Andrew Bird: Fever Year Trailer (Video)

Earlier this Spring, the documentary film Andrew Bird: Fever Year was screened at fourteen festivals. Containing interviews, concert footage, and capturing rehearsals of works in process, it looks to be a fascinating corollary to Break it Yourself, Bird’s latest studio album (out now via Mom and Pop). Would love to review a screener of the film (anyone?).

RIP Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

I will miss Ray Bradbury. His work has been a frequent touchstone. His books and scripts for television and films are such a surefire way to stoke one’s imagination. In addition, his nonfiction writings are often quite touching. For me, they serve as an imprimatur to go and grasp for every ounce of creativity, enthusiasm, and joy in life one can muster.

I’m grateful for the many books he’s left behind for us to continue to enjoy. But I hope I don’t seem greedy when expressing my disappointment that we won’t get to savor still more pages from his trusty typewriter.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for your tremendous artistic legacy and the example of your powerful personality. 91 years well lived: rest in peace.

Ljova’s Lost in Kino (CD Review)

Lost in Kino
Various Artists
Kapustnik Records CD

Probably most of us have sat through a film where the music seems to clash with the onscreen visuals; one that seems disconnected from the plot and just generally uninspired. Then there are film scores that, even without the movie playing, allow us to ‘see’ the scene; we’re transported. This is the kind of music one finds on Lost in Kino, the third CD release from the versatile Ljova. Violinist, violist, composer, and arranger Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin shares twenty-four musical sequences from film scores he composed in the years 2005-’11. Arranged programmatically to have a light music “A side” and a more serious “B side” (with the “obligatory” happy ending for a final “closing credits” cut), Lost in Kino draws upon many musical styles: all of them adroitly arranged and energetically performed by Ljova and a host of collaborators.

Ljova’s experience performing Eastern European folk music looms large. Romashka, a band devoted to the performance of Gypsy music, appears on a dozen of the CD’s selections and master cymbalomist Kalman Balogh provides a memorable guest turn on the track “Satul Dintre Noi.” Other styles represented include a country-inflected piece titled “Old Men,” with flourishes from banjo player Mike Savino, as well as a downright bluegrass hootenanny on “Pickle Porker Polka,” courtesy of Ljova fiddling alongside the alt-country band Tall Tall Trees. Asian music adorns the track “Doctor Wrong,” with guest appearances by my favorite pipa player, Wu Man, and shakuhachi player Kojir Umezaki. “The End (Baby you Got to Get Up)” is a rousing way to close the proceedings, featuring boisterous singing from Sarah Natochenny and a chamber orchestra sized cohort of musicians.

Forget those film scores supplied by racks of sythesizers. Ljova has got the right idea: capture the scene using live musicians as actors in sound. As the principal performer and as a composer/arranger, he shines on Lost in Kino. Recommended.

An Interview with Composer Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford’s “Illegal Harmonies”

Andrew Ford. Photo: Jim Rolon

“I’ve never had a grand plan. Never even had an ambition – I still don’t, beyond wanting to write better music,” says Ford. “So I’ve done things as they’ve come along. Of course I also say no to things. I got into writing music journalism because, in 1983 when I came to Australia, I wasn’t, over all, very impressed with the music journalism I read. My radio work really came out of being an academic and gradually replaced it totally.”

Although born in England, Andrew Ford has become associated with his adopted homeland, Australia. He’s one of the most astute commentators on the country’s music scene, hosting “The Music Show,” a weekly broadcast on ABC Radio National since 1995.

“I live in the country, and most weeks I compose from Monday to Thursday. Then on Friday I drive the two hours up to Sydney and my producers hand me a folder full of research and a bunch of CDs relating to the guests I will have on The Music Show the following morning. There are usually four and we try to mix things up: I might talk to a jazz singer, a didgeridoo player, an opera director and the composer of a new string quartet. I do the show live, and then drive home on the Saturday afternoon. I try not to work on Sundays. If I’m writing a book, of course, that might have to take over for a while.”

