposium. Here Rosen sings of the elegance of the sonata form and the music swells to a pleasing grandiosity. Meanwhile in a nearby bar the Dominant Chord is having a drink and an existential crisis; she doesn’t feel ‘resolved’. The Tonic Chord swaggers in and begins singing about ‘Me, Me, Me,’ and this provoked a knowing laugh from students of tonality. Dominant is attracted to Tonic who replies that he “isn’t sure he wants to be in a relationship.” A sultry Sub Dominant Chord walks in and Tonic is immediately attracted to her, but she seems cool and aloof. This scene with the three chords is entertaining as well as educational – and way to dramatize their harmonic functions. At length Rosen appears, and explains the circle of fifths.

More such scenes follow. The composers appear in the bar and Mozart is attracted to Sub Dominant. Rosen explains Mozart’s music and a scene from Don Giovani breaks out played by Sub Dominant and Tonic. Henry Snigglesworth, a musicology student from UC Berkeley appears with questions and an endless supply of statistics about Beethoven’s music. There are several inside jokes about music and Beethoven announces that he wants to go to the Sonata Symposium to meet Rosen.

The Sonata Symposium scene opens with heavily dramatic Beethovenesque music, but there is no sign of Charles Rosen. The attendees all sing an explanation of the sonata form, in sonata form. This is convincingly classical music and Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn enter to endure a pedantic academic explanation of the sonata form ending with a big finish by all the singers. Just as this is concluding a blast of Wagnerian music is heard and the Tristan Chord, the ‘saddest of all chords’ enters dressed in a wanderer’s coat and hat, complete with a Wotan eye patch. The Tristan Chord embarks on an extended solo – in wonderfully expressive Wagnerian style – about the dark future in store for the chords that is coming in the romantic era. As Tristan departs, Dominant, Sub Dominant and Tonic chords, alarmed by what they have heard, reconcile in a short aria.

Back at home Charles Rosen is finishing a late dinner. Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn enter, entreating his help after the discouraging events of the symposium. But Rosen refuses and states that their music is what must make their legacy and keep them relevant. In the final scene Robert Schuman appears to a lonely Rosen and explains how styles must always change. In a final statement Schuman sums up by declaring that the sonata form was “ …a miracle, Charles, that can never be repeated.”

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The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) has a lot of singers and a lot of moving parts to the plot. The music, even with the many styles and requirements, was well matched to what must have been a tricky libretto. The singers, musicians and of course Steven Stucky did a fine job to bring it all together. If the goal was to produce a piece that will see wider performance, Denk and Stucky may have already succeeded but perhaps a little streamlining would make for a less sprawling and more cohesive production. But, all in all, it was an enjoyable experience and well suited to the festival atmosphere..

Although this piece was intended primarily as a comedy – and succeeded as such – it is remarkable how seeing Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, even as broadly drawn characters acted on stage, can provoke such an empathetic response. We know these composers from their music but to see them concerned about the relevance of their work in the 21st century was surprisingly touching. The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) manages to make light of the current uncertain state of classical music, but also reminds us – through the words of Charles Rosen – of its ultimate value.

This performance is archived on UStream video here:

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oratorio10The annual Dogstar Orchestra concert series of experimental music has been going in various locations in and around Los Angeles since May 30. The venue on June 10 was the Wulf, a converted industrial loft space on Santa Fe street downtown, and a good-sized crowd settled in for an evening of spoken and electronic works. The concert was curated by Sara Roberts and Clay Chaplin.

The concert opened with Black & White Oratorio by Robert Lax. A chorus of 15 voices and three soloists performed this piece which consists of groups of words for color that are spoken in various patterns and sequences. A soloist starts the piece with a series of phrases such as “Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, White.” At length the chorus joined in with a series of similar phrases, but with variations in the Black/White sequence. The speaking has a pulse that allows the chorus to speak in unison, in divisi, or to pause for several beats together. The written score runs to 54 pages and the words are grouped in a series of columns on the page that represent the pulses, with each row of words forming the spoken phrase. This performance of Black & White Oratorio extended for almost 40 minutes but never lost the attention of those listening.

