The brilliant Argentinian composer Osvald Golijov returns to Charleston, SC this year as composer-in-residence of SpoletoUSA’s wildly popular chamber music series. Golijov has been part of the festival’s chamber music series for 20 years through numerous performances of his compositions, including well-loved pieces and world premieres, and through several residencies, most recently in 2011. The 2016 series will feature world premieres of two of his new works–Anniversary Bagatelles (June 3) and Agamemnon’s Aria (June 5), as well as three of his well-known older works, Tenebrae (May 30 and 31), Lullaby and Doina (June 1 and 2), and Last Round (June 2 and 3).
Golijov’s seductive and haunting compositions defy easy categorization. The first couple of sentences in his online biography best describe their roots: “Osvaldo Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina. Born to a piano teacher mother and physician father, Golijov was raised surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla.” Imagine a mixture of all those influences and styles in a single superbly-crafted work and you’ll get the gist.
Or better yet, listen to this prelude to The Dreams and Prayers of Issac the Blind, one of his early masterpieces. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose violinist Greg Nuttall, is the program director of the annual chamber music series, has had a rewarding musical partnership with Golijiv since 1992. The quartet (Nuttall, Owen Dalby, Lesley Robertson, and Christopher Costanza) has performed and recorded many of Golijov‘s compositions, including Lullaby and Doina for its celebrated recording Yiddishbbuk in 2002. (My favorite recording of contemporary chamber music, for whatever that’s worth.)
Nuttall, whose official title is the not at all cumbersome “The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Director for Chamber Music for the Bank of America Chamber Music series,” is a perfect program director and host–knowledgeable, entertaining, funny, sartorially splendid–for the series. All told, 11 programs for the 33 concerts will be performed at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA from Friday, May 27 through Sunday, June 12.
Each of the 11 chamber programs in the 2016 series features Nuttall’s signature eclectic taste with compositions spanning more than 300 years, and his skill in assembling distinguished musicians from around the world. Returning artists include pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Benjamin Beilman, baritone Tyler Duncan, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, double bassist Anthony Manzo, pianist Pedja Muzijevic, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinist/violist Daniel Phillips, pianist Stephen Prutsman, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Nuttall, Dalby, Robertson, and Costanza), and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.In celebration of Spoleto Festival USA’s 40th season, the St. Lawrence String Quartet —the Arthur and Holly Magill Quartet in Residence—will be part of the Bank of America Chamber Music series for the entirety of the Festival.
Each of the 11 programs will be performed three times with two performances daily at 11:00am and 1:00pm in the 463-seat Dock Street Theatre at 135 Church Street. The series is also recorded and broadcast by South Carolina ETV Radio and syndicated nationally and internationally by the WFMT Radio Network. Check out the schedule, order some tickets, and get on down here.
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Anthony Braxton: composer, sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, iPod;
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, iPod;
Mary Halvorson: guitar, iPod;
Jessica Pavone: violin, viola, iPod;
Jay Rozen: tuba, iPod;
Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone, iPod;
Carl Testa: bass, bass clarinet, iPod
“As a culture, we are slowly moving away from target linear experiences that are framed as stationary constructs that don’t change on repeated listening, to a new world that constantly serves up fresh opportunities and interactive discourse. American people have made it clear that the new times will call for dynamic inter-action experiences.”
Compositions 372, 373, and 377 are the next phase in Braxton’s use of recorded sounds as part of the musical fabric of his work. Each of the musicians playing on the recording is not only responsible for their respective instruments; they are each also equipped with an iPod on which they can call up past Braxton recordings to add to the proceedings. While one might expect a fair bit of chaos from this approach, the results are surprisingly focused. Recorded when Braxton was sixty-five, his skills as a player remain undiminished in their vitality and improvisational acumen. Correspondingly, his collaborators possess, to a person, both strong vantage points and enviable chops.
The compositions on display here are filled with swaths of variegated textures. One of the cool things about the addition of the iPods is that different instruments than those possessed by the live cohort get to take solo turns. Thus, we hear voices and piano interject asides amid the vigorous exertions of the players. As a trope on listening in the digital age, with the dangers of information overload and the distractions of an increasingly saturated environment rife with visual and sonic information competing for attention, this current Braxton project is certainly a successful experiment. But the ability of the players to pace their exchanges, exquisitely varying the saturation level of the discourse, also allows listeners a way to recalibrate that is most musically compelling. Recommended.
