Another reason to love Infini-T

Over the past few years, as local businesses have tried to weather the recession, a number of my favorite haunts in New York, New Jersey, and even Boston/Cambridge have gone out. It’s been sad to see some terrific bookstores, recordstores, coffeehouses, and tea shops shuttered due to the general economic malaise and changes in the way that people interact and consume  - both food and media.

Happily, this Spring I have found a new place to enjoy in Princeton:  Infini-T Cafe and Spice Souk. It’s just a short walk from my office, has excellent espresso, a wide range of teas, enjoyable Mediterranean and veggies dishes, and an all too tempting case of pastries. Unlike Small World Coffee, a place I enjoy to grab and go rather than sit and ponder, Infini-T is an inviting place to read, write, and linger over a cup of something tasty and reviving.

But I really knew that it was Kismet when I saw Andy Akiho’s Innova CD for sale near the counter! And, I belatedly learned that Infini-T hosted his group Foundry back in April.

A caffeinated haven for new music – count me in!

Andy Akiho's new CD AND a mean dirty iced chai?

Andy Akiho’s No One to Know One, in all its steel pan inflected percussiveness, is out now on  Innova and is highly recommended listening.

McLean to the MAX

Barton McLean
Innova CD 234

Barton McLean’s latest release finds the composer/pianist/electronic musician presenting works that draw upon a variety of inspirations. These range from local to more exotic geographies, from field recordings to laboriously crafted computer sounds from customized software, and from live performances to overdubbed studio-wrought virtual ensembles. What brings these seemingly disparate works together is McLean’s distinctive ear for timbre, and his delight in creating various sonic echoes and digitized instrumental doppelgangers.

The earliest completed piece, 1989′s Demons of the Night, explores the darker side of a summer evening in rural New York. Various dark denizens, real or imagined (we can’t be sure!), are evoked by cackling saxophone and agitated synthesized glissandi.

On Concerto: States of Beingg (2009), McLean serves as piano soloist while the “Petersburgh Electrophilharmonica” provides a virtual accompaniment. The three movements – “Wonder,” “Attainment,” and “Tranquility” – each evoke a different stage of life or state of mind. The solo part is fluidly rendered and, given the subject matter, suitably wide ranging. The accompanying timbres are equally multifaceted in makeup, but generally favor echoing reverberations that trail the piano’s attacks and bell-like sonorities. Magic at Xanadu is a showcase for McLean’s electroacoustic prowess, particularly his facility with MAX/MSP (from which the work takes its title). Its blending of more atmospheric timbres with ostinatos crafts a work of variegated texture and intriguingly intricate formal design. More exploratory still is the live electronics piece Ice Canyons, which blends ephemeral wisps of melody with string pads and ambiguous harmonies blurred with glissandos.

More acoustically based is Ritual of the Dawn, a chamber sextet for the Syracuse Society of New Music. It is a contemplative millennial work that features shimmering pitched percussion, insistent gongs, McLean’s virtuosic pianism, and soaring wind duets. It captures both the nervous excitement and reflective moments that can take hold of us, sometimes in quick succession, at times of significant change. Finally, Rainforest Images II makes successful use of field recordings and natural sounds in a sound installation; a genre that is often rife with cliche is here given considerable compositional focus. Thus, the CD presents many facets of McLean without ever diluting the impression of a composer with keenly refined vision.

Maya Beiser’s Iberian adventures

Maya Beiser
Innova CD

“From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the area which is now modern Spain was home to the greatest peaceful agglomeration of cultures ever known in the post-literate world…Even more remarkable than the flowering of art itself was the confluence of cultures that produced it: under the rule of Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worked together in relative harmony.”

-Maya Beiser, Provenance liner notes essay

Cellist Maya Beiser’s latest CD for the Innova imprint seeks to craft music that celebrates the rich multiculturalism of the Iberian peninsula. Using medieval Spain as a jumping off point, Beiser has commissioned a collection of works that celebrate Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. The participants frequently interweave stylistic and ethnic boundaries. The results are frequently engaging musical hybrids.

Iranian kamancheh composer and master Kalyan Kalhor’s “I Was There” features Beiser alongside oud performer Bassam Saba and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Shane Shanahan. This rhapsodic piece allows cello and oud each to negotiate long-breathed melismatic cadenzas. Eventually, Beiser and Saba come together, duetting in supple, then increasingly rhythmically incisive phrases.

Armenian dudukahar Djivan Gasparian’s “Memories” is a haunting and evocative piece. While Gasparian is not necessarily a household name, his performances on duduk (a double reed instrument) have populated a number of Hollywood films, including Blood Diamond and Gladiator. “Memories” captures the essential flavor of Armenian folk music, all the while bearing in mind the cello’s proclivities for generous-toned lyricism. Above an omnipresent drone, Beiser unleashes keening, ardent modal melodies.

Israeli composer Tamar Muskal took Ladino folksong as the basis for “Mar de Leche,” her collaboration with Beiser. Sung by Sephardic Jews in Spain, Ladino is a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and Hebrew. Muskal’s piece, a work for chamber ensemble that features the same musicians as the Kalhor work, abetted by the dynamic vocalist Etty Ben-Zaken. Beiser and Saba once again exhibit considerable musical chemistry. Beiser also incorporates some of the undulating vibrato and pitch-bends of Ben-Zaken’s vocal style, creating an organic set of timbral ensemble interactions.

In the summer of 2009, Beiser travelled with composer Douglas J. Cuomo to Cordoba and Granada: a field trip to do research that would abet the composition of his contribution to Provenance: “Only Breath.”