At times the words were spoken in unison, at other times the soloists would speak – always with the same chant-like pulse – but often introducing new colors into the sequences. The combinations would repeat often enough to establish a pattern, and this would be broken by the soloists or with a new sequence of words in the chorus. The pronunciation of the various color words in different combinations often accentuated the sense of rhythm. Repeating “Black White” in the chorus, for example, produced a march-like cadence. When a color word had a single syllable, like Red, there was a strong sound. A word like Orange, with two syllables and a softer sound at the end, added a sort of counterpoint to the pattern of pulses. When the soloists were speaking in sequences of “Red, Blue” with the chorus speaking “Black, White”, a definite sense of tension developed. Some sequences felt light and almost melodic while others resembled more the pattern of a steady drumming. At one point there was even a grand pause that lasted for several silent pulses.

The patterns and motifs that emerge as this piece progresses are always engaging and reveal how musical a work can sound without resorting to pitch or harmony. As the program notes explain: “Rehearsing these color poems has been an incantatory and abstractly hallucinogenic experience.” There were just two full rehearsals for this performance and the recitation went very well with only a few inevitable miscues, but these did not affect the flow of the piece.

Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) has been described as an abstract minimalist poet, and Black & White Oratorio certainly fits into that category. Lax was born in Olean, NY and attended Columbia University. He wrote for several magazines, including the New Yorker, and he was a friend of Thomas Merton. Lax lived on the Isle of Patmos in Greece for the last 35 years of his life and this is where Black & White Oratorio was written. This piece seems to exist in that space between music and poetry and even without tone or pitch, the words, the sequences and the rhythms seem to be transmitting musical content within its private vocabulary. The soloists for this performance were Jen Hutton, Heather Lockie and Morgan Gerstmar and the director was Sara Roberts.

After a short intermission the concert continued with Three Pieces for Networked Speakers. Seven small speakers were set up in a circular pattern around the performance space and each was fitted with a Raspberry Pi micro-computer and amplifier. The micro-computers were networked together and this allowed the electronic works to be processed in real time.

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Type A Nightmare No. 2 by Clay Chaplin was the first piece and this started out with the electronic singing of an Icelandic folk song fragment. According to the program notes “Type A Nightmare No. 2 is a sound mass piece that uses the inherent latency of the networked speaker system by gradually displacing the playback timing of a sound sample that plays from each speaker.” Over the course of the work the result is that the repeated fragment slowly dissembles into a sonic oblivion and then returns back again.

The starting melody had a solemn, almost sad feel to it that was enhanced as the processing continued. Soon the words became lost in a warm humming drone, producing a distinctly transcendent feel. Eventually white noise crept in, and the sound morphed into something like the humming of bees. This seemed to be coming from different directions at different times, no doubt the result of electronic manipulation of the speaker array. At the mid-point the process reversed and the sound slowly gained a sense of organization and momentum. The humming acquired an organic texture and it seemed to circle around the speakers. Eventually the original melody became recognizable and the piece concluded as it had begun.

The next piece was Synopsis by Sepand Shahab and this began with a low hum that slowly increased in amplitude, then faded away. A second, slightly lower tone was added and zero-beating was clearly heard and this produced a distant, alien feel. A low rumble appeared, like a motorcar roaring in the distance, adding motion to the sense of distance. The upper registers held a soft rolling, clanking and grinding sound that gave off a distinct feeling of unease that increased as the low motor-like rumble faded away. As the piece progressed a low, jet-like roar appeared with two sine waves, close in pitch, that produced more zero-beating. Synopsis came to a satisfactory conclusion as the clanking and rumbling faded away leaving just a clean sine wave that died out at the finish.

The concert concluded with A Glimpse by David Paha and this piece called for six musicians to be stationed at music stands near the speakers, each with a keyboard connected to the Raspberry Pi computer. A Glimpse opened with a single tone that slowly increased in volume, and this was soon joined by others, close in pitch, that produced a variety of zero beating effects. There was a warm, bubbly feeling to this as each player slowly manipulated their pitches in and around the starting tone. The overall effect was like being in a chanting crowd. The piece proceeded in this fashion, with each player following the lead tone, pushing slightly higher or slightly lower to form changing zero-beat patterns and interactions. Towards the conclusion the tones seemed to decay in pitch and volume, giving a feeling of slow devolution and a winding down as the last sound trailed off into silence.

A Glimpse seems to be fashioned from pure sine tones and is reminiscent of the work David Seidel has done in this area. The Raspberry Pi computers and six separate musicians add greatly to the possibilities inherent in this approach, and all of the works in Three Pieces for Networked Speakers provided an interesting insight into the future of electronic music that allows for sound manipulation and processing in real-time.