Congratulations to composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, who has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in music. One of the original AACM members, Threadgill’s recent work has been distinguished by an intervallic approach to improvisation, in which each member of the band has a limited catalogue of intervals that they can perform, with the sum total creating intriguing harmonic and contrapuntal materials.
In for a Penny, in for a Pound, the prizewinning work, features Zooid, the band with which Threadgill has worked for fourteen years, using just such an approach to making music. In addition to two short movements, Threadgill has composed long movements that each successively feature a different member of Zooid.
Threadgill’s latest recording, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, features Ensemble Double Up, the first new band with which he has recorded in fifteen years. It includes pianists Jason Moran and David Virelles, alto saxophonists Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald, cellist Christopher Hoffman, tuba player Jose Davila, and drummer Craig Weinrib. Cast in four movements, it is dedicated to the late Butch Morris, channeling some of his “conduction” style of improvisation.
Sequenza 21: The latest CD of your compositions, Liminal on Divine Art, features three works, a short orchestra piece, Shoreline Rune, Liminal, your Fourth Symphony, and Prism, an older work for organ. How did you decide on this grouping?
Carson Cooman: A number of recordings of my music have been released, and the music on them has been grouped and organized in different ways, depending on the repertoire at hand. For this release, I wanted to try a “mini-album” (shorter length than a full CD and priced accordingly). So the symphony was the main affair, and then I chose two other pieces that would serve as a sort of prelude and postlude. I remember Lutoslawski said that he settled on his characteristic large scale form (short introductory movement followed by a main movement) because he felt there was too much information to digest for a typical listener in a traditional four movement symphonic structure. In a somewhat related way, I wanted to do an album where instead of lots of pieces competing to fill up the 80 minutes of time there was just one main piece and then two shorter pieces to take the listener in and out of it. I was grateful that Divine Art was open to doing this. Shoreline Rune was written as a birthday gift for Judith Weir, and then Prism was an organ piece from more than 10 years earlier, which I chose simply because I felt its mood worked as a postlude to the symphony.
S21: Judith Weir is the dedicatee for Shoreline Rune. How do you know Weir and which of her pieces would you recommend to listeners to get to know her work?
CC: I studied with Judith Weir for a year in college, and it was a remarkable and inspiring experience. While I had quite positive interactions in different ways with other teachers, I’ve often felt that I gained more in that short time with her than I did in all the other years of formal study combined. For my taste, you can’t really go wrong with digging into her output. And like so many British composers, she has pieces for all purposes: from major concert works for the world’s best orchestras to easy pieces for amateur congregational singers. This versatility of purpose is something I greatly admire and strive for myself, and for various reasons, it’s been far more common in the 20th/21st century in UK composers than in other countries.
But in terms of a few specific Weir pieces that are personal favorites: Her first big opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera, is a masterwork. The orchestra piece The Welcome Arrival of Rain is quite moving. And there are so many exceptional chamber works: I Broke Off a Golden Branch and the Piano Concerto being two personal favorites. Chamber music is a particularly good fit for her sensitive, transparently luminous musical aesthetic.
S21: Your Fourth Symphony is about climate change. What made you decide to respond to this global issue in symphonic form? Are you feeling either Adams breathing over your shoulder?
CC: I use the term symphony simply to imply that a piece is inspired by a “big subject.” Thus, the five pieces (four for orchestra and one for organ solo) that I’ve given that title all have different big topic inspirations. However, I really don’t see these pieces as “grand statements” that try and sum anything up—and certainly not in any truly cosmic way. They are much more akin to writing a personal essay (or a long Facebook post!), just reflecting and expressing in some way my own thoughts. And, in some ways, writing the pieces on those subjects (whether or not one believes music can express anything concrete) is just a way to help me organize and work out what I think. I get itchy around “grand statements,” which in the right hands can be remarkable experiences, but the arrogance of which they often smack personally doesn’t sit well with me.
My decision to use climate change as the inspiration for the symphony came simply after several years of thinking, reading, and personal processing about the issue. Certainly when writing any environmentally connected piece of music today, John Luther Adams’s presence is inevitable. I think it’s wonderful that in spite of its “experimental” roots, his work has in the last few years really entered the classical mainstream. I think what my pieces do and how they are put together are rather different from JLA, and while my piece does also have a climate/environmental inspiration, it’s a different work than Become Ocean is, for example.
