Ensemble Signal – Shelter (Review + Video)

Ensemble Signal’s Cantaloupe recording Shelter, a collaboration between David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, has been creating a great deal of hubbub throughout the classical music world. Small wonder – the creators are three of the biggest names in the downtown scene, synonymous with the Bang on a Can All Stars and with myriad other projects to their name. Ensemble Signal has proven their mastery of a wide swath of repertoire. One need only look at their discography, which readily attests to their versatility, from their recent Lachenmann disc on Mode (another stunner of a recording) to 2011′s live from LPR CD Glassworks (Orange Mountain).

But, in addition to the fulsome creativity of a triumvirate of Downtown leaders and  crackerjack instrumental playing, there’s another very important ingredient that makes Shelter such a potent project: the singing. Sure, at first glance one might think that a cohort of three sopranos is not the most overwhelming vocal cast to assemble: but the sopranos in question are another formidable team. Mellissa Hughes, Martha Cluver, and Caroline Shaw (winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music) sing splendidly here. Together the trio create a sumptuous blend. They thread sinuous lines in seamless counterpoint, and know exactly when to lean into tangy dissonant collisions that occasionally burst like ripples to the surface of the music. Recommended.   


RIP Ray Manzarek (1939-2013)

Best known as the keyboardist for the Doors, Ray Manzarek
crafted some of the most memorable organ and electric piano parts in Rock history. He passed away today at the age of 74; the cause of death was cancer. Below is video footage of him performing one of his signature songs, “Light My Fire,” live with the Doors.

Grab some PoMo Ears: Listening to Kahane at Carnegie

Gabriel kahane

Recently, the Awl published an interesting article about one of the challenges concomitant with the crossover success of artists such as Gabriel Kahane: what happens when fans of your more pop-infused material try to listen to your concert music? In a sort of Socratic dialogue, one such listener, Jaime Green, questions an anonymous “classical music expert” about challenges posed by the sounds, milieu, and investment of time, money, and attention required of listeners by the concert music experience.

These are questions asked by a lot of listeners, and not just new ones either. But I get uncomfortable when one work or composer on a single concert is supposed to stand in for the contemporary concert listening experience. Most listeners have pieces of music they prefer over others: if you happen to be at a concert that contains a work that you don’t particularly like, one would hope that it wouldn’t cause you to foreswear  concert-going altogether.

Another bugbear that rears its head in the article: the words “consonance” and “dissonance:” Nearly all music, except those genres which studiously avoid them, contains moments of tension and repose. But so often, that’s not what dissonance and consonance entirely mean when used as descriptors by the untrained listener. Frequently employed both in the reportage of audience members and, alas, much music criticism, these terms are seldom applied in anything but a very general way as placeholders for “pleasant” and “not so pleasant.”

Thus, the dissonance described by Green in the Awl article isn’t necessarily about using more “angst-filled” harmony. Green gets why that is there in pieces she has already heard: early Schoenberg and Stravinsky. So, there may be a component of harmonic dissonance that Green struggles with in Kahane’s concert piece, yes. But perhaps there is a bigger problem: one of context. That dissonance doesn’t make sense when it bumps up against the pop songs, albeit sophisticated pop songs, that were her introduction to Kahane’s music. Moments of Kahane’s concert music evoke the pop flavor of his songwriting, but then the music goes a different direction, gets more “dissonant.” There are issues of narrative – thus disjuncture rather than harmonic dissonance – that pose perhaps even greater listening challenges than some crunchy chords.

Maybe, for Green, dissonance works better in Verklarkte Nacht and Sacre du Printemps because it is cohesively integrated into the piece: a modernist approach. Listening with “Stravinsky ears” or expectations, never mind “Mozart ears” or expectations or “Kahane as pop musician” ears or expectations, poses challenges when confronting 21st century concert music, even when that music is of the crossover variety. By juxtaposing “consonant” and “dissonant” sections in postmodern fashion, Kahane might be (and, I suspect, is) trying for something different from Verklarkte Nacht altogether.