The Dogstar 10 concerts continue through June 14.

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Like everybody else, I was stunned to hear that Lee Hyla had died. I first met Lee in the spring of 1973; I was a senior at New England Conservatory and he was a freshman, I think. That year he was studying with my teacher, Malcolm Peyton, but the previous year he had been a special student and studied with John Heiss. During that earlier year he was taking piano lessons with Irma Wolpe, who I also studied with. My recollections of her are that she was the second most unpleasant person I ever met in my life, but Lee got along well with her. She had a way of stopping you just as soon as you touched the piano and telling you what you’d done wrong, which I found completely maddening and disabling–the one thing I learned from her–through negative example–was to let people play through things before starting to talk to them about what they did. Lee didn’t have that problem with her. He said that the first piece he played in his first lesson was the Webern Variations. He had play the first dyad when she stopped him, but he just turned around to her and said “Wait. There’s More.” She let him play through the whole piece then and never stopped him before he’d finished playing through a piece after that. Mike (aka Conrad) Pope and I ran a concert series of new music at the Museum of Fine Arts, and we included a piece of Lee’s, White Man on Snow Shoes, on one of our concerts. Over that year I got to know Lee, and he introduced me to Monty Python (via their first record, Another Monty Python Record–which was responsible for making a connection in my mind between “Mary, Queen of Scots” and the first movement break in the Carter first quartet), Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, and Captain Beefheart, so he was a major contributor to my education. I saw Lee all the time before he moved to New York, but after that saw less of him. When he moved back to Boston, to teach at NEC, he was on a higher level than me, and the relationship became more complicated.

In Virgil Thomson’s autobiography, he wrote about his encounter with the Copland Organ Symphony: “Nadia Boulanger came to American that year for giving organ recitals and some lectures. In New York and in Boston she played the solo organ part in Aaron Copland’s First Symphony, a work composed especially for her. When she asked me how I liked it, I replied that I had wept. ‘But the important thing,’ she said, ‘is why you wept.’ ‘Because I had not written it myself,’ I answered.

I have only felt that way when first hearing a piece by somebody who was more or less my age twice. One of those times was when I first heard Lee’s Third Quartet.

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newstrings2On Sunday, May 25, 2014 the Los Angeles Composers Collective presented New Strings a concert that featured new works by nine different composers and performed by the Fiato Quartet. The venue was Human Resources, a converted movie theater in historic Chinatown and although the performance space is a work in progress, the audience was seated comfortably. The acoustics in this new space were adequate – a dryer environment might have been better to bring out the finer details – but this did not affect the performance.

The concert began with String Quartet 1 by Jon Brenner and this commenced with a series of fast, precisely played eighth notes that immediately assumed a familiar minimalist texture. This developed a nice groove with effective harmonies and solid counterpoint. As the piece progressed, a section with lower dynamics – dominated by the cello – produced a more introspective feel despite the busyness. Those sequences where there was dynamic contrast and sustained tones in one or more parts were particularly effective. Towards the end of the piece the tempo slowed a bit and a pleasing theme emerged that was passed around among the players. This is music that is always going somewhere; at times it is strident but never out of control and the groove was always carefully maintained. Informed by Jon Brenner’s background in early music, String Quartet 1 is a strongly minimalist piece with a lot of moving parts that work admirably together.

Thoughts on Spring followed, by Alicia Byer. This begins with a series of long, slow notes in the violins, followed by the viola and cello. Trills appear, and with a sustained tone continuing in the viola there is the unmistakable feeling of an awakening.  A slow melody is heard for a time and then – after a beat or two of silence – fast trills in the viola mark the start of a stronger, more animated section. As the volume and tempo increase there is a feeling of incipient  undeniability, especially strong in the lower strings, like the emergence of the first flower shoots of spring. Thoughts on Spring is just that, and this music artfully describes the yearly process of natural renewal.

At the Warren by Carlos Carlos was next and this is a piece that is unashamedly about rabbits. Full of variously bouncing pizzicato or tremolo sounds – and often with a dance-like feel – At the Warren nicely captures the energy and movement of rabbits in the wild. At times this piece turns smoothly pastoral and was reminiscent of early 20th century English music. There was a section that quietly conveyed stealth and careful movement and other passages that expressed a more lighthearted feeling or a sense of purposeful journey. The book Watership Down came to mind. At the Warren is not abstract or difficult music, but it clearly and convincingly sketches out its subject matter.