Ford has written several books, and while most are accessible to a general audience, he’s never shy about exposing his readers to a wide array of adventurous music. He’s also the rare interviewer who’s able to “talk shop” with composers from the vantage point of a fellow practitioner.  This is clearly demonstrated in Composer to Composer (1993), an excellent collection of interviews he conducted with many of Australia’s finest composers, as well as composers from elsewhere, such as the UK’s Brian Ferneyhough  and Americans John Cage and Elliott Carter. Another one of his collections, Illegal Harmonies, has just been reissued in its third edition by Black, Inc.

Ford says, “Illegal Harmonies was a history of music in the 20th century and began as a radio series in 1997. There were ten 90-minute episodes, one for each decade. The book was published the same year, and this is its third edition. I’ve added a new preface and also there’s a new epilogue looking at music in the first decade of the 21st century.”

Black, Inc. has also recently published Ford’s latest book, The Sound of Pictures. He says, “Funnily enough, the book isn’t really about film scores. I’d say that, more accurately, it’s about films and how they used music and sound in general. It looks – and especially listens – to a lot of films, and finds some connections between them. The way films use sound to plant clues – including false clues – or to undermine, as well as reinforce, what is happening on the screen.”

Those wishing for an entrée to Ford’s own music might start with The Waltz Book, a recent CD release on the Tall Poppies imprint.  It consists of sixty one-minute long waltzes performed by pianist Ian Munro. But these are hardly your garden-variety Viennese dance pieces by Strauss. They explore a wide array of sound worlds, using waltz time as a jumping off point for some truly imaginative musical excursions.

Ford says, “The piece was never really about waltzes. It was an attempt to build a single large structure out of a lot of small structures. I felt these small pieces should all be the same size – like a mosaic – but that each might have its own personality and be performable as an independent miniature. A minute seemed the obvious length for each piece, and having decided that, the idea of the minute-waltz followed. Of course, the fact that each minute is a waltz – or at least waltz-related – brings a kind of unity to the hour-long whole, but what interested me above all was two things. First, I wanted to experiment with putting different amounts of music into the minute molds: you can have a minute of furious activity, or a minute of Satie-like blankness. Second, I wanted the overall structure of the hour to be coherent. That’s a long time listening to piano miniatures, and the audience needs to have its attention held: there had to be a sense of a journey or a story being told. You can imagine that at the first performance I was quite nervous!”

Another of Ford’s most recent pieces found the composer working in another medium with a storied tradition: the brass band. The Black Dyke Band premiered his work The Rising at the Manchester Brass festival in January 2011.

Ford says, “Without wishing to make a pun, writing for a brass band was a blast, and especially writing for the Black Dyke Band which is the UK’s finest and has more than 150 years of history behind it. They can play anything – they are total virtuosi. I’d never written for band before. I wasn’t even terribly sure what a baritone horn was. I did my homework, but I confess there was an element of guesswork involved. But the piece came out well. It sounded just as I’d hoped. Better, in some ways, because one thing I’d failed to appreciate was just how homogenous the sound is – it’s like they are all playing different sizes of the same instrument. It was this big glowing mass of sound – the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan – and I am completely hooked. I would love to write another band piece.”

Which other works would Andrew Ford like for listeners from outside Australia to hear? “I’m very happy with my Symphony (2008). I feel that, perhaps out of all my pieces, you could say this was really typical of me. There are no references, no extra-musical stuff: it’s just my music. And fortunately you can hear (and see) Brett Dean conducting the premiere of the piece at my website. I’ve revised it slightly since then, but nothing major. My opera, Rembrandt’s Wife (2009), is another piece I am very happy with. I had a brilliant libretto (by Sue Smith) and I tried to make it into one long song. I was determined it would be full of real singing from start to finish. It was a joy to write and I’ve never felt so unselfconscious in writing a piece. It felt as though it wrote itself. What else? Maybe Learning to Howl (2001), a song cycle for soprano, soprano sax/clarinets, harp and percussion, to words mostly by women.”