As for the other Adams (John Coolidge), I’ve also heard everything he’s written, and there are many pieces that I greatly enjoy as a listener, but I don’t think much from his style has had an audibly direct impact on what I write. I think partially it’s because his most characteristic devices are now so instantly recognizable as his. I hear those influences very audibly in a number of composers today, and that’s totally fine—in a sense they are working in their own way in a new post-John Adams tradition. But just as a personal choice, I don’t want to use his devices so directly.
S21: Organist Erik Simmons has been one of your staunchest advocates. How did you come to work with Erik and what is it like writing for another organist?
CC: I’ve been very fortunate that my organ music has been well-received and played by many fine organists, but Erik has taken to it to a degree that goes above and beyond. He’s recorded four full CDs of my organ pieces so far, with several more in the works, including a double disc set of all my organ pieces inspired by pre-baroque genres. It’s not officially a “complete organ works” project, though in the end it will probably be close to that.
In my own organ performing, from time to time I’ve had this experience myself where I almost compulsively want to play and record as much as possible by a particular composer. Erik’s work with my organ music has been a bit like that, and I’m just experiencing it now from the other direction, which is very flattering. Our work together has also generated a number of new compositions, all of which he has recorded beautifully.
In terms of “writing for another organist,” that is always what I’ve done. None of my organ music is written for myself. I never play my own pieces, unless somebody specifically asks me to do it. The main reason is that, as a player, I enjoy most the sense of discovery and exploration of repertoire, and I already “know too much” about my own music, having spent lots of time writing it in the first place. Composition and performance are two different impulses for me, and I get different kinds of satisfaction out of them.
S21: Your own activities as an organist have included a considerable amount of commissioning, performing, and recording. Tell us about your most recent recording projects as a performer.
CC: Relating to what I said above about a kind of compulsive obsession, much of my recording activity the last few years has been devoted to the work of several composers: Thomas Åberg (Sweden), Carlotta Ferrari (Italy), and Lothar Graap (Germany). In all three cases, I’ve recorded CDs and also a large number of additional works for online/YouTube.
Lothar Graap has been the focus in 2015. Born in 1933, Graap spent most of his life in the former East Germany (DDR), and because of that, his work was not widely known outside until the 1990s. Several pieces were published internationally by the state publisher in those decades, including his Meditationen (Meditations) (1968), which I think is one of the true organ masterworks from those years of East Germany. Since 1990, Graap has published old and new pieces with many publishers in Germany, and his work is now widely used within that country. However, it is still little known in the USA, and my recording project was conceived partially to address that.
I really like his music; its very German aesthetic is appealing to me, since a French influence has become all-consuming and pervasive in 20th/21st century new organ music (in all countries, including the USA). There isn’t a French moment in Graap’s music, and I thus enjoy working with something that is different from so much of what one usually hears today in new organ literature. As a fine organist himself, Graap writes music that is beautifully conceived for the instrument; much of it is very well suited to the small and medium size organs that are my personal favorite kinds of instruments. Much as I enjoy hearing the whole spectrum of organ music in the hands of other players, my own personal tastes tend to gravitate towards organ music with a strong neo-baroque aesthetic, but re-imagined through the lens of the present era.
Much of my recording activity in 2015 has been devoted to Graap’s work. This summer, I released two CDs of his music and have also recorded some 75 additional works online. There are a still a number more that I want to do before I’m done with this project. Since we’ve begun this project, he’s also written a few new pieces for me which I’ll premiere in 2016.
In addition to those three composers, I’ve also (in smaller quantities) continued to perform and record works by many other contemporary composers as well. At last count, I’ve recorded organ works of more than 225 different contemporary composers since 2012.
As the organ editor for Lorenz Publishing Company, I am also simultaneously developing and commissioning new organ publications from many composers, covering the entire spectrum of organ literature: from pieces for part-time church organists to recital literature.
S21: You are an uncommonly prolific composer. My composition students often ask me how forebears such as Bach or Handel wrote so much music. While writing in many genres and styles, how does a composer in the Twenty-first century find their voice?
CC: Since the late 19th century, a romantic/post-romantic paradigm seems to have become the norm in terms of how one conceptualizes an output and body of work. This even true for people whose music has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with romanticism as an aesthetic or style. But the notion that one writes primarily big pieces (and fairly few of them) is something that has stuck with us in contemporary concert music circles. I think it’s this inheritance that makes it hard for many composers to think about the kind of productivity that was the norm in earlier eras (and not unheard-of from certain composers in the early 20th century either).
