Folds/Hornby collaborate on new CD (review)

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Lonely Avenue
Nonesuch CD

Nick Hornby has written eloquently about pop songs in the novel High Fidelity and the essay collection Songbook. But what happens when he tries his hand at being a lyricist? On Lonely Avenue, his first musical collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds, Hornby makes the leap convincingly, suggesting that he belongs in the musical realm not just as an astute commentator, but as a full-fledged participant.

Of course, it certainly helps that Hornby’s lyrics are married to eloquent, often poignant, music by Folds. Indeed, Lonely Avenue is his most musically ambitious and wide-ranging effort to date; yet it’s uniformly distinguished. Perhaps in response to the rich lyrical terrain he has before him, Folds incorporates a number of stylistic inflections this time out, from savvily arranged seventies pop to undulating minimalism and from sensitive balladry to brash piano punk.

The CD contains at least three “single-worthy” cuts: “Doc Pomus,” “Picture Window,” and “From Above.” Folds’ piano-playing is as supple as ever – he cooks up some brilliant flourishes on “Doc Pomus” and rocks out with abandon on “Your Dogs.” The arrangements highlight Folds’ piano, but also feature strings and effervescent instrumental contributions and backing vocals from the indie pop duo Pomplamoose.

While one hopes that Hornby doesn’t quit writing compelling stories and cultural criticism anytime soon, he’s welcome to keeping work as a lyricist in the rotation!

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.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: “Silk Endroll” (Video)

I’m looking forward to interviewing Ryuichi Sakamoto on Wednesday for Signal to Noise Magazine. His latest US release is a double CD featuring two albums: Playing the Piano and Out of Noise. The former is a collection of “self-covers,” featuring Sakamoto revising some of his most famous earlier pieces, many of them from film scores, for solo piano. The process of distillation and refinement has resulted in fascinating and fresh-sounding performances.

Out of Noise on the other hand, is a collection of a dozen new pieces. Here, Sakamoto explores an atmospheric and multi-hued sound palette, and enlists a host of noteworthy collaborators: among them Keigo Ayomada, Karen Filskov, Fretwork, Christian Fennesz, and Skúli Sverrisson.

Thus, the interview occurs at a timely crossroads, and will be a chance to ask Sakamoto about a broad range of music, from his earliest compositions to his current creative process. It will appear in the Winter issue.

The Exploding Piano

The Exploding Piano
Kathleen Supové
Major Who Media

Kathleen Supové’s latest recording The Exploding Piano, is a collection of works by Randall Woolf, Missy Mazzoli, Anna Clyne, Michael Gatonska, and Dan Becker. While, thankfully, nothing blows up, the piano is subjected to a wide range of preparations, alterations, and dramatic exertions.

Supové is a dynamic performer, willing to try new and different things. Some of the pieces, like Mazzoli’s “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” and Becker’s “Revolution,” mix samplers and synths into the pianistic equation. Woolf’s “Sutra Sutra,” (live video below) combines jazzy inflections and spoken word components, skirting the edges of performance art and playing to the pianist’s charismatic onstage strengths. Clyne’s “On Track” instead focuses on inside the piano plucks and punctilious semitone clusters. For Gatonska’s “A Shaking of the Pumpkin,” the performer prepares the piano by placing a bass drum under the lid.

While this is a piano recital where the piano doesn’t necessarily often sound like a piano, The Exploding Piano is an intriguing display of fascinating sound worlds. Supové deserves kudos for fearlessly exploring the depths of these disparate works.

Another kind of minimalism

Luc Ferrari

Didascalies 2

Sub Rosa LP

Obsessive, unpublished, etched in vinyl

Composer Luc Ferrari passed away in 2005. One of his last – unpublished – works, Didascalies 2 for two pianos and viola was premiered posthumously in 2008. This Sub Rosa LP includes both the dress rehearsal and premiere performance by pianists Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven & Claude Berset, and violist Vincent Royer.

Didascalies 2 is a fascinating piece in that it combines the repeated notes and ostinato passages of minimalism with passages of spiky dissonance and, towards its climax, an obsessively sustained, loud held note (courtesy of the viola). Ferrari’s use of repetition here presents at first like process music. But the angst of overlaid crunches and sudden blurs of chromaticism destabilizes any sense of the pattern being supported in the musical texture. Rather, it serves as a pugnacious and unrepentant irritant; an obsessive, nagging worry that won’t go away.

Eventually, when repeated notes give way to sustain in the piece’s last section, one hears a further level of defiant insistence. While one can trace affinities between this and the works of Louis Andriessen and Charlemagne Palestine, Didascalies 2 is a riveting message sent from beyond. Ferrari hasn’t gone gently into the night, and for that we should be abundantly grateful.

Duo week continues: Dutilleux a deux

Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre et de silence
Robert Levin, piano
Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
ECM New Series CD 2105

Born in 1916, Henri Dutilleux remains one of France’s most important living composers. In the first recording to feature his work on the ECM imprint, pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang tackle his piano music for both one and two pianos. The works collected here are an eloquent overview of Dutilleux’s gradual refinement of his musical language.

His early Sonate (1946-8) is perhaps best described as post-Impressionist, inhabiting the lush yet fluid world of Ravel and Debussy with several knowing glances at the rhythmic vitality of Francis Poulenc. Already by 1950, Dutilleux is exploring birdsong in a sympathetic manner to Oliver Messiaen in the brief but charming “Blackbird.” Conversely 1976′s Figures de résonances demonstrates an awareness for innovations by the Postwar avant-garde. This work, which features both pianists, is a stirring essay in sostenuto verticals, with dramatic outbursts followed by an intricate unfolding of reverberating overtones. A collection of preludes from the 1970s and 80s, as well as 1981′s Petit air à dormir debout distill this intricate vocabulary into limpid miniatures. The preludes combine moments of exquisitely shaded delicacy with ferocious outbursts.

With ardent performances and captivating sound throughout, D’ombre et de silence serves as an excellent introduction to this talented elder statesman’s music.

Two Keyboards Week begins: Perfume Genius (video)

We’ll be spotlighting several recent releases that feature keyboard duos this week on File Under ?.

The first is a song by Perfume Genius (Michael Hadreas). He’s just recorded a live session in support of Learning, his debut Matador LP. We’ve included a video excerpt below.

We’re very enamored with the lead-off single, “Mr. Peterson;” so is Pitchfork (they named it one of their best new music tracks)! This dystopian ballad presents an ambiguous tale with just the right amounts of reminiscence, vulnerability, regret, and lingering pain to make it a bit creepy, but both believable and affecting.

And a four-hand offering from Perfume Genius:


Check back later in the week for keyboard duos in strikingly different contexts, CD & concert reviews, and more Sound Cloud offerings of my music!

Southam's Pond Life as compositional ecosystem

pondlife__Ann Southam

Pond Life

Centrediscs CMCCD 14109


On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.

The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.

Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.

Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.

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