Author Archive

[Ed. Note: Please welcome composer (and long-time S21 supporter) Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, and sit back as he spins a tale for the ages (and yet all quite true!), of how he managed to conceive, write, and finally produce his very own opera in the (semi) wilds of Vermont.]

In the past week I’ve received emails from other composers, many of whom had doubted that my opera Erzsébet would ever be mounted. After two decades of promises, nearly two years of faltering fundraising, three directors, and a flood that pushed us out of our home, opening night seemed distant and dim. How did it happen for me? Could they finally get to mount their operas?

The opera’s genesis is long & convoluted. When I was a child in the 1950’s, my adoptive father Zoltan Bathory had mentioned an evil family ancestor. In 1983, I was given a copy of Dracula Was a Woman, Raymond McNally’s biography of Elizabeth Bathory. She was a vampiric, serial killing, blood-bathing countess with male and female lovers who died walled up in her torture chamber! The Tigress of Cséjthe! Hungary’s National Monster! What could be better for an operatic tale? In 1987 Erzsébet was scribbled onto my compositional to-do list.

Coincidentally, I’d heard that poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu was working on a biography of Erzsébet based on new research. I got in touch; Codrescu was interested in writing the libretto.

But soon my life was in turmoil, with my failed computer company and failed personal life and broken compositional dreams and a falling out with Codrescu, whose biography ended up as an attempt at a Tom Robbins-esque novel. Beyond that, Vermont was not a friendly place for new music in the 1980’s, even though my pseudo-csárdás piano sketch for the opera overture had been commissioned and performed. My new partner Stevie (now my wife), her daughter and I left for Europe in 1991. A rare opportunity brought us into then Czechoslovakia at Cachtice, home of Erzsébet’s most notorious castle.

I sketched some scenarios for the opera, considering chamber and grand-opera versions. I’d written an opera before — Plasm over ocean, with libretto by David Gunn, my cohort on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar — but this new one would be less avant-garde and more actual storytelling and drama.

On returning to Vermont, my boxes of Erzsébet research—books, articles, novels, stories, photosgraphs, videos, postcards, trinkets—became the impetus to create an online home for the opera project. That led to a connection with a Czech sculptor living in America, Pavel Kraus. We had similar artistic sensibility and soon worked together on Sex and Death: Offerings in Burlington, Vermont, and later at Prague’s Mánes Museum, newly restored after the dreary Communist years. Pavel would be the opera’s visual designer, and was the earliest team member who stayed with the project.

In 1999, Lisa Jablow, singer, conductor, and aficionado of new music, became interested in the Báthory story and wanted to sing the lead. She suggested a monodrama written specifically for her, and that became the manageable version of the opera—small enough to afford, intimate enough to create a powerful atmosphere. Read the rest of this entry »

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We’ve profiled and interviewed composer Michael Hersch before here at S21. Unlike a lot of composers who lineage and influences I get pretty easily, In Hersch’s case there’s something coming from a place that I don’t get. And I tell you now, that’s a good thing. There isn’t a big grab bag of the latest tricks and fashions; the style could almost be called traditionalist. Yet there’s something at work that is so “interior”, an almost hermetic voice that owes nothing to anyone but the composer himself, that makes for a slightly unsettling but endlessly fascinating listen.

And tonight, for the first time since 2001, Michael Hersch himself is coming to NYC to play his own work. His recording of his sprawling, 2-hour piano work from 2005, The Vanishing Pavilions, was pretty highly praised here on its release; tonight Hersch plays his new 1-hour version, at Merkin Hall (8pm, details & tickets here), on a concert with his After Hölderlin’s ‘Hälfte des Lebens’ for viola and cello, played by the always-marvelous Miranda Cuckson and  Julia Bruskin (this piece was premiered at a memorial concert held inside the Pantheon in Rome, just two months after September 11, 2001).

Here’s a small taste of The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch playing movement 27 of the large version:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47rqUZ_6k2E[/youtube]

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[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/29161015[/vimeo]

About to turn the ripe old age of 8, Matt McBane‘s crazy idea of a 20-something composer/performer creating an annual new-music festival  in a bump in the road north of San Diego has not only survived but thrived. Something about a last late-summer outing, to an idyllic village parked right at a Pacific beach, seems to consistently draw a crowd from both Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south for this three-day affair. And, well, maybe it’s just a little about the music, too… Excellent string quartets, pianists and ensembles mix it up with rock bands, ethnic groups, open-air jams and units that fit into all and none of the above. Given that Matt’s main going concern is the genre-melding group BUILD, all this variety turns out to share threads of the same impulse: “Mr. Classical-Gorbachev, tear down this wall!!”