Expecting to “get” postmodern amalgams like those found in the concert works of composers like Kahane, especially on the first pass, is a heavy goal to set for oneself. I hope that Green gives it time and keeps listening. She’s asking a lot of good questions and I bet she, and other listeners, need more time than they think to get acclimated to contemporary concert music, with its different set of sound worlds and often different approaches to musical narrative. But it is worth it: there are many ways that contemporary concert music can complement and enrich the other styles with which one is already acquainted. Those things that seem dissonant and discontinuous now may make much more sense after a few more trips to Carnegie Hall (or any classical venue) and a fair bit of Last.fm scrobbling or Spotify sleuthing. If Green, or other readers for that matter, would like playlist suggestions, I’m happy to supply them. I won’t even stipulate anonymity.


Tonight in NYC: Too Many Shows …

A multi-borough installment of “Too Many Shows” today. Hope you can catch one of them.

Talea Ensemble and Ekmeles give the US premiere of Beat Furrer’s FAMA. (Details here).

“C4 and Friends:” C4 Ensemble joins forces with MATA and Contemporaneous for a performance at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Works by Toby Twining, Ryan Brown, Bryce Dessner, and several C4 members. (Details here).

The Queens New Music Festival kicks off its series with a concert combining music and dance. (Details here).

ICE presents a Composer Portrait concert of the music of Julio Estrada at Miller. (Details here).

Guest post: Gavett on Beat Furrer’s FAMA …

We are pleased to share Jeffrey Gavett’s post about notational issues in the music of Beat Furrer and Timothy McCormack, originally posted on the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble’s blog. This Thursday and Friday at Bohemian National Hall in New York, Ekmeles joins forces with the Talea Ensemble in the US premiere of Furrer’s FAMA (details here).  

Preparing the vocal ensemble parts in Beat Furrer’s FAMA has been an athletic physical challenge, and a catalyst for a lot of thinking about music, notation, and the voice. The score to this work is in the composer’s hand, which is becoming less and less common. The ubiquity of Sibelius and Finale have led to most scores being computer-engraved, including scores from major publishing houses who used to go through the painstaking and difficult task of literally engraving music for composers:

Now it is often the composer herself who must submit a score to the publisher, fully edited and formatted in the software of her choosing. For the composer and publisher, computer-engraved scores allow for easier corrections, re-formatting, and extraction and transposition of parts. For the performer, they allow for a standardized legibility that a composer rushing to meet a deadline may not always provide.

I’ve found myself becoming deeply engaged with the visual aspect of scores lately, what with our recent Augenmusik program. Each of the scores from that program has a unique visual world it inhabits, immediately presenting something of the work to the performer. On the other hand, the standardized default computer-engraved formatting of scores can lead to a homogenous visual presentation, which completely ignores the way that a musician will take in the score. While Furrer’s hand is not always as immediately legible as an engraved score, I think it has something to show us about the music. It is angular and sharp, with blocks of repetition across the page. The hard angles of Furrer’s flags and stems seem to communicate the precision with which the rhythms are to be executed. The time-saving device of writing in repeat marks for literal repetitions of measures also serves to illuminate their structural nature.

Perhaps this attraction to hand-written scores is nothing but nostalgia for a craft gradually being left by the wayside, but I think there’s something to the human connection it makes. In the same way that even a scrawled letter can communicate more than a double-spaced Times New Roman printout of the same text, a hand-written score can be a more intimate connection to the composer than a default Sibelius/Finale engraved score can. That isn’t to say that computer engraving precludes communication and individuation of a composer’s visual personality – many tech-savvy composers are doing incredible things with computer engraving.Timothy McCormack for one has managed to bend some notation software to his will to a remarkable degree, displayed in the score excerpt below, from his Mirror Stratum for contrabass clarinet and cello: