Guest post: Andy Lee on Ann Southam’s Valedictory CD

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.


Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee

Notable in 2011: Duo Gazzana debuts on ECM (CD Review)

For the rest of 2011, among our coverage will be “notable” recordings, highlighting some of our favorites for the year that we haven’t as yet covered on File Under ?.

Duo Gazzana

Five Pieces: works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janacek, and Silvestrov

ECM New Series CD

Despite its already impressively deep catalog, Manfred Eicher’s ECM still finds new perspectives and new interpreters to present on the imprint’s recordings. Sisters violinist Nastascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana have been performing together since the 1990s. But they waited until 2011 to make their recorded debut, in a chamber recital CD. Surprisingly, they are the first Italian chamber group to perform on an ECM release!

The disc features works by four different Twentieth century composers, all of whom are displayed in works that operate from the  more traditional side of the stylistic spectrum. Even Toru Takemitsu’s Distance de fée, from 1951, early in his catalog, displays the composer’s affinity for Impressionism overtly, with only hints of the experiments and polystylism to which he would later turn. Paul Hindemith’s E major Violin Sonata, cast in two movements, features a buoyant allegro movement followed by a sober langsam tinged with melancholy, which abruptly shifts to a brilliant finale. Both the piece, and its interpreters, are able to adjust to these rapid changes of mood without it ever seeming unnatural. Instead we are given a succinct yet complete account of a sonata’a narrative arc – in exquisite miniature. It’s worth mentioning how the shifts in timbre elicited by Nastascia are luminously detailed throughout this work.

Inspired by the clangor and rigors of WWI and begun near the outset of that conflict, Leos Janacek’s Sonata for violin and piano is filled with its own poignant twists and turns. Understandably, it displays considerably more angularity and angst than the Hindemith, and both sisters really dig in to its brash gestures while providing a detailed account of its nuanced articulations ( an aside: both pieces were programmed side by side in 1923, with none other than Hindemith performing the violin part).

But wait, there are four composers: why’s the disc called “Five Pieces?” It’s the title of the last group on the CD, a set of violin/piano duos by Valentin Silvestrov. Although there is certainly an affinity between some of the Eastern European folk inflections found in both the Janacek and Silvestrov works, there is an even wider reaching retrospective quality in the Silvestrov that seems to encompass all of the styles presented on the CD. Indeed, it mines many of the veins of tonally oriented 20th century music, providing an elegiac and Neo-romantic viewpoint that never confuses genuine emotional resonance with bald sentimentality. Raffaella brings out a warmly resonant quality from the pieces’ harmonic progressions, all the while supporting with careful balance and phrasing the long-lined legato playing of Nastascia. And while one can find many grander musical statements in Silvestrov’s oeuvre, he has distilled some of his most affecting music in these five miniatures. Indeed, the lilting Intermezzo and Barcarolle movements are truly magical microcosms.

Displaying consummate musicality, featuring a fascinating program of repertoire that should be heard more widely, with sumptuous sonics to boot, Duo Gazzana’s debut is one of my favorite discs of 2011. Let’s hope the Gazzana sisters get right back into the recording studio with Mr. Eicher in 2012!

David Smooke takes Requests

On Requests

A guest post for File Under?

Back in 2003, the incredible pianist Amy Briggs (and if you don’t know her playing, you should check out some of her performances of the David Rakowski Etudes on YouTube) was approached by the music department at U.C. Davis to engage in a residency built around the idea of new tangos for piano. As part of the project, they asked Amy to build an entire concert program of tangos, each of which needed to be no longer than three minutes. She could use completed pieces and have others write for the project, and the Davis composition faculty (including Laurie San Martin) all agreed to write new works for her and to arrange for her to record a CD of the entire concert repertoire. Amy chose me, along with several wonderful composers like Hayes Biggs, to write a new tango of no more than three minutes. She toured with these pieces for several years and the entire project is now available via Ravello Records and at Naxos.

When Amy first approached me to contribute to this project, I was both excited and quite fearful. Tangos long ago achieved the status of major cultural achievements, basically functioning as the national musical style of Argentina. As an outsider with relatively little experience of this genre I felt that there was little that I could add. At the same time, it would have been disingenuous to write a generally inspired piece and to cavalierly claim it as a tango, and I very much wanted to work with Amy and to be involved with this endeavor.

After listening to many traditional tangos for various ensembles and several experimental composers’ reinterpretations of this form, this piece began to take shape. I retain the staggered rhythm in the first half of the measure that is the most recognizable element of the traditional form, using it as an accompaniment for a simple and mournful melody that to my mind evokes the mood of the dance. The piece then presents variations on this melody. Perhaps more important than these purely musical impetuses was my attempt to portray the various aspects of the tango itself as though constantly refracting through the emotions of the dancers and the scene itself as viewed by the participants and audience. For this reason, Requests continually presents sudden shifts in mood and affect as the perspective jumps from the internal to the external and between the various perspectives on each level.