Inspired by the work of Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi (one of my favorites!), the piece finds Beiser in collaboration with sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari. Seeking to evoke the sound of wind passing through the prevalent minarets in Andalusia, Cuomo has crafted a work that plays with mobile filigrees and reverberant echoes. It makes good use of looping technology too; rather than using it to fashion a pad of repeated utterances, the loops instead allow for slow-building counterpoint of phantom cello Doppelgängers. The final result is a series of dovetailing, angst-filled melodic lines amid ghostly, floating verticals. I’ve heard many vocal settings of Rumi that have had much less to say than this more abstracted, yet tremendously thoughtful, instrumental meditation on his work.

Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement of the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” for Beiser and prog-rock luminary drummer Jerry Marotta, closes out the disc. While its clear that this is the piece with the most accessible crossover appeal on the CD, that awareness takes nothing away from its inclusion. It points up another kind of hybridized music-making – the influence of Eastern signatures on Led Zep’s rock-oriented sound. What’s more, Beiser and Marotta just plain tear it up!

Sometimes, a concept album contains a creative inspiration that is far better than the reality it imagines. In my view, Provenance extolls a wonderful collaborative atmosphere: a model for many future cross-cultural projects. Alas, this type of music-making is a relatively recent innovation and, in many venues, is still far from prevalent. One wishes Maya Beiser were able to make multicultural music without extolling the virtues of dhimmi under Muslim rule. During the Middle Ages, dhimmi – “people of the book” (Christians and Jews) – were sporadically allowed limited religious freedom in Iberia. But there were significant legal and cultural restrictions placed upon non-Muslim citizens; these were terms of surrender, not of collaboration or accommodation. Thus, my reading of history doesn’t allow me to share Beiser’s utopian view of medieval multiculturalism. I’d rather listen to Provenance as a hopeful and tantalizing glimpse at what music-making and, indeed, cultural coexistence, may increasingly look like in the future than to revise or rewrite our spotty attempts at getting along in the past.

New Recording of In C: GVSU live at LPR

Hot on the heels of their Innova release In C Remixed, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has made a new recording of Terry Riley’s In C. A 2009 live date at Le Poisson Rouge, it features composer/producer/laptop musician Dennis DeSantis alongside the ensemble in a 65-minute rendition of the piece.

This version is different from the material on the Innova disc. It takes some of DeSantis’ remixing and electronica talents that were briefly on display there and blows them up to a full, intensely interactive, electro-tinged In C for 2010.

The release is available digitally via Ghostly International. Previously known as a quirk pop/electronica outfit, this is the label’s first foray into concert music. One hopes that its the first of many!

They’ve been kind enough to allow us to share a five-minute selection of the performance here.

In C (excerpt)

Fast Jump

Danny Holt

Fast Jump

Innova CD 734

LA-based pianist DANNY HOLT, currently on the faculty at Cal-Arts, is a brilliant player. A percussionist as well as a pianist, he attacks the instrument with verve. On his Innova recital disc, the pianist presents five world premieres; all pieces written since 1997. The disc opens with Caleb Burhans’ In Time of Desperation (2003). Written to commemorate the passing of Luciano Berio, the piece is a series of variations on a ground. This venerable technique is refreshed by pop-inflected harmonies and a postminimal rhythmic ostinato. While the language seems distant from Berio’s, Burhans’ engagement with elements from the distant musical past, as well as his willingness to explore vulnerable emotional terrain, resonant with the departed as music of a kindred spirit.

Holt’s fulsomely energetic approach seems well-suited to the Yamaha grand he favors. Brightly shaded incisive attacks give appropriate luster to the CD’s title work; Lona Kozik’s Fast Jump; Etudes and Interludes for Piano. Kozik writes brilliantly for the piano, inhabiting an earnest, postmodern language rife with virtuosity. “A Tangled Web We Weave (We Keep our Demons Intact)” is filled with whirling arpeggiations and punchy repeated clusters. Traversing the entire keyboard, it alternates registers in strategic, dramatically-charged juxtapositions. Another highlight is “Disperse (the quick but calm spread of sunlight – on water – at dawn)” is an appropriately Impressionist etude in polyrhythmically overlapping arpeggiations, creating a diaphanous swath of shimmering harmonies.

Jascha Narveson’s ripple (2005) is a welcome respite in the midst of these stormy musical proceedings. Its spare harmonic palette and gentle demeanor remind one a bit of Tobias Picker’s “Old and Lost Rivers;” but Narveson favors a more pointillist sensibility. In a clever programming choice, this “eye of the hurricane” is followed by Graham Fitkin’s “Relent.” This postminimal powerhouse is a live staple of Holt’s; and he plays it assuredly and impressively. At eleven minutes in duration, Fitkin’s constant keyboard assault is a grueling gauntlet, containing enough material to keep the players in his multi-piano works happy; Holt manages to grab it all with two hands – con fuoco!

The disc closes with another set of elegies: David Lang’s memory pieces (1997). Although his recent Pulitzer prize award has garnered Lang increased scrutiny of his latest works, these pieces serve as a reminder that he’s been a consummate craftsman and thoughful composer all along. Each of the pieces serves as a memorial to a departed friend. The half-hour cycle is frequently poignant, but also serves as a collection of etudes. “cello” highlights cross-hands playing;”cage” is an exploration of ambient effects. “Spartan arcs” is a delightful showcase for one of Holt’s favorite techniques: overlapping arpeggios. While one seldom thinks of etudes solemnly emotional works, “memory pieces” is both a technical tour de force and a considerably eloquent collection.  

Fast Jump