My own thinking is in many ways more like that of pre-romantic eras. I’m a professional composer, and so I write music to the best of my ability when I’m asked to do so: whether that be for professional orchestra or amateur chorus. The “great artist” ego has little appeal to me. I’ve always been relatively prolific, and I’ve found in my own experience (and with many of my friends and colleagues) that we all have different paces at which we work, and trying to change that pace is not going to be effective. You simply have to find your own musical metabolism and learn to produce the best work you can that way. No actual teacher of mine tried to make me write less, but when I was a student other people advised it, based on their own (slower) pace. There was nothing to be gained by that, however, as it simply wasn’t the way that I worked. It ultimately made no more sense than it would make for me to try and force somebody who writes really slowly to produce a lot more just for the sake of doing so.
But of course, I can’t escape that post-romantic aesthetic inheritance entirely. For example, I do make a conscious effort not to repeat myself and not to accept commissions/projects where I think the result might be just be a lesser version of something I’ve already done. Because I was born in 1982, I worry about things like that. If I had been born in 1682, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind! When people criticize Vivaldi (not really true, of course) for writing the “same concerto over and over again,” the notion that doing something like that would have been somehow “wrong” would have been rather foreign to him. But because I live when I do, I can’t escape entirely the milieu and aesthetic in which I came of age musically.
In the end, I just try and do the best work that I possibly can in the manner that has come to be my way of doing things. Each person needs to find for themselves what that method and pace is.
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On Saturday, April 2, 2016 the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for Rainforest IV, the landmark sound installation by David Tudor. Presented by People Inside Electronics and the Southland Ensemble, Rainforest IV filled the ample sanctuary and attracted a sizable crowd to witness the unique interaction between acoustic instruments, electronics and found objects. The world premiere of Other Forests, by Carolyn Chen was also heard, a work written especially for performance in conjunction with Rainforest IV.
The Rainforest IV (1976) installation consists of several stations, each with a series of found objects suspended from a framework made from small pipes, much like a tall coat rack. The objects varied in size, shape and materials – there was a piece of sheet metal about two foot square, metal bowls, plastic objects, a tambourine and a number of unstrung string instruments. Each object was fitted with a transducer that imparted vibrations from various recorded pitches and other sounds. Additionally, there was a pickup attached to each object and this transmitted the individual sonic response downstream to amplifiers and speakers – the idea being that each object was voicing an interpretation of the applied input as a function of its mechanical properties. The input signals to each found item could be rerouted – or several summed electronically – as needed during the performance. All of this was accomplished with a bewildering array of cables, connectors, analog amplifiers and speakers as based on David Tudor’s early circuits, specifications and schematic diagrams. Computers could also be seen as part of the installation – a more contemporary way to record and direct the signals.
In a 1988 interview, David Tudor explained the intent of Rainforest IV: “The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.”
On Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, gnarwhallaby presented an evening German contemporary music in a concert titled DEUTSCHwhallaby. Four pieces were heard including a US premiere and the world premiere of Plainsound Lullaby by Wolfgang von Schweinitz.
The first piece was Stau (1999) by Steffen Schleiermacher and this begins with a sharp tutti opening followed by sustained tones and a second sforzando chord ending the phrase. The piano was then heard in its very highest notes with a rapid clicking sound. This sequence repeats several times, producing a feeling of mild vexation in the halting character of the piece as it inches forward. Stau is the favorite German term for traffic jam and anyone who has traveled the autobahn through a large city will have undoubtedly experienced this. As the piece continues some forward movement is heard – a solo from the clarinet and then in the trombone – but these are inevitably followed by a sudden piano crash – and we have come once again to a complete halt. The playing by gnarwhallaby was characteristically precise and powerful, and aptly reinforced the stop-and-go character of this piece. At one point the music moves ahead with an intense, driving beat and a bright, active feel – as if we have finally broken free of the stau – but this comes to an unexpected end, replaced by a sustained tone in the cello and soon we are back to the slower sequences. Stau is the perfect musical metaphor for that most infuriating of modern inconveniences: stop-and-go traffic on a freeway. The robust and accurate playing perfectly complimented the character and intentions of a piece that is fully attuned to the quintessential Los Angeles traffic experience.