“One long-term project is called Progess. My earliest pieces – when I was a teenager – were rather influenced by Stockhausen’s then current intuitive music. This was convenient, in a way, because I must admit that I didn’t really know how to write everything down. As my technique improved, I have always wanted to return to that, to introduce more freedom into my pieces, but the trouble is I keep hearing them rather clearly in my imagination and I end up notating what I hear. Progress, right from the start, is designed as a fluid piece, with hardly anything pinned down and the players asked to improvise in various ways and based on certain melodic models. The instrumentation is totally flexible and so is the spatial layout. Indeed perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way it will accommodate itself to the building in which it is performed – literally filling the building (not just the main performance space – even assuming there is one of these), so that it becomes a musical representation of the building.  There will also be recorded voices – something I’ve used quite a lot recently – talking about the place, its history, its significance, what was there before it was built, etc. It should see the light of day next year with further performances in 2013, but it’s early in the process, so I can’t say too much more.”

When asked who, apart from Andrew Ford, are the composers born or residing in Australia that should gain more currency abroad, Ford replies, “David Lumsdaine, 80 this year and now living in the UK, is a very serious voice, I think. What interests me in particular is the way in which his soundscapes and his composed works intersect. There’s a new CD – White Dawn – that places them alongside each other. I’m very drawn to Mary Finsterer’s music, especially her latest stuff. It’s always interesting to observe composers in transition. Of course if you’re not in transition, then you’re drying up.”

Illegal Harmonies and The Sound of Pictures can be ordered via Black, Inc.’s website.

Dustin O’Halloran: Lumiere (CD Review)

Dustin O’Halloran
Fat Cat Records CD

It seems fitting, in a way, that pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran calls Los Angeles home. His post-classical instrumental compositions are frequently evocative in a fashion that’s also come to be associated with (good) film music: atmospheric, melodically direct, and capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. And even though O’Halloran has become active as a film composer in recent years, scoring An American Affair and the upcoming Like Crazy (out in October), he remains involved in creating music separate from images that’s equally involving.

Lumiere, O’Halloran’s debut for the Fat Cat imprint, is some of his most arresting music to date. With sterling support from Jóhann Jóhannsson, who handles engineering and mixing duties and contributes electronics to the proceedings, as well as members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) recording the string parts, O’Halloran crafts more intricate arrangements than those found on previous albums. While elaborations don’t inherently enhance, here they allow O’Halloran’s piano to become one texture among many, a percussive foil for richly layered strings and synths. Passages reminiscent of Francophone neoclassicism, variously recalling Satie’s Gymnopedies and Parisian waltzes, as well stretches bell-tinged minimalism, are frequently present in this collection of compelling compositions. Here’s hoping that O’Halloran will be able to maintain both scoring and non-programmatic creation in the rotation for a long time to come.

NPR posts Babbitt documentary

I’m so glad to learn that NPR is hosting Robert Hilferty’s documentary about Milton Babbitt on their Deceptive Cadence blog (Video embed below).

Some scenes from this were screened at a Babbitt event I attended a few years ago at CUNY Graduate Center, but, due to Hilferty’s passing in 2009, a finished film never appeared publicly.

Today, Alex Ross ran a post about the film at The Rest is Noise, indicating that Laura Karpman has helped to edit this posthumous version of the work.

Ross also wrote his own tribute to Babbitt here. He was kind enough to include several links to other Babbitt-related media and articles about the composer. He even linked our coverage here (Thanks Alex!).

Ryuichi Sakamoto: New York concert review

Sakamoto plays the piano

Last month, I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto for an article that will appear in the next issue of Signal to Noise. On October 18, 2010, I got a chance to hear Sakamoto perform live at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NewYork University. It was the second show in a two month long U.S. concert tour promoting his new US release Playing the Piano/Out of Noise.

In recent years, many entertainers have become more outspoken about the consequences of their jet-setting ways. True, the environmental impact of concert tours, concerns about climate change, and, in turn, advocacy for human rights and fair trade are often associated with big-name pop acts: Bono, Sting, and David Byrne. But it isn’t only artists at the top of the charts who are trying to change their business practices. Sakamoto has become a forthright advocate for these causes as well. His touring schedule is crafted with climate impact in mind. A carbon offset is made to counteract the carbon dioxide emissions from the US tour.

