Composer William Mayer turned ninety this past November. On Friday December 11th, Ardea Arts has supplied him with a slightly belated birthday gift, and audiences with a treat, by presenting his one-act opera One Christmas Long Ago (1962).
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On Thursday, October 22nd at the new downtown New York venue the Sheen Center, an acoustically generous and attractive performance space, we heard the second of three concerts presenting selections from Anthony de Mare’s ambitious commissioning project Liasons: Reimaginings of Sondheim from the Piano. De Mare has recorded the 36 commissioned pieces for ECM Records, which has released a generously annotated 3 CD set of them.
De Mare is an ideal advocate for this music. His touch at the piano is at turns muscular, dexterous, and tender, well able to encompass the many demeanors the commissioned composers adopted when interpreting Sondheim’s songs. De Mare’s experience as a teacher (at Manhattan School of Music) was on display as well. Abetted by brief video interviews with a few of the featured composers, he gave short explanations of each piece from the piano. For the students and devotees of musical theatre on hand, these explications were no doubt an invaluable introduction to a number of composers and an integral part of the experience. For those of us familiar with the classical composers commissioned for the project, there were a number of anecdotes and musical details that revealed intriguing pieces of information about the genesis of the programmed pieces and their creators’ interest in particular aspects of Sondheim’s work.
With such an embarrassment of riches on display, it is difficult to pick favorites. For me, Ricky Ian Gordon’s take on “Every Day A Little Death,” from A Little Night Music, was truly lovely, and it was given a nearly impossibly gentle rendition by De Mare. Nils Vigeland’s imaginative version of material from Merrily We Roll Along was a standout: compositionally well structured, balancing thematic transformation with retaining a sense of the title tune’s “hummable” character. Phil Kline took material from a lesser-known Sondheim musical, Pacific Overtures, and made “Someone in a Tree” an especially memorable offering. Nico Muhly’s “Color and Light,” from Sunday in the Park with George, gave De Mare a motoric, post-minimal workout. In “Birds from Victorian England,” based on material from Sweeney Todd, Jason Robert Brown had the pianist playing with three overdubbed instruments, while Rodney Sharman’s “Notes of Beautiful” from Sunday, judiciously included playing inside the piano.
De Mare plays the final concert of the Sondheim triptych at Symphony Space on November 19th. Based on his performance at the Sheen Center, it is a “can’t miss” event.
On Friday September 11, 2015, the Curve Line Space Gallery in Eagle Rock was the venue for a concert titled Collaborations 1.1 featuring the works of Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim as performed by members of the Southland Ensemble. Stäbler and Shim, German experimental composers, are on a three-city tour of the US, sponsored in part by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and the Goethe Institute. Seven pieces composed between 1986 and 2007 were presented, ranging from conceptual works to those with graphical scores and standard notation. The warm evening and exquisite acrylic paintings by Sue Tuemmler complimented the amiable atmosphere present in the audience and the gallery.
The first piece was by Kunsu Shim In Zwei Teilen – I, and this was performed by violin, viola, cello and recorder. The first notes were barely audible – a light, high arco sound from the cello followed by about a minute of silence. A short chord from the strings and recorder was heard and then another long, soft tone from the cello. The combination of quiet sounds and long silences worked to focus the listening and the result was a sense of keen anticipation. More hushed tones from the cello followed and with a pleasantly dissonant final chord from the strings and recorder, the piece concluded.
Hart Auf Hart by Gerhard Stäbler was next and this had several performers scattered around the floor with portable radios and a graphical score consisting of bar codes overlaid by a grid of numbered coordinates. A series of numbers and letters were called out – much like a bingo game – the performers consulted their scores, and some began tuning their radios. The tuning proceeded fairly rapidly, and short bursts of voices and music were heard as well as loud static. The voices coming from the radios were fragmentary and did not add any sort of narrative. For some performers the score indicated silence, and the radio was turned off. The piece continued in this way, coordinates were called out at intervals and radio sounds were heard coming from different corners of the performance space. All of this produced an interesting texture, if not any definite form. The changing patterns and locations of the sounds produced an intriguing sense of space and movement for the stationary listener. Towards the end of the piece, the performers gathered around an open microphone and all of the radio sounds were now projected from a single speaker, flattening the previous sensations of distance and location. With a burst of loud sounds and static the piece suddenly ended.
The third piece on the program was Gerhard Stäbler’s ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ for piccolo, clarinet and violin. This was a conventionally notated piece that began with a dissonant tutti chord and gave off a feeling of remote loneliness. The piccolo played two alternating high notes and the others joined in similarly in their registers. The effect was like listening to a clockwork oscillating back and forth with a sort of familiar regularity. The coloring became more intense, adding a bit of anxiety. A sudden and almost painfully loud dissonant chord in the violin and piccolo disrupted the calm and captured everyone’s attention. There was a brief return to the more gentle feeling, but ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ ended on a second tense chord as if to underline the journey from the comfortable to the anxious.