D’avance (1996/97) by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf followed, and this was the US premiere. Starting with a sharp piano chord, this gave way to a series of light, rapid passages in the clarinet that were airily quiet, but soon gaining in volume. The piece then unfolded into an extended clarinet solo, ably negotiated by Brian Walsh, covering all possible combinations of changing dynamics as well as jumps in pitches and tempo. A complex tutti passage followed that was free of any unifying melody or beat, but effectively enhanced the mysterious and ephemeral flavor. A cello solo followed, as varied and disparate as that heard from the clarinet; and then more tutti passages, at times spiky with complex interweaving or smoother and more sustained.
D’avance proceeds with alternating solos and tutti passages, building in tension and always in a state of revision and transition. This music keeps the listener constantly in the moment, with no expectations raised and none delivered. It is never static but always changing – coherent yet unconnected. It is like walking in a dark forest where the shadows are continuously shifting and mutating into new forms inside your brain. Harmonies, when they occurred, never seemed intentional, but were instead transient and without pattern or repetition. A stark piano solo had a disconnected, jagged feel – full of short, complex phrases that subtly conveyed a sense of alienation. D’avance is a brutally difficult piece of music to perform and gnarwhallaby rose fearlessly to the challenge with a virtuosic display of their collective abilities. Devoid of beat, harmony and formal structure, but full of complex motion and kaleidoscopic textures, D’avance confronts the listener with elemental forces that are masterfully marshaled into a compelling musical perspective.
English composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies died on Monday, March 14th 2016. At the age of 81, Davies passed away in his Orkney home. The cause of death was leukemia. In 2004, Davies was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
Farewell to Stromness is one of Davies most popular works for solo piano. The piece is a piano interlude from his work The Yellow Cake Revue, a work he created for the campaign against the proposed uranium mine on the Oakley Isles.
In this recording of his Symphony No. 7, Davies displays his skills as both composer and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tomorrow, famed microtonal/just intonation composer Ben Johnston turns ninety. To celebrate his 90th birth year, the Kepler Quartet releases the third and final volume of their series of Johnston’s string quartets in April on New World.
March 4. Knitting Factory: Brooklyn, NY. Michael Daves album release concert.
Michael Daves was certainly apt in titling his debut solo album Orchids and Violence. The album presents twenty-four tracks: twelves songs realized with both a bluegrass band and an electric band. Mirroring the album, the album release concert featured both groups, both fronted by Daves.
There is something so compelling about seeing six musicians huddled around a single microphone, weaving in and out of each other as they take turns playing solos. In the bluegrass set, Daves was supported by five amazingly talented musicians. Noam Pikelny (banjo), Brittany Haas (fiddle), and Jake Jolliff (mandolin) play these incredibly virtuosic solos without any effort. Larry Cook (bass) provided a solid backbone, and even took a few well placed bass solos, illustrating his skill as a performer. Jen Larson provided a perfect compliment to the twang of Daves tenor. This band breathes new life into these songs, songs Daves identifies as old bluegrass songs, pre-bluegrass songs, and murder ballads. Guest Tony Trischka also joined the stage toting his cello banjo for a few songs, adding another layer of depth to the electric texture of the bluegrass band.
For the second set, Daves returned to the stage with Kid Millions on drums and Jessi Carter on electric bass. While the bluegrass band was light and buoyant, the electric band was muddy and heavy. The heavily distorted guitar seemed to grow out of the tone of the electric bass. Halfway through this set Daves asked the audience if they recognized any of these songs from the first set. In response to a few fans cheering, he laughed and said he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing, but that was the point of the album. I spent much of this set thinking about Daves approach to the electric guitar. I feel like this guitar sound was very important to Daves’ concept for this album. Honestly, I feel like Daves is experimenting with something in this configuration, though I’m not sure exactly what it was, or if it was entirely successful. This band brought something heavy and raw to these songs that the bluegrass band simply couldn’t. That being said, the guitar completely dominated these songs, with a thick layer of distortion not adding to the music, but instead keeping me from it.
Orchids and Violence is currently available from Nonesuch Records.
In honor of International Women’s Day, violinist Ariana Kim has released a video of her performance of Augusta Read Thomas’s Incantation for solo violin (1995). I’ve long loved Incantation – it is one of Thomas’s most beautiful works: poignant, supple, and exquisitely well-paced.