Miniature for String Quartet No. 6 by Gregory Lenczycki followed. This began with a series of strong quarter notes that gave off an edgy feel that only increased as the rhythms became syncopated. As the piece proceeded the texture turned smoothly melodic, providing a good contrast with the opening passages. Further along there was a return to the strident rhythms of the opening and a disconnected melody emerged that enhanced the building sense of tension. The barely cohesive structure at the conclusion completes the feeling of uncertainty that characterizes this piece and makes it an interesting sojourn.

The first half of the concert concluded with Four Impressions by Nicholas White. The first of the four sections was dominated by low trills in the violin, joined by a faster repeating line in the viola. This combination generated a sense of mystery and anxiety while the second section evoked a more introspective feel with lush chords, high sustained pitches and triplets in the viola. This trailed off agreeably leaving a nostalgic afterglow. The third section continued the warm, expressive feelings with a series of slow chords and some lovely harmonies. The final section provided a fine contrast, full of fast passages in the upper strings that gave a strident and declarative feel to the overall texture. This turned slightly discordant at times, increasing the strongly purposeful feel. Some combinations of notes sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet – adding another interesting facet to this nicely balanced work.

Following the intermission David and Mr. Billings Fistfight in Heaven by Derek Dobbs was heard and this piece  featured a single, amplified violin on the stage with the other strings dispersed among the audience. A low drone began in the violin and this was doubled by the others as the piece progressed. The acoustics of the space cooperated, and the audience was soon immersed in a sequence of meditative sounds as if situated on a high hill in wild country. This effectively built up a sense of introspection that bordered on sadness and grief. Towards the conclusion the tempo intensified, and this made for a more dramatic feel.  A solo theme by the viola quietly ends the piece.

String Quartet No.1 by Tu Nguyen followed and this began with a sense of deliberate movement in a quick melody. Now a more sustained feel, but this was soon followed by a return to the animated and persistent pace of the opening. An overlay of passages by the violin provided a sort of running commentary. A slower section towards the middle of the piece builds with an undercurrent of tension as the tempo increased, and at the end a pizzicato theme is passed around that greatly adds to the expressive dynamic. String Quartet No.1 is a strongly kinetic work with an arresting feel that owes something to the intensity and energy of early 20th century European music.

3 Dirges for the Death of Man by Matthew Allen was next and despite its ambitious title, the three sections of this piece were delivered in a convincing manner and succeed in eliciting a sense of great loss. The first section begins with long, low tones in the cello that are soon joined by higher notes in the violins and viola. The cello dominates and with repeating lines in the higher strings, a subtle sense of sadness is created. The second section continues with the repeating figures and this gives a sense of movement, but there is also a real feeling of loss that is underscored by rising whole notes in the cello. In the last section, there are plucked notes that are accompanied by a low drone that is played simultaneously in the cello. The violin joins with a squealing sound as the viola plays a soft repeating pattern. A series of powerful tutti passages close out the piece yielding a sorrowful, yet hopeful feeling that is played beautifully and with a soulful sound. 3 Dirges for the Death of Man is artfully conceived and was played with great sensitivity by the Fiato Quartet.

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The concert concluded with Scenes from My Parents’ Cocktail Party by Max Mueller. This is a four movement work based on Mr. Mueller’s childhood experiences growing up in suburban Ohio. The first movement is Mango Salsa, and this has a busy, dance-like feel that conjures up the activity and preparation that occurs prior to the hosting of an informal get-together. The second movement, The Two People Flirting, has a slower and often halting tempo that mirrors the awkwardness of such an encounter. There is a nice cello solo that brings a sense of elegance and warmth to this. Candles on the Porch, movement 3 has the comforting glow of romance and includes a fine violin solo. The final movement, The Bickering Couple, is a fast duel between the violins and the cello/viola, including an effective pizzicato passage. There is no acrimony or anger in this section, but a definite sense of keen observation. This is descriptive music, heavily indebted to the more straightforward sound tracks of film and TV, but appealingly so, and the audience was both entertained and engaged.

The Fiato Quartet did a fine job playing through all nine pieces, what with so many different styles and techniques involved.  All of the pieces came through accurately and were played with the requisite skill and sensitivity.