Luftrand, by Kunsu Shim, followed and this was for violin, viola and cello. Soft, muffled tones – almost a whisper – were heard, followed by silence. The players began each passage together and the quiet chords had a mysterious and secretive feel. Everything was soft and tentative, with never a strong bowing action or loud note. The players exhibited good ensemble and a soft touch to produce the delicate sounds that felt like a series of quiet sighs. Midway through, the string tension on each instrument was reduced and this produced a new sound – less purely musical perhaps, but more evocative. The now-lower notes seemed to be enveloped in a thick fog that greatly added to the mystery. Luftrand with its subtle, muted tones invites a deeper and more rewarding concentration from the listener.
On August 27, 2015, the Locrian Chamber Players gathered on the 10th floor of Riverside Church to present a program of classical contemporary music. The Locrian Chamber Players set themselves apart from other contemporary music ensembles in two ways. First, LCP only programs works that were composed in the last ten years. Second, they withhold the program notes until the end of the concert, leaving the audience members with fewer distractions from directly engaging in the program. As one who often finds himself buried in the program notes, this approach was incredibly refreshing, and successful.
The program opened with Daniel Thomas Davis’ Thin Fire Racing, an art song for mezzo-soprano, piano, and clarinet. The work is a selection from Follow Her Voice, a set of songs based on Sappho’s Fragment 31, here translated into English. Mezzo Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek’s performance matched the fiery intensity of both Sappho’s text and Davis’ setting. While clarinetist Benjamin Baron and pianist Jonathan Faiman expertly supported her, both were also given moments to shine.
To offer a change in mood, the second piece on the program was Shafer Mahoney’s Shining River. This duet was played by flautist Catherine Gregory and harpist Victoria Drake. In contrast to Thin Fire Racing, Shining River is calm, pensive, and deeply internal. Gregory’s long, lyric lines complemented the gently bumping harp to create the image aptly suggested by Mahoney’s title.
Another Ecstatic Opening Out by Victoria Malawey received its New York premiere. For this piece, violinist Keats Dieffenbach and cellist Kristina Cooper joined Gregory and Drake. The interesting textures and timbres Malawey creates within the ensemble are striking. The sounds of the flute blend almost seamlessly into the violin and then further from violin to cello. A pizzicato cello complements the steady churn of the harp, with Cooper’s timbre seemingly growing out of the colors of the harp.
The first half of the program concluded with Mei-Fang Lin’s Mistress of the Labyrinth for solo piano. In contrast to the melodic and lyrical pieces presented before it, Mistress of the Labyrinth is rough and aggressive, with a dissonant and pointy harmonic language. The piece is labyrinthine, expansive and winding, never fully revealing to the listener exactly where it is leading.
The second half of the concert opened with Cantico dell creature by Caroline Shaw. Another very old text, this piece is a setting of an Italian text by St. Francis of Assisi. While the lengthy text did yield a substantial piece, Shaw’s setting did much to offset the formulaic nature of Assisi’s poetry.
For the finale, Cooper and Dieffenbach were joined by Baron, violinist Anna Lim, and violist Daniel Panner in Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne. The omnipresent falling motive that opens the piece creates a sense of perpetuity. As the piece builds and intensifies, it almost seems to exist outside of time. As most of the thematic detail seems to develop and open up upon itself as the piece progresses, in a fascinating way, listening to this piece feels much more like the expansion of the a single moment, the meticulous inspection of a single detail, than a large-scale progression over a long period of time.
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RighteousGIRLS will be celebrating their new disc gathering blue with a release party at Joe’s Pub at 7 P.M. this Friday, August 7th. Flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi will, of course, be there to throw down with their exciting and inventive program and they will be joined by Kendrick Scott & Andy Akiho as well!
RighteousGIRLS collected an exceptional collection of genre-blending works using flute, piano, electronics, guest performers, improvisation, and all the things that make today’s contemporary music engaging and exciting.
A video of Pascal Le Boeuf’s piece GIRLS as well as audio of Andy Akiho’s KARakurENAI can all be found on the gathering blue site.
The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.
Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.
Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”
Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.
Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.
The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.
About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.
This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.
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If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.
While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.
Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.
On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?
Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.
In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.
When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
While I was in Ireland a week ago, I had the honor of speaking to composition students at the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music & Theatre. It was a great chance to spend two hours talking about myself…
“It’s kind of odd making a powerpoint presentation about yourself,” I opened to absolutely no laughs or even smiles.
I guess starting off with a joke didn’t work afterall. It really was an honor though. It was fun to tell my story and how I approach composing. I’m always interested in how others work and (perhaps selfishly) I enjoyed discussing the music that I’ve been so lucky to write.
I presented a number of different pieces, including my masters thesis, First Flight. At approximately 13 minutes in length, First Flight was my first successful wind ensemble work. And at 13 minutes in length, it was 47 minutes shorter than the theses written by everyone sitting in front of me. “We have a requirement of at least one hour of music.”