This year marks the biggest change to date: for the first time the entire Festival will be held completely in the Village of Carlsbad. As Matt tells it, this

means we can present a broader array of music than in the past: from the thoroughly modern classical music of the Calder Quartet and pianist Vicky Chow, to the chamber-music inflected indie-rock of My Brightest Diamond, to the genre-crossing music of Build, Florent Ghys, Lukas LigetiSarah Kirkland Snider and Shara Worden, to the African electronica of Burkina Electric, to the site-specific installations of Red Fish Blue Fish and Terry Riley’s In C. Yet, while the scope of the music presented has expanded, the Festival maintains its traditions that I have found most appealing: the hand-picked artists, the tradition of musicians from different groups collaborating, the Composers-in-Residence (5 this year!), and the commissioning and presenting of new works.

Speaking of composers and commissioning, The video at the top of this story shows this year’s Composers Competition winner, Jacob Cooper. His Big Black Bottom Kind will be part of the grand-finale concert given by the Calder Quartet, which also includes quartets by Thomas Adès and Jacob TV.

Matt, you have a few more words?…

In addition to its hand-picked programming, a big part of the Festival every year is the interaction with the community. Prior to the festival weekend, many of the festival musicians give always-hugely-popular performance-demonstrations for music students in the Carlsbad middle and high schools. This year with the Festival’s new format there will also be many free events open to everyone including the Music Walk and the Picnic Concerts, and there will be many performances by musicians from the community around the Village throughout the weekend.

It all kicks off this Friday, September 23, running through Sunday, and everything you need to know about the who’s, what’s and where’s can be found here.

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On an Overgrown Path‘s Bob Shingleton gives an intriguing sketch of the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt (b. 1933), well worth exploring. A small interview with the composer is here.

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Many instruments have their 99-cent toy counterpart: tiny play trumpets, cheap plastic recorders, pint-sized accordions, even mini drum-kits with cymbals the size of espresso saucers. But it’s only the toy piano that has graduated to the big leagues, with an large and diverse repertoire and even a dedicated group of high-caliber performers to boost its status. I really think this all came about from two sources: John Cage‘s modest 1948 Suite for Toy Piano, and the instrument’s inclusion in George Crumb‘s highly influential Ancient Voices of Children (1970). Both of these works had (and still have) a certain vogue; pianos were obtained, kept around, and led to performers and composers thinking “now that I’ve got it, what else can I do with this thing”? Fast-forward a few decades and we now find a whole body of work from composers big and small, with piano solo, duo, trio and beyond, accompanied by everything from a few trinkets to elaborate interactive electronics. Entire concerts of toy piano music take place now, with a variety pieces and forces equal to any other chamber music concert.

Like this one… Co-Directors and composers David Claman and Matt Malsky are presenting The Extensible Toy Piano Festival at Bargemusic, with another of those said dedicated toy-piano performer/composers, Phyllis Chen– this Sunday, June 12, at 3pm (Fulton Ferry Landing near the Brooklyn Bridge / Tickets: $25 ($20 Seniors; $15 Students). Claman and Malsky started The Extensible Toy Piano Project a number of years ago, sponsoring concerts, commissions, contests and even symposia (I told you this little instrument done all growed up!). This iteration will also feature guest performers Nancy Newman and mezzo-soprano Jessica Bowers, and works by Chen, Claman, Malsky, Karlheinz Essl, Konrad Kaczmarek, John McDonald, and Atsushi Yoshinaka.  Here’s Chen performing one of her works that will be on the concert, Double Helix:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfZ_djY9_f8[/youtube]

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We Remember September 11 // 24 Hour WPRB Live Radio Marathon

At the 10th anniversary of September 11, Classical Discoveries with Marvin Rosen will present a 24 hour live radio marathon, totally devoted to music written by composers from many countries as a reaction to the unforgettable events of that day. The program will air on WPRB 103.3 Princeton and around the world at www.wprb.com and will start on Saturday, September 10 at 7:00pm ET until 7:00pm the next day, Sunday, September 11, 2011.  Marvin has already in quite impressive collection of 9/11 works some of which have already been broadcasted on his program, but he would like to get other compositions as well.

The call is for music written as a reaction to 9/11 that is within the Classical Discoveries and Avant-Garde Edition format, for any combination of instruments, voices and electronics. Non-commercial recordings are accepted as long they have good quality sound and are on CD (no MP3 and DVDs).