Since I knew I was writing for an astonishingly virtuosic player, as I composed this piece I allowed myself to be pulled constantly towards ever-greater feats of pianism, making this short work very daunting for most players. I’m thrilled that ACME has chosen to present Requests on the Sequenza21/MNMP concert and look forward to hearing all the pieces at Joe’s Pub this week.

- David Smooke chairs the music theory program at Peabody. He blogs regularly at NewMusicBox and plays a mean toy piano.

Drew Baker on New Focus (CD Review)

Drew Baker

Stress Position

featuring Marilyn Nonken, piano

New Focus CD FCR 116

Composer Drew Baker’s music is demanding stuff. Highly conceptual, viscerally physical, and often politically charged, it requires much from its performers. Baker is fortunate to have a staunch advocate in pianist Marilyn Nonken. She has championed his music, commissioning works and programming them frequently on her recitals. This New Focus disc demonstrates just how much she has internalized music that would fell many a less formidable artist.

Take the title work, which is named after the “vigorous interrogating techniques” that, during the past decade, proved to be one of many regrettable blights on the United States’ human rights record. The piece requires Nonken to have her arms extended to both registral extremes throughout, gradually stretching her hands to navigate wider intervals and thicker chords. Sensory assault – increasingly piercing amplification – and, live at least, sensory deprivation (the work ends with the lights out, imitating a detainee being blindfolded) are also part of the package. It’s an unnerving, deeply troubling piece about an equally squirm inducing topic. The most amazing thing to me about all this – Nonken asked for this piece: she’s a plucky pianist!  Asa Nisi Masa, another amplified work, features fists full of dense low register clusters, delivered in a battery of cannonades.

But, thankfully, Baker isn’t merely indulging a streak of danger music throughout the disc. National Anthem, another piece commissioned by Nonken, is a far more delicate affair. Yet it’s just as politically motivated as Stress Position. The Star-Spangled Banner is deconstructed, played in three different keys, in a slowly moving overlapping canon. What might seem like an Ivesian conceit is deployed in a more Feldmanesque fashion, to agreeable effect. Also quite appealing is Gray, another slowly developing piece featuring angular linear counterpoint and gently articulated yet dissonant harmonies, delicately shaded with careful attention to pedaling indications and keen awareness of the decay rates of various resonances. It’s played quite beautifully in this detailed performance by Nonken; she inhabits it with graceful poise.

Baker and percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin join Nonken for Gaeta, a work for two pianos and water percussion. I heard this piece’s premiere at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process Series back in 2006 and found it to be quite impressive.  One was awash in a plethora of water sounds, hand percussion, and prepared piano in a soundscape that was abundantly varied yet never overly busy. While Gaeta thrives in a live acoustic, the New Focus disc has done much to capture its shimmering sonic magic.

Dale Trumbore: Snow White Turns Sixty (CD Review)

Snow White Turns Sixty
Gillian Hollis, soprano
Dale Trumbore, piano
Dissonant Gorgeous Productions CD/DL

In the call for scores for the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert, we were smitten with twenty-something West Coast (by way of New Jersey) composer Dale Trumbore’s music. We’re thrilled that her string quartet How Will it Go is going to be performed by ACME on the concert (10/25 at Joe’s Pub: have you reserved your free seat yet?).

My own enthusiasm for Trumbore’s work recently received further confirmation when her debut CD arrived in the mail. Snow White Turns Sixty includes three of Trumbore’s song cycles, all of them settings of contemporary female authors. The musical language is post-romantic in tone, peppered with reference points ranging from high brow musical theater such as latter day Stephen Sondheim to the lush art songs of Dominic Argento and Daron Hagen. Occasionally, as in the song “Hazel tells Laverne,” one encounters a breezy jazzy cast, similar in temperament to that found in the cabaret songs of William Bolcom (but written for Gillian Hollis’ high soprano voice). Hollis sings with great flexibility, and never allows the punishingly high tessitura of some of the songs to deter her from poise-filled musicality. Trumbore performs the piano parts with a pleasing, delicate touch and in supportive fashion. While the disc strikes me as more gorgeous than dissonant, it whets my appetite for more music from this talented emerging composer.

“For Milton” (Soundcloud) + new article

Below is a Soundcloud embed of the studio recording of “For Milton,” a duo for flute and piano performed by John McMurtery and Ashlee Mack. It will appear on a CD included in a special double issue of Perspectives of New Music/Open Space, dedicated to Milton Babbitt.

For Milton by cbcarey

PS You may have noticed that at the bottom of the page, there is a link to my Soundcloud page and a Dropbox link to share your own audio files. Please feel free to listen and to share your sounds.

In other publication news, my review article, “Arnold Whittall and the Perils of Transcontinental Serialism,” is in the current issue of Intégral, a music theory journal published by the Eastman School of Music.

Justly Blissed (CD Review)

Randy Gibson
Aqua Madora
Gibson, piano and sine wave drones
Avant Media CD

Composer Randy Gibson’s 50 minute long Aqua Madora, for sine wave drones and piano tuned in just intonation, is an exquisitely lovely piece. Gibson uses his studies of tuning systems, composition, and singing with LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela as a jumping off point – even going so far as to tuning some of the intervals (particularly seventh scale degrees) in homage to these masters of early minimalism.