The Fiato Quartet is:
Carrie Kennedy – Violin
Ina Veli – Violin
Erik Rynearson – Guest Violist
Ryan Sweeney – Cello

[Photo by Tu Nguyen, used with permission]

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Irving Fine was a Boston boy through and through. Born on December 3, 1914, in East Boston to Latvian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Winthrop and went to Harvard. The Boston in which Fine grew up was, through the influence of the Boston Symphony and its conductors Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzy and the Harvard Music Department and its composition professors Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, among other factors, a world center of new music (or at least francophile new music) activity, and the work of Harvard’s choral conductor Archibald T. Davison at Harvard also made it the center and exemplar of serious music education and choral training in the United States. Possibly the high water mark of this importance was when, during the time Fine was a graduate students at Harvard, Igor Stravinsky came to Boston as Harvard’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetics; Fine was designated as a minder for Stravinsky, and was also assigned to help with the initial translation of his lectures, which became The Poetics of Music. In 1940 Fine joined the faculty of the Harvard Music Department as a teaching fellow; in 1942 he was appointed an instructor, a position he held until 1948.

From the beginning Fine’s association with Harvard was intertwined with Anti-Semitism. He was one of two students at Winthrop High School to apply to Harvard; the grades of the other student, who was not Jewish, were less good, but he and not Fine was accepted. (All of the Ivy-League colleges had quotas of the percentage of Jews they would admit.) After a “post-graduate” fifth year of high school at the Boston Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, Fine applied again to Harvard and was admitted. When as the vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club, Fine applied for membership to the Boston Harvard Club, which, although not directed affiliated with the university, had a policy that all officers of Harvard clubs were entitled to membership, he was informed that “his kind” were not accepted. Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard music faculty except the musicologist Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest. In 1948 Fine was denied tenure at Harvard, which ended his teaching career there. Since Merritt and the composer Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful professors in the Harvard Music Department, were openly anti-Semitic, Fine’s being Jewish was almost certainly a factor in the decision, even though there was also a certain amount of friction between Fine and Merritt regarding the proper role of performance in the department, and Merritt apparently distrusted Fine, who he considered an empire-builder.

Fortuitously, just as Fine’s career at Harvard was ending, he was invited to join the faculty of the Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, newly founded in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas. Entrusted with the task of building the university’s music department, he immediately enlisted his life long friends Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, both of whom he had met at Harvard. He also enlisted the assistance of another Harvard friend, Bernstein, to help with fund raising and to establish the Brandeis Fesitval of the Creative Arts. Between 1952 and 1957, Fine and Bernstein organized and brilliantly executed four festivals, which garnered great acclaim and notoriety. That notoriety and the great distinction of the music department’s faculty quickly made it one of the most important in the United States, especially at the graduate level.

Fine, Berger, and Shapero, and to a lesser extent, Bernstein and Lukas Foss, were allied by common aesthetic aims and influences and by their friendships with Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, and their devotion to their music. They are certainly the most important of the American Neo-Classic composers, and were sometime referred to as the Boston School or the Boston group. The sunniness of their situation about the time of the founding of Brandeis was increasingly clouded by a spectre. It had several names, but using the common short hand, one could call it “twelve tone music”.

In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden writes about Utopian visions, “our dream pictures of the Happy Place,” of which he says there are two, which he names Eden and The New Jerusalem. “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over the gate is, ‘Do what you wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’” For better or for worse, I think this describes the situation of American composers in general, and Fine, Berger, and Shapero in particular, starting sometime after the Second World War and lasting sometime into the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seems that for many composers, especially those in the neoclassic camp, whose music, generally positive and sunny, albeit serious, often consciously intended to sound “American,” informed by the love of certain composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland, existed in a sort of Eden. At a certain point they felt a sort of irresistible moral pressure, undefined and from an undefined source, to write another kind of music, even though they regarded it with a certain amount of distrust if not down right hostility. Writing this different music seems to have represented a sort of submission which they ought to make, and the ensuing effort and struggle was the cause of something between vexation and anguish. Most composers seemed to accept the historical inevitability of twelve tone music; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t need to write it if they didn’t want to do.

