One of the noteworthy recordings released in 2016 is the Kepler Quartet’s third volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records). Johnston, who turned ninety this year, is well known for his work in unconventional tuning systems, namely extended just intonation. The complexity of some of his works in this system, notably the Seventh Quartet, included on Kepler’s volume 3, ranks up there with some of the toughest chamber works in the literature. Even a seemingly more straightforward piece, such as his Fourth Quartet, a trope on “Amazing Grace,” can provide both formidable pitch and rhythmic challenges. Recently, I was in touch with the violinists of the Kepler to discuss Johnston’s work and the new recording.
Eric Seignitz, violinist for the Kepler Quartet
When did you first become familiar with Ben Johnston’s work?
I was aware of the original Fine Arts Quartet’s 1964 recording of Ben’s 4th Quartet (Amazing Grace) as a student in the late 70″s, from studying briefly with Leonard Sorkin–the FAQ 1st violinist who commissioned the piece. I subsequently played it several times for the Present Music concert series in Milwaukee, as well as Calamity Jane and her Daughter, Ben’s transcription of Harry Partch’s Barstow, and a few other works.
When you decided to go about recording the quartets, did you have any idea how long it would take to realize the project?
No idea whatsoever. But we made the commitment to Ben, to New World Records, and to ourselves to complete it–damn the torpedoes!
An article in the N.Y. Times (and other writers) have called Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet “the most complex ever written.” Do you agree? Why do you think it is so hard?
The crazy crawling harmonies, that’s obviously extremely complex. The challenge that is not-so-obvious is that he is dealing with the way time passes, movement by movement; time passing so quickly that it leaves you in the dust, time elapsing at a normal pace– but with a surreal 3D layering of palindromes offset by various cell lengths, or time dragging so slowly that it’s hard to fully comprehend the rigorous structure which exists. To me, that is the underlying brilliance of the piece.
How does the Seventh Quartet compare to the others in terms of difficulty?
In the sense of the sheer number of pitches involved, yes, #7 is the most difficult. But that is only one type of challenge posed by Ben. In Quartet #6 (also on this 3rd CD) for instance, every chord overlaps with the one both before and after it. Given the nature of the chords to begin with, that’s extremely challenging in it’s own right.. And I could site multifarious examples of uncharted waters, throughout his 10 quartets.
I was recently speaking to a friend who heard your recording of the Fourth Quartet, loved it, and decided to work on it with a student quartet. He said that he was surprised that something that, audibly and on the surface, seemed so accessible to players was actually quite hard. Do you find that too – that “appearances can be deceiving” in terms of the complexity of these pieces.
Yes and no… he uses a genius-level grasp of musical craft to achieve a music that everyone can relate to in a spiritual/emotional way, if they give it that chance. It’s a music that resonates because, once again, it’s founded upon the natural order of acoustics.
Now that you’ve climbed this Parnassian mountain, what’s next for the Kepler Quartet? Which composers are you interested in performing and recording?
Even though we all play a lot of contemporary music, it might be useful to draw some connections to where this music came from. It’s easy to think of Ben as a maverick composer, a unique innovator, a specialist. He is, but also much more than that. He’s really a great composer in the traditional sense, and his music will only become truly appreciated in that larger context.
Sharan Leventhal, violinist
How did you go about learning the quartets?
We dealt with them one at a time. There is a certain amount of work that needs to happen before the playing begins. Each pitch must be defined according to its role in the harmony within the just intonation system. Ben’s notation provides a tool for establishing the relationships in every chord, no matter where he has taken the progression. Adding and subtracting his accidentals places a pitch. The ultimate judge is your ear, because every note is determined by its function. Once you understand your role within a given chord, you will hear how to place your notes. Of course, as with any piece, we study the score, to understand its structure and the emotional intention behind the music. Rehearsing is a slow painstaking process of tuning and balancing each chord while gaining an intellectual grasp of the harmonic journey. As the sonic world comes into focus, it informs our choices about the timbre and shape of individual phrases. We worked through every single note of every single chord with the composer, uncovering copy errors, and getting his input on musical decisions.
Why do you think that the Seventh Quartet is so hard?
The 7th quartet is especially daunting because it has a hugely expanded pitch group. Ben travels so far along the spiral of pure harmonic progressions that there are over 1,200 discrete pitches in the octave. Actually, in some ways I didn’t find the 7th quartet the most difficult. For example, the 6th quartet is more musically obscure and difficult to grasp. The 7th quartet makes sense, but you have to be able to work (and hear!) the system.