If you are sending a private recording:
§    You must have the name of the composer, title, and timing marked on the CD
§    all information including performers, composers bio, notes about work,  should fit in the CD tray.
§    CD should be placed in a plastic CD case to prevent scratching
§    Broadcast release form should be attached
Each composer whose work is selected will be notified prior to the broadcast.
Unused CDs will be not returned to composers, except if prepaid envelope is attached

Before sending any recordings, please contact Marvin for his postal mailing address at: marvinfor911@gmail.com.  Marvin has established this special e-mail address so that no mail will be lost. He will answer within 10 days of each inquiry, but if no answer is received please resend your email.

Deadline for accepting recordings is Friday, August 12, 2011.

For more information closer to the Marathon check the Classical Discoveries website, or Marvin’s new blog MarvinTheCat.

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Daniel Wolf’s appreciation is better than anything I need to muster, so I’ll just say Happy Birthday Alvin Lucier, wonderful milestone, and thanks for some of the most beautifully pure musical and sonic revelations ever conceived.

Update: While I still don’t have much to add, I will point you to this wonderful discovery… In 1972-3, When (now long & well-established) experimental composer/performer Nicolas Collins was a fresh-faced freshman in college, he took Lucier’s Introduction to Electronic Music class. Good student he was, Collins also took copious notes on what Lucier taught them during those two semesters. Collins has gone ahead and scanned this unedited notebook to PDF files, and he shares it on a special page at his website.  As Collins writes, “I am no Ned Rorem — this notebook does not reflect a particularly interesting life — but I think it provides a rare window into Lucier’s teaching and the musical culture of the day, both of which are very interesting indeed, and — secondarily — it documents my gradual conversion from student to acolyte.

Virtually thumbing through this document is definitely worth any composer’s time.

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Turkish pianist Seda Röder has been around these parts more than a few times; sometimes for her wonderful playing and sometimes for her wonderful podcasts. Now an Associate at Harvard, since coming over to the U.S. in 2007 (after graduating the Mozarteum in Salzburg) Seda has been a bit of a whirlwind when it comes to new music. Not content to take the standard performer’s trajectory, Seda gives almost equal measure to not onlyconcertizing, but also informing and promoting on behalf of the lesser-known — both newer and older — corners of modern classical music.  Of course, in one of the corners most dear to her lies the work of living Turkish composers, a corner most of us have never paid any attention to.

Now Seda has taken a pretty big step on the way to rectifying that gap in our awareness: first, with the release of her new CD Listening to Istanbul, a collection of six newly-commissioned piano works by Turkish composers both established and emerging; and second, through a marvellous accompanying website that amplifies the CD and the works on it with all kinds of extra information, background, notes and interviews with the composers themselves.

Here composer Tolga Tüzün talks about his work Permanence:

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(And Gods know sanctuary is something many of us might be searching for these days…) This Monday, 21 March, at 8pm in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and Seventh Avenue, NYC), the ensemble Lunatics at Large begin a series of four concerts with five premieres, of works involving the collaboration of five composers and five poets. This little bit of numerology is titled “The Sanctuary Project“; Project Director Evi Jundt says:

We picked artists whose work we believed would be evocative of the theme ‘Sanctuary.’ First, the poets presented one new poem and some older works to the composers. The composers then chose which poet(s) they felt compelled to collaborate with. Each collaboration happened on its own terms: in one case, it resulted in a group of poems set to music in a song cycle; in another case, the poet helped find examples of folk music to be quoted in the composition. In the next stage, musical compositions served as inspiration for another new work by the poets. Finally, the poets – the initiators of the process – will join the musicians onstage to read their work in between performances of the chamber pieces.

The composers are André Brégégère, Mohammed Fairouz, Raphael Fusco, Laura Koplewitz and Alex Shapiro; the poets are Rob Buchert, Joanna Fuhrman, David Shapiro, Yerra Sugarman and Ryan Vine.

The Lunatics will present the same concert three more times, in actual sanctuaries: April 8, 8pm at Christ and Saint Stephen’s Church (122 West 69th Street, NYC); April 10, 7pm at the Synagogue for the Arts (49 White Street, NYC); and April 21, 7:30pm at WMP Concert Hall (31 East 28th Street, NYC).

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[The latest iteration of the always-stellar Other Minds festival is now done and in the books. We asked our equally-stellar Bay Area musician friend Tom Djll if he’d like to cover a bit of it for us, and he happily sent along his impressions of  the second and third concert evenings.]

Other Minds 16
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011

There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.

The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.

Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympian technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.

All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.

Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)

Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.

Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.

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