Fine, Berger, and Shapero each approached this situation in his own way. Berger, at the age of eighteen, had been overwhelmed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, which was the companion piece in the concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in which Leopold Stokowski and Martha Graham presented the first New York staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for a while attempted to write music in Schoenberg’s manner. Unable to imagine how he could write such music which was free from the German aesthetic, which he found distasteful, and which would satisfy the demands of his radical politics for music which would appeal to the masses, he put composition aside to study musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt and music theory with Walter Piston at Harvard. Eventually the path to composition was reopened to him by the neoclassic music of Stravinsky. But the post-war rise of interest in twelve tone music was for him a return to the preoccupations of his youth. Shapero’s attitude was one of rejection of what he considered anti-music. Shapero’s daughter Hannah told me that after his death she had found in his papers a cartoon imitating Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with pictures of his cohort’s faces pasted in (Lukas Foss was in the position of Jesus); the caption was “One of you will betray me,” the betrayal being a turn to twelve tone music. For a considerable time he was mostly silent as a composer, although like Berger he continued to teach at Brandeis until he retired.

For Fine grappling with twelve tone music was indeed the source of great anguish. The composer Malcolm Peyton was a student of Fine’s at Tanglewood, and remembers a series of lectures Fine gave that summer on neoclassic music. He began by talking about works that he really loved, including the Stravinsky Octet; as the lectures went on they became progressively darker and dispirited. At the end he announced that this was all over, more or less saying “The twelve tone boys have beat us.” Fine continued to produce works in the neoclassic style, alternating with twelve tone works (such as his String Quartet of 1952) but he considered them to be trifles. Feeling unable to write satisfactory large serious works of substance in the stylistic language he felt was required, he developed a writer’s block and he went into analysis, against Shapero’s recommendation, to deal with his problem (his psychiatrist eventually began to tell him that his friendship with Shapero was the problem). But he also discussed twelve tone theory thoroughly with another friend, Milton Babbitt, during the summers that they taught together at Tanglewood.

In 1962 Fine finished his Symphony. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, it was performed by them, conducted by Charles Munch, at Symphony Hall in Boston. In the following summer they repeated the work at Tanglewood. After suffering an angina attack, Munch withdrew from the concert; Fine conducted his work on August 12. Eleven days later Fine died from at heart attack at the age of 47. The Symphony is an intense, expansive, muscular piece, clearly a major work. Under the circumstances it is hard to think of it as anything other than the culmination of Fine’s career; how that career might have continued and what place the Symphony might have had in that continued career–maybe as a breakthrough into a newly liberated language and manner– is unimaginable.

On May 16 in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project joined with the Fine Family, the Irving Fine Society, and Brandeis University to present A Fine Centennial, a celebration not only of Fine, at the centennial of his birth, but of his music and that of his friends Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger, and of their joint aesthetic vision. The program opened with two of Fine’s later trifles, Blue Towers, which was originally intended by Fine as the official Brandeis University fight song, and Diversions for Orchestra, four piano pieces which Fine orchestrated for a children’s program of the Boston Pops. All of these pieces were expertly and elegantly done and pretty forgettable, the one exception being The Red Queen’s Gavotte which has some of the vitality and charm of Fine’s Alice In Wonderland chorus pieces.

Harold Shapero’s Serenade for String Orchestra, from 1945, is a beautiful and graceful work It is also ferociously difficult–intricate in texture and harmony, complex rhythmically, technically difficult for the instruments, treacherously exposed, and thirty-five minutes long. Just about the only music contemporary to the Serenade of equal difficulty and complexity is that of Milton Babbitt (to whose music Shapero had a great antipathy). Nonetheless, just as Babbitt once wrote that Berger’s ‘Cello Duo could be described as white note Webern, the Serenade might be called diatonic Babbitt. Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for String Orchestra was originally Three Pieces for String Quartet, amplified for orchestra at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hermann; they were further revised in 1982. The performances of both these pieces reflected great understanding and sympathy with the music and were technically sure. The Shapero was cautious, with good reason, but had great grace and clarity and sweetness, even if is was lacking in the ease and élan that more rehearsal time would have afforded.

Fine’s Symphony is a dramatic and noble piece and Rose and the orchestra performed it with enormous drama and passion, making it a moving experience. As soon as the Symphony was over, the person I was sitting with said, “That piece killed him. No wonder he died. It’s full of death.” For Fine coming to terms with the stylistic crisis of the time was a life and death matter. I was struck by how much commonality it had with the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, particularly in its second movement. So just as with the time the similarities between with the Shapero and Babbitt, which seemed inconceivable when it was written, with time the “serial” aspects of the Fine are less striking than its simple reflection of Fine’s personality in all his music and of the music that he loved.