How would you go about teaching these pieces to the next generation of string quartet players? Moreover, for those who want to learn Johnston’s tuning system, where would you suggest they turn?
I already teach Ben’s music at The Boston Conservatory. Every once in a while an adventurous quartet wants to make the attempt. Invariably, for the students it is a transformative experience. As one cellist said, “nothing will ever be the same.” Learning these works is a matter of learning how to hear—to be wholly immersed in vertical relationships, attuned to the harmonic series, and completely committed to the present moment. At the same time, one must listen forward and backward—anticipating root movement of chords to hear where pitches will belong ahead of time, or relating back to what has just happened. It is incredible ear training, and requires rethinking what pitch is, how it works, and how it can be manipulated.
When teaching these works, I like to start with #9. The first movement is a clearly defined C Major just tuned scale (with a cameo appearance by that interesting anomaly, the syntonic comma). Young players find it rhythmically challenging—the rhythmic complexities are based on the same ratios that define the intervals of the just tuned scale. The third movement is a simple hymn-like melody, with clear almost traditional harmonies. What makes it so fantastic and emotionally potent is the harmonic slide down two syntonic commas (from F Major to F- Major to F – – Major) and back up within the first phrase. This modulation is part of opening the tempered ‘circle of fifths’ to its naturally occurring spiral. Hearing it has a strong, visceral effect.
I have written an article (“An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnson,” American String Teacher, Volume 64, Number 3, 8/2014) that details how to approach these scores—how to tune the instruments’ open strings, how to do the math required by Ben’s accidentals). I think the article will also be made available on Kepler’s website, and that is definitely a good place to start. Without those preparatory steps, the score can’t be realized as the composer intended. Next, the players must tune and balance each chord, working back and forth between harmonies to understand progressions and internalize relationships. All this ultimately supports the interpretation of the music, making a much more powerful, visceral statement.
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On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.
Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.
Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.
You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.
Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.
On September 15-18 at Spectrum, Collide-O-Scope Music begins its eighth season with a Festival celebrating the music of Robert Morris. A wide range of works will be featured, for electronics, piano, small chamber ensemble, and string quartet. In addition to Collide-O-Scope personnel, there will be guest performers, notably JACK Quartet. I recently interviewed Morris about the upcoming concerts: our exchange follows.
How did this Festival of your music come about?
Out of the blue, on April 20, 2015, I received an email from Augustus Arnone proposing this festival of my music. I had never met Augustus nor heard him play in person, but I knew of his great pianistic talent and industry in playing the complete works of Milton Babbitt and the complete “History Of Photography In Sound,” by Michael Finnissy. I knew also of his new music ensemble called Collide-O-Scope. He proposed that the festival should feature my piano works (of which there are many), my small ensemble pieces, some of my electronic works, and string quartets, which would be played by the JACK Quartet. The members of the JACK were once students at Eastman where I teach, and two of them had studied composition with me. They have premiered two of my string quartets: Arc (1988)and Allegro Appassionata (2009) written for them. They will also play my most recent quartet called Quattro per Quattro (2011).
Why was Spectrum picked as the venue?
Spectrum is a New York City performance space that is well known for presenting progressive art and music. Collide-O-Scope has played there many times. In the last five years, more intimate informal performances spaces, by contrast with concert halls, are becoming the norm for new music concerts and events. This is perhaps a tradition that stems from the old NYC downtown music venues of the 1980s and 90s for alternative and improvised music.
What will the pieces for electronics be like? How do you think they will resonate in an intimate environment like Spectrum?
The electronic/computer music pieces are not that loud as such things go. One of the two pieces called Mysterious Landscape is quite intimate in character, while the other piece, Entelechy 2012 for piano and electronic modification, is sometimes brash and dramatic with subtle, timbreally unique gestures often including microtones, vibrati and glissandi—categories of sound impossible to produce on acoustic keyboard instruments.