As touching as this tribute is, especially at a time in which the importance of Young’s work is not nearly as widely known as it should be, Aqua Madora is not just about expressing gratitude for knowledge transmitted between teacher and student. In collaboration with Ana Baer-Carrillo and Dani Beauchamp, Gibson spent a long time refining this piece as a multimedia work containing film and dance.

One needn’t have these visual elements to enjoy the suppleness and subtleties of Aqua Madora’s music. Gibson’s play with intervals that sound “out of tune” to those accustomed to equal temperament is particularly sensitive. He allows the tangy appearances of these notes to color the drift of harmonic progressions and provide fascinating variants that add a tinge of the unexpected to scalar passages.


An aside: I wasn’t the only one in the house to be floored by the piece. Our tabby cat, Happy, comes running every time I put it on, and blisses out between the speakers. While I’m not trying to make a partisan statement in the temperament wars using inappropriate anthropomorphism, it’s worth noting that she seldom gets this excited by music in equal temperament!

Vicky Chow plays Ryan Francis (CD Review)

Ryan Francis

Works for Piano

Vicky Chow; piano

Tzadik CD 8080


Composer Ryan Francis (b. 1981) may have just turned thirty, but the Juilliard grad has already amassed a formidable hour plus of solo piano works. These compositions are featured on his recent Tzadik CD release. They are given energetic and laser-beam precise performances by pianist Vicky Chow, a similarly youthful artist best known for her work with the new music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars.


Chow is formidable in the Chopin inspired Consolations (2007), an imposing and hyperkinetic nocturne that features swirling cascades of overlapping accompaniment figures and hypnotic melodic figures. Another homage to the classical music canon, this time to musical “bird figures” referenced in Haruki Murakami’s book The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, is found in Francis’ similarly titled “Wind-up Bird Preludes” (2005). These works are more fragmentary, seeking to juxtapose birdcall motives rather than make them cohere. Thus, Mozart, Rossini, Schumann, and others are successively alluded to. All the while, the inevitable references to Messiaen cause this ornithologist—composer to serve as birdsong pater familias and master of ceremonies.


Even from the vantage point of an emerging composer just a little over a decade out of his teens, a work written when one is eighteen might be something to suppress rather than spotlight. But one is glad that Francis didn’t choose this route, preferring instead to include his set of aphoristic but abundantly attractive Moonlight Fantasy pieces on this CD. There’s a taste of Joseph Schwantner’s shimmering harmony alongside Francis’ already present penchant for brief contrasting sections, busily effusive rhythmic language, and authoritative dramatic contrasts.


Francis’ best work on the disc however, is a bit more recent and it is to date his most unconventionally constructed. In an updated version of Conlon Nancarrow’s punching of piano roles to create his studies, Francis worked away from the piano (not his usual writing practice) to create a set of Etudes (2008) using MIDI mapping. The results suggest that Francis should put himself outside his compositional comfort zones more frequently, as these are a dazzling group of pieces, incorporating facets of post-minimalism (“Loop”), electronica (“digital sustain”), and Stravinskyian ostinati mixed with Nancarrow-esque rhythmic canons (“Harlequin). What might Francis’ at this point conjectural but likely inevitable “Piano Works Volume 2” have in store for us? Judging by what one can hear in his music already, the sky’s the limit!

Ryan Francis: Works for piano performed by Vicky Chow by Vicky Chow

Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (CD Review)

Randy Newman

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Nonesuch CD

Randy Newman has gained acclaim for his Hollywood film scores, which deploy full orchestrations alongside his singing and piano-playing. His studio albums have featured similar instrumental line-ups, something that’s given his pop a classy sheen that’s served as something of an ironic foil for the ofttimes biting satire of his lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear the songs from Newman’s pop canon in a stripped down setting: you’ll hardly miss the strings!

In this, the second Nonesuch release on which Newman performs his best known songs solo, with only a grand piano for company, one learns or is reminded of, several things about the artist at this stage of his career. First, he’s still a mighty fine piano player, shuffling through mid tempo rags and drawing forth imaginative voicings in a style that may at times sound deceptively simple, but is anything but simplistic. A supple sense of timing is omnipresent, and Newman’s use of articulation and a wide dynamic range help to remind one of the instruments featured in the original recordings of these songs. Newman’s voice has always been a distinctive one; expressive rather than “pretty.” And if it’s lost a fair amount of the limited lilt it had when he was younger, and if a few high notes strain more than they used to, it’s still remarkable to hear the characters his singing calls forth, and the way that he can inhabit a song.

This CD’s been in the stereo quite a bit this summer. And one of the marks of its durability is the amount of times tracks have been repeated to get a second listen to a particularly fetching rendition. Those who suggest that Newman’s songbook has too many similar-sounding entries need to listen more carefully; there’s a lot going on above those shuffles; both musical and lyrical nuances. Hearing him perform the songs in this intimate setting underscores their vitality.