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milesplayhouseThe City of Santa Monica was the scene Friday, May 2, 2014 of HEAR NOW Goes Electroacoustic, the first in a series of three consecutive concerts featuring music by contemporary Los Angeles composers. Presented by HEAR NOW and People Inside Electronics the six works in the program all included some kind of electronic accompaniment. The Miles Memorial Playhouse was filled and the cozy, Spanish Colonial style performance space with its wooden ceiling beams and stucco walls provided good acoustics and excellent viewing. This concert was dedicated to William Kraft and the composers offered a few remarks prior to the performance of each piece.

Theremin’s Journey (2010) by Gernot Wolfgang was first, and this began a low rumble of processed sound accompanied by bell-like chimes that was soon joined by the theremin. The distinctive sound of the theremin is invariably linked with 1950s science fiction movies, but in this piece the alien, otherworldly sound connected nicely with the underlying electronics, even when the theremin was dominating the texture. The sound of the theremin was an integral part of this piece and not simply a stylistic effect. Joanne Pearce Martin provided solid control over the pitch and entrances of the theremin and her virtuosity was all the more evident when she switched to the piano as the piece progressed. Theremin’s Journey proceeded in this way, with Ms. Martin alternating between piano and theremin. There was a more familiar feel to this piece when the piano was heard, and a sense of movement and energy was provided by several fast runs and short bursts of phrases. At other times the piano was unaccompanied, or gentle and reflective. By contrast, the sections featuring the theremin typically had a distant and sometimes lonely feel. The balance between the various elements – electronics, piano and theremin – was remarkable and the playing was controlled and consistent. Theremin’s Journey could have easily failed on several levels – technical issues, performance difficulties or by simply sounding cliché, but this high-risk piece came off successfully and convincingly on its own terms.

theremin10What Lies Behind the Rain (2011) followed, by David Werfelmann, a piece written for piano and electronics. Interestingly, the electronics were not simply a static presence but were triggered by the tones played by the performer at the piano. According to the program notes “Acoustic and electronic sounds blend and support each other, creating a sound world that could not be achieved by either part alone.” For the most part, this worked. Many of the electronic tracks were processed piano sounds, and when these were added to the live playing of Rafael Liebich the result was a kind of multiplying effect that produced sudden rushes of notes and fast swirls of sound. Trills in the piano could produce an avalanche of similar sounds from the electronics and this effectively evoked a sudden downpour or rain shower. There were also several passages that felt like driving on the freeway at night with cars quickly passing by. At other times the electronics gave out a majestic sound of bell chimes that, when combined with the sensitive touch of Liebich in the quieter stretches was quite lovely. This combination of triggered electronics and live performance deserves further exploration as was evident by this intriguing reading of What Lies Behind the Rain.

The third piece of the evening was Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke and this was the Los Angeles premiere. Get Rich Quick was inspired by the financial crash of 2008 and is written for piano with recorded  narration and sound effects . Aron Kallay, a co-founder of People Inside Electronics was the pianist. In his remarks just before the performance, Ian Dicke wondered aloud about the relevance of this piece in 2014 because, after all, “Congress passed financial reform laws and the bankers that caused the crash are all now in jail.”  This was the perfect introduction to Get Rich Quick which begins with the sound of a coin dropping and the bustling noise of a stock exchange trading floor.  A series of sharp, loud chords sound from the piano build tension while the narration smoothly pronounces a series of familiar platitudes: “Debt is a part of American life!”, “Debt has a time and place.” and “Pay those bills on time!” The vapid, infomercial tone of the text contrasted perfectly with the anxiety building in the piano and this provided the wit that propels this piece. The piano gestures are familiar but they make a telling commentary on the get rich quick narration. The program notes state that “Ian Dicke is a composer inspired by social-political culture and interactive technology.” New music these days often seems to arise in a political vacuum, but Get Rich Quick points to another way and the audience was both receptive and appreciative.