The offset isn’t the only concession made on the tour. During the concert, several pieces are accompanied by projections or incorporate spoken-word recordings. Some of the visuals are abstract art projections – kind of benevolent large-scale screen-savers. But others encourage engagement on particular topics. These invariably reference social issues important to Sakamoto, and range from discussions of the melting of the polar ice caps by Greenland official Karen Filskov to principles for engaging in reconciliation by the Dalai Lama. Still, if rendering opinions on social issues from the concert stage has become a not-uncommon practice, one certainly prefers this kind of subtle insertion of the topic to the polemical speeches some artists make between songs. And there’s an organic component to their presence onstage. Sakamoto incorporates these ideas into his compositions themselves as well: often in a singular and evocative fashion.

One of the most overt examples of this is the piece “Glacier.” The composition appears on Out of Noise and is featured as the opener on many of Sakamoto’s concerts. It incorporates excerpts of field recordings that Sakamoto made while on a trip to Greenland featuring sounds collected while he visited several rapidly melting glaciers. The sounds he recorded are haunting, alternately brittle and percussive shards of cracking ice as well as the flowing sounds of water and howls from biting winds.

Sakamoto’s response to the sounds of Greenland’s glaciers is to play his instrument in an unconventional fashion. He plays inside the piano, using his fingers to elicit scratches, thumps, and plucked strings. Ample amplification and reverb add a cavernous echo to these extended sonorities. When listening to the recording, “Glacier” certainly makes an impression. But seeing Sakamoto play the piece live really brings its message home.

The concert starts in darkness, with glitch electronica and field recordings emanating from onstage speakers, creating an eerie ambience. Sakamoto takes the stage, standing beside one of the two grand pianos that adorn it, illumined by icy projections playing from a screen behind him and a small light on the piano. Playing inside the piano in this dimly lit setting, he is visually accompanied by projected titles that translate a calmly spoken but clearly urgent narrative about the impact of climate change on Greenland’s fragile ecosystem and on the fisherman who eke out a precarious living in the region: a vanishing way of life.

The music could scarcely be further from the public’s perception of Sakamoto, which is guided by Neo Geo fusion pop and hummable film score themes. Doubtless some of the sold-out crowd is taken aback, but they are very responsive to “Glacier:” to both its message and its music.

Glacier, like other socially engaged pieces on the program, manages to communicate without ever overreaching or seeming preachy. Just as Sakamoto is known for restraint and balance in his compositions, his approach to activism is similar in approach: gentle yet potent.

During the concert, Sakamoto presents several other pieces from Out of Noise. If one wonders why the pianist has two grand pianos onstage, the answer is supplied by the evening’s second selection: a new piece called “Hibari.” For “Hibari,” Sakamoto plays one grand piano, while the opposing MIDI grand creates a virtual duet, echoing back some of the music he’s already performed. It’s great fun to watch the keys move seemingly of their own accord, like a player piano. It’s even more fun to listen to the accumulation of repeating layers, over which Sakamoto continues to weave successively more intricate harmonic clusters and diaphanous lines. The overall effect is simultaneously minimalist and post-Impressionist. It’s as if Steve Reich and Oliver Messiaen were given “mash-up” treatment, with a little bit of the score for Silk thrown in for good measure! “In the Red” takes on a more avant-ambient space. The second piano remains silent, but Sakamoto is “accompanied” here by glitch guitar samples supplied by Cornelius and Christian Fennesz.

While there’s plenty of new material on the NY concert, Sakamoto also gives the audience an ample share of older songs. He even reaches back into his Yellow Magic Orchestra catalog, playing an instrumental version of 1979’s “Behind the Mask,” one of the hits from the group’s second album Solid State Survivor. He leaves the original’s vocoder at home, but the lyrics are displayed on the projection screen. This “music minus one” endeavor leaves more room for Sakamoto to craft an elaborately syncopated accompaniment; and the scrolling lyrics encourage more than a few audience members to take their cue to indulge in a little “concert karaoke.”

Spontaneous audience participation and multiple encores featuring Sakamoto’s biggest hits close out the show. But as soon as the houselights go up, we hear a recording of more glitch electronica from Out of Noise; bringing the evening full circle. And so it is with Sakamoto, who’s eager to present his latest creative endeavors, even to his oldest fans. Unlike some ‘dinosaurs of rock’ tours, where the audience grumbles when the concerts contain too many “songs from the new album,” few at NYU seem to mind – the queue for autographs is so long that it extends further than the line for the exits.