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).
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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?