Sequenza 21: The latest CD of your compositions, Liminal on Divine Art, features three works, a short orchestra piece, Shoreline Rune, Liminal, your Fourth Symphony, and Prism, an older work for organ. How did you decide on this grouping?
Carson Cooman: A number of recordings of my music have been released, and the music on them has been grouped and organized in different ways, depending on the repertoire at hand. For this release, I wanted to try a “mini-album” (shorter length than a full CD and priced accordingly). So the symphony was the main affair, and then I chose two other pieces that would serve as a sort of prelude and postlude. I remember Lutoslawski said that he settled on his characteristic large scale form (short introductory movement followed by a main movement) because he felt there was too much information to digest for a typical listener in a traditional four movement symphonic structure. In a somewhat related way, I wanted to do an album where instead of lots of pieces competing to fill up the 80 minutes of time there was just one main piece and then two shorter pieces to take the listener in and out of it. I was grateful that Divine Art was open to doing this. Shoreline Rune was written as a birthday gift for Judith Weir, and then Prism was an organ piece from more than 10 years earlier, which I chose simply because I felt its mood worked as a postlude to the symphony.
S21: Judith Weir is the dedicatee for Shoreline Rune. How do you know Weir and which of her pieces would you recommend to listeners to get to know her work?
CC: I studied with Judith Weir for a year in college, and it was a remarkable and inspiring experience. While I had quite positive interactions in different ways with other teachers, I’ve often felt that I gained more in that short time with her than I did in all the other years of formal study combined. For my taste, you can’t really go wrong with digging into her output. And like so many British composers, she has pieces for all purposes: from major concert works for the world’s best orchestras to easy pieces for amateur congregational singers. This versatility of purpose is something I greatly admire and strive for myself, and for various reasons, it’s been far more common in the 20th/21st century in UK composers than in other countries.
But in terms of a few specific Weir pieces that are personal favorites: Her first big opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera, is a masterwork. The orchestra piece The Welcome Arrival of Rain is quite moving. And there are so many exceptional chamber works: I Broke Off a Golden Branch and the Piano Concerto being two personal favorites. Chamber music is a particularly good fit for her sensitive, transparently luminous musical aesthetic.
S21: Your Fourth Symphony is about climate change. What made you decide to respond to this global issue in symphonic form? Are you feeling either Adams breathing over your shoulder?
CC: I use the term symphony simply to imply that a piece is inspired by a “big subject.” Thus, the five pieces (four for orchestra and one for organ solo) that I’ve given that title all have different big topic inspirations. However, I really don’t see these pieces as “grand statements” that try and sum anything up—and certainly not in any truly cosmic way. They are much more akin to writing a personal essay (or a long Facebook post!), just reflecting and expressing in some way my own thoughts. And, in some ways, writing the pieces on those subjects (whether or not one believes music can express anything concrete) is just a way to help me organize and work out what I think. I get itchy around “grand statements,” which in the right hands can be remarkable experiences, but the arrogance of which they often smack personally doesn’t sit well with me.
My decision to use climate change as the inspiration for the symphony came simply after several years of thinking, reading, and personal processing about the issue. Certainly when writing any environmentally connected piece of music today, John Luther Adams’s presence is inevitable. I think it’s wonderful that in spite of its “experimental” roots, his work has in the last few years really entered the classical mainstream. I think what my pieces do and how they are put together are rather different from JLA, and while my piece does also have a climate/environmental inspiration, it’s a different work than Become Ocean is, for example.
As for the other Adams (John Coolidge), I’ve also heard everything he’s written, and there are many pieces that I greatly enjoy as a listener, but I don’t think much from his style has had an audibly direct impact on what I write. I think partially it’s because his most characteristic devices are now so instantly recognizable as his. I hear those influences very audibly in a number of composers today, and that’s totally fine—in a sense they are working in their own way in a new post-John Adams tradition. But just as a personal choice, I don’t want to use his devices so directly.
S21: Organist Erik Simmons has been one of your staunchest advocates. How did you come to work with Erik and what is it like writing for another organist?
CC: I’ve been very fortunate that my organ music has been well-received and played by many fine organists, but Erik has taken to it to a degree that goes above and beyond. He’s recorded four full CDs of my organ pieces so far, with several more in the works, including a double disc set of all my organ pieces inspired by pre-baroque genres. It’s not officially a “complete organ works” project, though in the end it will probably be close to that.
In my own organ performing, from time to time I’ve had this experience myself where I almost compulsively want to play and record as much as possible by a particular composer. Erik’s work with my organ music has been a bit like that, and I’m just experiencing it now from the other direction, which is very flattering. Our work together has also generated a number of new compositions, all of which he has recorded beautifully.
In terms of “writing for another organist,” that is always what I’ve done. None of my organ music is written for myself. I never play my own pieces, unless somebody specifically asks me to do it. The main reason is that, as a player, I enjoy most the sense of discovery and exploration of repertoire, and I already “know too much” about my own music, having spent lots of time writing it in the first place. Composition and performance are two different impulses for me, and I get different kinds of satisfaction out of them.
S21: Your own activities as an organist have included a considerable amount of commissioning, performing, and recording. Tell us about your most recent recording projects as a performer.
CC: Relating to what I said above about a kind of compulsive obsession, much of my recording activity the last few years has been devoted to the work of several composers: Thomas Åberg (Sweden), Carlotta Ferrari (Italy), and Lothar Graap (Germany). In all three cases, I’ve recorded CDs and also a large number of additional works for online/YouTube.
Lothar Graap has been the focus in 2015. Born in 1933, Graap spent most of his life in the former East Germany (DDR), and because of that, his work was not widely known outside until the 1990s. Several pieces were published internationally by the state publisher in those decades, including his Meditationen (Meditations) (1968), which I think is one of the true organ masterworks from those years of East Germany. Since 1990, Graap has published old and new pieces with many publishers in Germany, and his work is now widely used within that country. However, it is still little known in the USA, and my recording project was conceived partially to address that.
I really like his music; its very German aesthetic is appealing to me, since a French influence has become all-consuming and pervasive in 20th/21st century new organ music (in all countries, including the USA). There isn’t a French moment in Graap’s music, and I thus enjoy working with something that is different from so much of what one usually hears today in new organ literature. As a fine organist himself, Graap writes music that is beautifully conceived for the instrument; much of it is very well suited to the small and medium size organs that are my personal favorite kinds of instruments. Much as I enjoy hearing the whole spectrum of organ music in the hands of other players, my own personal tastes tend to gravitate towards organ music with a strong neo-baroque aesthetic, but re-imagined through the lens of the present era.
Much of my recording activity in 2015 has been devoted to Graap’s work. This summer, I released two CDs of his music and have also recorded some 75 additional works online. There are a still a number more that I want to do before I’m done with this project. Since we’ve begun this project, he’s also written a few new pieces for me which I’ll premiere in 2016.
In addition to those three composers, I’ve also (in smaller quantities) continued to perform and record works by many other contemporary composers as well. At last count, I’ve recorded organ works of more than 225 different contemporary composers since 2012.
As the organ editor for Lorenz Publishing Company, I am also simultaneously developing and commissioning new organ publications from many composers, covering the entire spectrum of organ literature: from pieces for part-time church organists to recital literature.
S21: You are an uncommonly prolific composer. My composition students often ask me how forebears such as Bach or Handel wrote so much music. While writing in many genres and styles, how does a composer in the Twenty-first century find their voice?
CC: Since the late 19th century, a romantic/post-romantic paradigm seems to have become the norm in terms of how one conceptualizes an output and body of work. This even true for people whose music has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with romanticism as an aesthetic or style. But the notion that one writes primarily big pieces (and fairly few of them) is something that has stuck with us in contemporary concert music circles. I think it’s this inheritance that makes it hard for many composers to think about the kind of productivity that was the norm in earlier eras (and not unheard-of from certain composers in the early 20th century either).
My own thinking is in many ways more like that of pre-romantic eras. I’m a professional composer, and so I write music to the best of my ability when I’m asked to do so: whether that be for professional orchestra or amateur chorus. The “great artist” ego has little appeal to me. I’ve always been relatively prolific, and I’ve found in my own experience (and with many of my friends and colleagues) that we all have different paces at which we work, and trying to change that pace is not going to be effective. You simply have to find your own musical metabolism and learn to produce the best work you can that way. No actual teacher of mine tried to make me write less, but when I was a student other people advised it, based on their own (slower) pace. There was nothing to be gained by that, however, as it simply wasn’t the way that I worked. It ultimately made no more sense than it would make for me to try and force somebody who writes really slowly to produce a lot more just for the sake of doing so.
But of course, I can’t escape that post-romantic aesthetic inheritance entirely. For example, I do make a conscious effort not to repeat myself and not to accept commissions/projects where I think the result might be just be a lesser version of something I’ve already done. Because I was born in 1982, I worry about things like that. If I had been born in 1682, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind! When people criticize Vivaldi (not really true, of course) for writing the “same concerto over and over again,” the notion that doing something like that would have been somehow “wrong” would have been rather foreign to him. But because I live when I do, I can’t escape entirely the milieu and aesthetic in which I came of age musically.
In the end, I just try and do the best work that I possibly can in the manner that has come to be my way of doing things. Each person needs to find for themselves what that method and pace is.
Comments Off on Composer Carson Cooman (Interview)
English composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies died on Monday, March 14th 2016. At the age of 81, Davies passed away in his Orkney home. The cause of death was leukemia. In 2004, Davies was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
Farewell to Stromness is one of Davies most popular works for solo piano. The piece is a piano interlude from his work The Yellow Cake Revue, a work he created for the campaign against the proposed uranium mine on the Oakley Isles.
In this recording of his Symphony No. 7, Davies displays his skills as both composer and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
(This is an expansion of an earlier post for a concert ultimately postponed due to snowstorm Jonas in January)
Augustus Arnone performs a double bill of Milton Babbitt’s solo piano works including the complete Time Series, at Spectrum, Sunday March 6, at 12-5 pm (12 and 3:30)
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of his major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2008. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread over three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. Due to a postponement caused by storm Jonas in January, Arnone is performing the second and third concerts in one afternoon this weekend!
The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). Arnone’s performance also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording. This much constitutes concert II, the first half of this Sunday’s double bill, which starts at 12 noon.
In the final concert (concert III) which starts at 3:30, Arnone presents a variety of works spanning nearly all of Babbitt’s professional career, from the mid 1940s through the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Tutte Le Corde (1994) represents Babbitt’s most streamlined and ingratiating late style, which is a nice inclusion for the final recital of the series. On this recital we’ll also be treated to some of Babbitt’s wittiest and pithiest: Minute Waltz (1977) and It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), which are perhaps the only Babbitt works to clearly project rhythms associated with a familiar genre. It Takes Twelve to Tango leaves us unsure whether to imagine a single 12-legged Argentinian dancing spider or a communal square dance gone dodecahedral! Either way, brilliant sparks fly from these eccentric collisions of tradition and avant garde.
Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1947), the earliest work in the series, is to my ears the closest Babbitt ever came to neo-classicism, its first movement being a clean perpetuum mobile and its second movement a veiled tribute to Schoenberg’s expressive piano textures. While Duet (1956) is the closest Babbitt ever came to a lullaby, his Semi-Simple Variations, of the same year, is perhaps his jazziest jaunt on the ivories, an adventure amusingly exploited in the Bad Plus and Mark Morris Dancers’ adaptation.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete without Babbitt’s most uncompromising trailblazing Partitions (1957) and Post-partitions (1966). Nowhere is his engenius originality more startlingly on display than in these works. In Partitions in particular, the activation and deactivation of various high, low, and middle registers of the piano guides the listener through an uncanny but navigable maze of contrapuntal intricacy.
Between the two concerts, at 2:30, will be an interview-discussion between me and Indiana University composer-theorist Andrew Mead, a former student of Babbitt’s at Princeton and author of the acclaimed book An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994, Princeton University Press) and many articles. This will also be an opportunity for questions from the audience. Whether you’ve been merely curious about Milton Babbitt’s music and legacy, or are already a long-time follower, this is an opportunity to spend part of the afternoon in the good company of Babbitt’s music and its admirers.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concerts II & III
Sunday March 6, concert II at 12 pm; pre-concert discussion at 2:30; concert III at 3:30.
$20, $15 (Students/Seniors) for each concert or $30/20 for both concerts.
On February 16, 2016, Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert of Cold Blue Music artists in the lively Koreatown district of Los Angeles. A good crowd came out to hear music by Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, Michael Byron and Peter Garland. Three premieres were heard including the world premiere performance of In the Village of Hope by Michael Byron.
The first piece, Vocalise (1979), by Michael Jon Fink, was for piano and performed by the composer. This opened with series of quietly beautiful notes, like the melody from a simple hymn and unfolded with the spare elegance that is the hallmark of Michael Jon Fink’s compositions. The warm acoustics of the cozy Monk Space – with brick walls on three sides – allowed for an extra long duration and decay of the sustained notes, adding to the sense of serenity. Vocalise is not a long piece, but contains all the essential elements of peaceful sensibility that informs this composer’s music.
From a Folio (2013), also by Michael Jon Fink followed, and for this piece of seven movements cellist Derek Stein joined the composer, again on piano. Each of the movements are compact and variously declarative, quietly powerful, unsettling, questioning, solemn or even sorrowful. Sustained cello passages were often set up by a series of simple piano notes or chords, a contrast that proved to be very effective. At other times a soft call and answer pattern between the cello and piano prevailed. The subtle touch on the piano was complimented by the sensitive playing of Derek Stein who discerned the quiet intentions of this work perfectly. The graceful consistency of these seven movements give From a Folio a notable sense of tranquility combined with a satisfying cohesiveness.
The world premiere of In the Village of Hope (2013), by Michael Byron was next, performed by harpist Tasha Smith Godínez, who commissioned the work. This is an ambitious piece, full of constant motion but with an engaging and exotic character. It has a soft, Asian feel and the steady patter of notes fall like raindrops in a warm tropical shower. A light melody in the upper registers is joined in masterful counterpoint below, and the piece glides delicately through several key changes as it continuously unfolds. Listening to the Cold Blue recording of this piece one imagines that the harpist would be a great flurry of motion – but the technique of Tasha Smith Godínez in this performance was superb; her graceful fingers never seemed hurried or her movements labored. The tones from her harp were clear and strong; the lively acoustics of Monk Space made them almost seem amplified. A drier acoustic environment might have served to bring out the intricate texture more clearly. Michael Byron, who was in attendance, admitted to a certain trepidation when he turned in the imposing score, but Ms.Godínez never asked for any changes or modifications and proved more than equal to the task in this performance. In the Village of Hope is a profoundly impressive work, in both its vision and realization.
Eminent composer, college professor, and Lutoslawski scholar Steven Stucky has died, aged 66. The cause was brain cancer. Below, listen to one of his beguiling works, the Notturno movement from Serenade for Wind Quintet.
On Friday night, February 5, 2016 a good crowd braved the dreaded 101 freeway closure to travel downtown to Art Share LA . The occasion was …until… the first concert of 2016 for wasteLAnd music, marking the third year they have offered programs of new and experimental music in Los Angeles. Four pieces were performed – including a premiere – each incorporating traditional acoustic instruments accompanied by electronics.
Scott Worthington was the double bass soloist on …until… #10, by Santa Barbara-based composer Clarence Barlow. This was the premiere performance and the inspiration for the concert title. …until… #10 begins with a steady electronic tone from a large speaker and this was joined by Worthington’s double bass. A series of moderately fast notes streamed out from the bass in repeating phrases that featured slight variations in the pattern of pitches and rhythms, but no overarching gestures or development. The notes were confined to the higher registers and none of the familiar deep, woody tones of the bass were heard. The mix with the electronic sound was quite complimentary, the warm tone from the speaker nicely filled up the nooks and crannies of the faster passages coming from the bass. Transient harmonies of bass notes against the electronic tone momentarily appeared and vanished, adding to the intrigue. There is a bright, bubbly optimism to this piece, effectively conveyed by the almost child-like melody. This pattern continued as the work progressed but the slight variations in rhythm and the sequence of the notes kept the listener actively engaged. …until… #10 is a masterful combination of simple electronics and refreshingly uninhibited musicality that envelops the listener with a cheerful buoyancy.
This was followed by Ilhas, by d’incise and this consisted of four snare drums with a player assigned to each along with a small, hand-held speaker. The speakers were placed face down on the drum heads, which were prepared with upturned plastic cups or boxes as well as other found objects. Soft electronic tones were heard and the speakers actuated the drum heads to produce a very light drum roll. The result was a pleasantly calming effect, like hearing an organ prelude in a soft rain. The electronic tones were sustained for a few seconds at a time, and the players adjusted the position of the speakers to achieve different effects. The speakers were moved from the center of the drum to the edges and at times the speakers were covered by the plastic cups or a box to concentrate and direct the energy to the drum head. The drum tension was adjusted and occasionally the speakers were lifted up slightly to vary the timbre and intensity of the drum head response. There was no scoring for this – it was up to each player to find the best place to maximize the various effects. Matt Barbier, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Scott Worthington were all effective in drawing out subtle differences in timbre and texture. Ilhas is an understated yet engaging work that is both inventive and surprisingly tranquil, given that it is performed with four snare drums.
Next was Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM, by Jessie Marino. And this was performed by Cory Hills with a single snare drum and lamp stand. The room was completely darkened and the piece began with a sharp rap on the drum followed by a short flash of bright light from a single lamp – and then a few seconds of silence. This sequence was then repeated. The sudden sound and bright flash of light was quite startling – the loss of visual references in the total darkness sharpened the senses and when the sounds and flashes occurred, it multiplied the effect. As the piece progressed the sequence changed so that the lamp flashed before the drum was heard. The beginning section invited your brain to associate the light and the sound together so when the light flashed first, the effect of the sound was that much more alarming. The feeling was reminiscent of a thunder storm at night – a flash of lightening closely followed by a loud thunder clap. Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM is an dauntingly instructive demonstration of the power of sensory conditioning on ear and eye.
The final work on the program was untitled three part construction by Michelle Lou, who is the featured composer for the current season of wasteLAnd concerts. For this Justin DeHart and Cory Hills were seated at desks containing a number of mechanical objects and one tape recorder. Matt Barbier and Scott Worthington shared a music stand, with muted trombone and double bass, respectively. Low, rough notes from the amplified double bass opened the piece while the trombone added a series of sharp repeating notes. Mechanical clickers were heard and more mechanical electronic sounds came from a speaker. As the clicking and clacking continued, ratchet wrenches were applied to stationary bolts and twirled backwards, introducing a light metallic ringing to the texture that added to the impression of being inside some sort of operating machine. At times, smooth tones from the bass made for a nice contrast with the clatter; at other times all was continuous rattling, commotion and roar. The feeling, however, was one of virtuous and industrious intent, free from any trace of malice.
About midway through the piece there was a sudden, measured silence, followed by a high pitched note from the double bass, as if hearing a siren at a distance. Knocking and scraping sounds ensued from the electronics, adding a distinct feeling of anxiety. The siren tones increased and the trombone added a deep growling sound. A piece like this invites the listener to create a story around the sequence of sounds – was that the drone of bombers overhead? The thud of bombs falling in the distance? The clicking and knocking increased and the tape recording added more anxious sounds. The double bass and trombone added a few rugged low notes and exited the stage. The tape increased its intensity and finally became disconcertingly chaotic before a sudden silence concluded the piece. untitled three part construction is a marvelously creative combination of sounds and musical tones that invite the listener to inhabit the unfolding drama of one’s own invention.
The next wasteLAnd concert, titled point/wave, will be on February 26, 2016 at Art Share LA.
On February 12-14 and February 19-20, ECCE Ensemble premieres Switch, a new opera by my friend and colleague composer John Aylward. Directed by Laine Rettmer and conducted by Jean-Phillipe Wurtz, the piece features two vocalists: soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and bass-baritone Mikhail Smigelsk. The project is part of ECCE’s year-long residence at Le Laboratoire,a new multimedia space in Cambridge that combines visual arts, music, the sciences, and even olfactory stimulating exhibits.
To whet your appetite, below is a video of Aylward’s Ephemera.
WHAT: World premiere of the contemporary opera Switch
WHEN:February 12-14+ February 19-20 at 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Le Laboratoire, 650 East Kendall Street, Cambridge, MA,
T: Red to Kendall Square
TICKETS: $40/$20 Students.
To purchase, contact Le Laboratoire at
617.945.7515 or visit LeLaboratoireCambridge.com
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).
Comments Off on Ardea Arts Celebrates Christmas … and William Mayer
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.