After the intermission Jugg(ular)ling (2005) by Vicki Ray was presented. In her pre-performance remarks Ms. Ray explained that the inspiration for this piece was the extreme multitasking required by our contemporary existence – all the things that conspire to keep us too busy. As Jugg(ular)ling began, old film clips of circus jugglers was projected on the stage screen. For each item juggled, the score called for a gesture by the musicians playing piano, violin and MalletKAT percussion.  At first the jugglers had one and then a few balls or pins in the air and the music proceeded in an orderly fashion. As the number of items juggled increased, so did the complexity and speed of the musical responses, and this generated a sense of anticipation that added to the comedy on the screen. As the number of items in the air reached their maximum the music slowly unraveled, dissembling into a slow groove. Now the sequence in the film reversed with the number of juggled items decreasing along with the number of musical gestures. This simple formula – worthy of a Tom Johnson – was an inspired choice and the playing by Aron Kallay on piano, Shalini Vijayan on violin and Yuri Inoo on MalletKAT was clean and well-coordinated with the film clips. Jugg(ular)ling was an effective musical realization of the absurdities that fill our too-busy lives as the knowing laughs from the audience made clear.

Swallow (2012) by Scott Cazan followed and this was an experimental piece that combined stringed instruments – violins, violas and a cello – with electronic processing. The string players simply drew their bows across the strings; there was no attempt at melody or any kind of chord. These sounds were processed by a computer operated by the composer and played out through speakers so as to introduce feedback into the aggregate. The sounds coming from the strings were, in a sense, the raw material for the processing with the feedback producing the final result. This required careful and close listening and at times the feeling was that of observing a very subtle and ephemeral phenomena – something like an acoustic version of the northern lights on a far horizon. The process seemed a bit hit and miss at times, depending as it does on the acoustical environment pertaining at the instant of performance. But at its best there is an organic feel and the interplay of the tones, while transient, is often beautiful and invitingly mysterious. At times some zero-beating in the feedback gives a bit of rhythm and forward motion, but the feedback process tends to be on the quiet side and is often intermittent. Perhaps Swallow would be better realized in the recording studio where the more effective manifestations of the process can be captured as they occur.

The final piece of the concert was Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction (2005) and this was a collaboration between Barry Schrader who composed and realized the piece electronically, and Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith who played trumpet live during the performance. The trumpet is played as an overlay to the recorded electronics and this allows Mr. Smith to react and respond to the sounds as the piece progresses. From the program notes “The Pacific Light and Water portion of the work is inspired by the penetration of light at different depths of the Pacific Ocean. Building on the water theme, Wu Xing embodies the Chinese concept of the Five Elements, among which are fire and water.” The trumpet player follows a graphical score of the electronic piece and this guides the improvisational component of the playing. The water theme came through very strongly in the recorded electronics and Mr. Smith responded to this with a variety of interesting trumpet calls, trills and sustained tones. The trumpet provides a familiar handhold for this music and made a good contrast to the thunder, rain and watery sounds coming from the speakers. The liquid feel increases and towards the end of the piece a booming surf is heard that increases in volume as the trumpet struggles against it. The surf sounds escalate into sharp canon reports and the piece concludes dramatically with only the trumpet playing. The overlay form of Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction is a good example of a collaboration that is completely independent yet intimately linked through the solo performer, and this was nicely accomplished by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.

This concert was a good survey of the electroacoustic forms and techniques that are being explored by contemporary Los Angeles composers. HEAR NOW is in its fourth year and judging by the music presented in this concert the future looks very bright.

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Hey composers!

Dan Graser, the soprano saxophonist of the award-winning Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet, asked me to help announce the group’s 2014 Composition Competition. This looks like a very exciting opportunity!

Here are the basic facts (taken from the group’s online posting):

Eligibility: All student composers enrolled in the United States as of Spring 2014.

Piece requirements: An un-premiered work for SATB saxophone quartet, 6-10 minutes in length.

Application fee: None!

Prize(s): One first-prize winner will receive $500 and have their piece premiered at the quartet’s Carnegie Hall recital in November, 2014.

Five composers receiving honorable mention will have their works premiered at an all-world-premiere recital in December, 2014 at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, MI.

All winning works will receive a live recording by the Donald Sinta Quartet and be added to the group’s repertoire for the 2014-15 season.

Submission Process: E-mail a bio, CV, and PDFs of the work’s score and parts to info@donaldsintaquartet.com

Deadline: Submissions must be received by August 1, 2014.

You can verify and double-check all this information here, on the quartet’s website.

Good luck to all those who apply!

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