One hour of music. That’s four times the size of my thesis. So that should mean 60 minutes of intelligent, artistic and quality music, right? This lead me to the question, does size really matter?
Ok, well if you know me you know I love Mahler. He’s the king of long-winded composition. Even when I speak of my love for Mahler, I think of specific moments I love. In the monumental 3rd symphony (being honest here), I love the final movement. That’s 30 minutes, not an hour, I could care less about the “bing, bong” part. I love all of the 10th Symphony, but technically the Adagio was the only movement finished. Ok ok ok, I love the 9th Symphony. The opening is so lush and by the time you get to the end it’s just so magical…by the time you get to the end.
Ok, let’s put Mahler to the side for a moment. What music do I love that takes at least 60 minutes to get through? Planets? Wagner? Symphonies? Daphnis & Chloe? No, I love the moments more: Jupiter, finale of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 and obviously Lever le jour, obviously. I would say an opera or musical doesn’t count in this instance because there are so many small sections that make up the whole.
Now some of you will say, “Well Tim, it takes going through the full hour long piece to recognize the importance of the moments.” Yes, you’re right. I think, or are you?
Let’s avoid discussion of how we’re “all ADHD” and can’t focus for an hour of music. My question is should we?
Remember that the requirement is for the composition to be at least 60 minutes in length. Can a composer write a concise and fully intelligent piece in 60 minutes? Yes, we have seen it in the past, (there are many great long works) but can the composer do it without meandering all over the place? Do composers need to be boasting about how big their composition is, or should we celebrate the ones with less girth that get the job done?
Downtown Los Angeles was the venue on Monday, May 4, 2015 for a concert by Michael Pisaro and Graham Lambkin – marking the release of their new CD, Schwarze Riesenfalter, on Erstwhile Records. A standing-room only crowd packed into the Wulf to listen to an atmospheric mix of guitar, keyboard, percussion and recordings.
The concert consisted of a single work based loosely on the text of Summer, a short poem by Georg Trakl that begins:
The twilight stills the lament Of the cuckoo in the wood. Deeper bows the wheat, The red poppy.
A black storm threatens Above the hilltop. The ancient trill of the cricket Dies in the field.
A recording of bird calls, some indistinct voices, and a loud piano crash began the piece, establishing a mood that was at once outdoors, dark and primal. The soft clanging of a gong was heard and the roar of a crackling campfire increased in volume along with vaguely menacing voices – it was as if some sort of ceremony was taking place deep in the wood. The voices faded and the solitary piano notes became warmer and welcoming as a sense of natural balance emerged. Graham Lambkin reached inside the piano, sounding one of the lower strings that morphed into a low groan. A sudden, sharp rapping on the piano case and some taut notes added a new layer of tension. Michael Pisaro rose from the piano bench and took up his electric guitar – a buzzing drone was heard along with a few loud pops – it was as if the instrument and the electronics were synthesizing the fire heard previously.
The piece proceeded with a sense of lurking jeopardy from the recorded voices and the scratchy sounds from Graham Lambkin’s processed violin, offset at times by a strong but calming melody in the guitar. This sense of contrast carried the piece forward – oscillating between a low, simmering anxiety and a more organic wholesomeness. At length Pisaro put down his guitar and took up the small gong, circling the performance area and filling the air with soft, contemplative sounds. Splashing water was heard and some light notes from Graham Lambkin at the piano mixed with the gong in a pleasantly airy amalgam. The recording now issued what sounded like someone walking through a thicket, and it was as if the woods were filled with benevolent spirits.
New notes from the piano shifted the mood to a decidedly darker tone and the gong was replaced with finger cymbals that added a sense of uneasiness even while maintaining a mystical feel. A low drone appeared, followed by a recording of sustained harmonica tones, some clicks and pops – all accompanied by the moaning voice. The piano, played once again by Michael Pisaro, sounded a series of somber notes and whirring sounds were heard, enhancing the darkness and mystery. This took on a dreamlike quality and the sounds of falling rain added a sense of sadness. The rain increased – a definite downpour now – as the piano continued with its sorrowful melody. The sound of wind arose in the recording and some whistling by the performers increased the palpable sense of loneliness. A recording of the piano theme previously heard was played through a tiny speaker placed center stage, and this small, ghostly sound seemed to haunt the performance space as it quietly faded away. The brief sound of footsteps in a corridor concluded this highly atmospheric and evocative work.
The playing was integrated seamlessly with the various recorded passages – and kudos to Pisaro and Lambkin who had to manage all the technology and move about on a completely darkened stage. The recordings and live playing were artfully synchronized and yet the whole seemed to be greater than the sum of the individual parts. The playing and the recordings both were necessary to complete the entire picture so vividly painted by this piece. The experience drew in and captivated the audience, who responded with sustained applause at the conclusion.
The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.
The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.
The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.
The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.
Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.
The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.
Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage. Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.