These two pieces, both composed in 2012, complement each other in other ways. Mysterious Landscape is an improvisational electro-acoustic piece lasting about 30 minutes to be played by one or two performers. It complements my desire to connect music with nature as in my outdoor pieces. Here the sounds and processes of nature are brought inside a performance space so that natural sounds—birds, insects, frogs, mammals, wind, and water-—are mixed together with computer-generated sounds to project a serene sonic environment that reflects on a peaceful relation of humans to nature. I will play the piece with a video slideshow using landscape photographs I took in the southwest and eastern United States, south India, Sri Lanka, and Kyoto, Japan.
Entelechy 2012 is quite a bit more abstract in structure and design. It also involves indeterminacy, but of the composed type; in this case, two isomorphic, composed out structures are played against each other in a different coordination from one performance to another. This underlying structure is based on a ring of 24 elements that include all the permutations of four elements once each. This ring guides the timbres, gestures, and pacing of the piece. However it does not produce a sense of stability or unity in any of the performances. Rather the composition is designed to be radically impermanent, providing surprising and novel experiences as it moves on, as much as in jerks or surges as ebbs and flows. Incidentally, The word “entelechy” was coined by Aristotle to refer to the condition of a thing whose essence is fully realized, implying an actuality that directly stems from some potential idea or concept. Augustus will play the piece with sound modifications that are not controlled by a live performer.
Do you enjoy being part of the performances of your electronics installations?
Yes, I do. I enjoy improvisation, on one hand, and being in control of the nuance of the electronic sounds, on the other.
You’ve frequently composed for piano. What draws you to the medium?
I began playing piano before I could read music and took lessons. Even today, I improvise as much as I play written-out compositions; however in recent years, I play for myself only. Thus the piano has been the instrument on and from which I get musical ideas of all sorts, and is often the medium in which I try out new compositional ideas and modes of expression. I like to contrast the percussive and dynamically mobile character of the piano—which you find most prevalently in jazz of all types–with the colorful and intimate resonances found a good deal of new music. You might say, Bartok, Stravinsky and Babbitt versus Debussy, Boulez, and Feldman.
The piano program contains the premiere of a new work, Foray (2016). What were some of the compositional ideas you worked with in this latest piece?
Foray was directly influenced by Augustus’s playing, which I finally heard live last spring in a Collide-O-Scope concert featuring the music of Milton Babbitt and some younger composers. His remarkable ways of voicing and articulating piano sound made a big impression on me. So in mid-July an idea for a piano piece popped into my head and the character of the piano ideas was something I thought Augustus would like to play, so I dedicated the piece to him. The basic idea of the piece is that an opening series of ten chords arranged in an arc (maybe a rainbow, since each chord is of a different harmonic “color”) each generate music in subsequent sections of the piece. Thus the form is the arc followed by ten sections in different registers and densities. As the music goes on, the derivation of the music from the chords gets progressively more complicated and obscure in the way the music is parsed, registered, and embellished. The process is from isolated objects to mixtures and blends—an entropic process.
By the way, the other pianist on the program, Margaret Kampmeier, is also playing music I dedicated to her: from my Nine Piano Pieces.
Have your works been performed before by Collide-O-Scope Music? What does their ensemble bring out in your work that perhaps others don’t?
Well, not exactly. Some of the players who are members of Collide-O-Scope as well as guest artists on this festival have played and recorded my music. Sunghai Anna Lin (violin), Margaret Kampmieier (piano), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet) and Tara O’Connor (flute) were once members of the New Millennium Ensemble that played and recorded my sextet Broken Consort in Three Parts, as well as other pieces over the years. These are wonderful musicians who understand how to interpret the multiplicity of structure and expression in my music.
Could you tell us a bit about the ensemble works that will be heard on the festival?
Traces (1990) for flute and piano was commissioned by the National Flute Association in 1990 as a contest piece. As the title suggests, the piece moves forward by tracing and retracing various melodic lines in the piano by the flute and vice-versa,
Raudra for flute alone was written for Elizabeth Singleton in 1976. It takes its name from the fourth of the nine “rasa’s” of Indian music and dance, connoting the mood of fury and anger. I’m looking forward to Patricia Spencer’s performance.
Along A Rocky Path (1993) was composed for the Arlington Trio (violin, clarinet and piano). Like many of my pieces, Along a Rocky Path reflects aspects of natural landscape—especially less frequented and more rugged terrain. Shortly after completing the piece in January 1993, I came across a poem of the eighteenth-century Japanese poet, Uragami Gyokudo, from which I took the title of my trio.
There is no heat on this rocky path,
The sound of the water from a mountain stream is most pure,
By the red leaves, I know there must be a man’s hut nearby;
My traveler’s path is hidden in the white clouds.
Over the twisting path hang the waterfalls of Mount Lu,
The plank roads of Szechwan cross the steep mountains.
There is no need to bemoan the journey:
Wherever I chant my poems is home.
Out and Out (1989) was composed for Marianne Gythfeldt in the spring of 1989. It concerns the interplay between the two instruments; the clarinetist and pianist interact to shape the musical continuity, often doubling each other’s notes and rhythms. The resulting demarcation of one musical line by another affects every aspect of the piece, producing exceedingly great reaches of reference, pulling together music from every part of the piece.
Drawn Onward (2014) is a recent work for violin and piano written for the Irrera Brothers, an emerging violin/piano duet. The title of the piece involves a palindrome that is embedded in the following longer palindrome: “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?” The idea of a symmetry inside another symmetry is at the heart of the composition. For instance, each of the two players has their own musical materials, but the violin material is embedded in the piano material and vice versa. Since the two performers from whom I wrote the piece are brothers, I thought that working with mutually embedded materials an apt way of composing a piece particularly for them.
Did the JACK Quartet work with you when they were at Eastman?
As I mentioned earlier they did as composition students, but they were not the JACK Quartet yet. You can read about the interactions we have had in the following interview article: “Interview with the JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, Kevin McFarland, And Joshua B. Mailman,” Perspectives of New Music, (2014) 52/2.
String quartets often are particularly significant pieces in composers’ respective outputs. How would you characterize the quartets that will be heard on the festival?
Although I wrote a string quartet in 1976, Arc of 1988 is my official first quartet. Due to the difficulty of the music, I had to wait 21 years before it was played. The JACK decided to learn it in 2008 and have played it here and there since then. The second quartet, Allegro Appassionata, was written for the JACK in 2009 for a special concert at the Tank in NYC. The third, Quattro per Quattro was premiered and recorded by the Momenta String Quartet in 2014 with Benjamin Boretz’s string quartet, Qixingshan. Now I will hear the JACK’s interpretation!
Are these quartets significant in my output? I think yes: they are all extended, ramified compositions; each embodies a harmonious relation between singular compositional craft and intense emotional particularity; each is quite challenging for the performers. But as your question implies, string quartets are considered the high-water mark for composers of all stripes. I can only hope my quartets will be appreciated as such.
Sep 15 – 8:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert I – Electronic Installation Works
Augustus Arnone, piano, and Robert Morris, Electronics
Mysterious Landscape (2012)
(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)
Sep 16 – 8:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert II – Music For Solo Piano
Augustus Arnone and Margaret Kampmeier, pianos
39 Webern Variations (2010)
Night Vapors (1967)
14 Little Piano Pieces (2002)
Foray (2016) ** World Premiere
(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)
Sep 17 – 8:30 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert III – Music For Mixed Ensemble
Along A Rocky Path (1993)
Out and Out (1989)
Drawn Onward (2014)
Sep 18 – 3:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert IV – Music For String Quartet
Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970
By David Toop
Bloomsbury, 330 pp.
Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.
One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.
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Mikel Rouse’s Metronome project has been in heavy rotation around these parts. His latest album, Take Down, had a five-year long gestation. Given the varied reference points, one can hear why. Two parts sci-fi electronica, one part postmodern amalgam (including field recordings), topped off with Rouse’s surefire vocals: most worthy of investigation.
The Locrian Players present music from the past decade. The repertoire that their curators find is always a fascinating listen and often includes several premieres. Check them out (for free) on Friday.
Friday, August 26 at 8PM
Derek Bermel A Short History of the Universe
Martin Suckling Visiones after Goya**
Elliott Carter Figment IV
Royden Tze Starscape***
Jonathan Dawe Silent like the Snow
Julian Grant Know Thy Kings and Queens
Louis Conti Ohne Heimath
* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere
10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church
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To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.
Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.
The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.
In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.
The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.
Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.
The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.
Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.
Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.
Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.
David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.
Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.
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TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.
The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.
Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.
Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.
Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.
Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”
Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott
Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.
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I’m sad to report that composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has passed away at age 87. He continued to be active until the very end, with a premiere just last month. Orpheus singt (video), a setting of Rainer Maria Rilke for a cappella chorus, was performed by SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, directed by Marcus Creed.