Archive for the “Concert review” Category
On Saturday, May 14, 2016 Microfest presented a concert of string quartet music at Boston Court in Pasadena. This is the latest in a series of concerts around Los Angeles featuring music created with alternate tuning. The Isaura String Quartet performed works by Kraig Grady, John Luther Adams, Gloria Coates and a world premiere by Andrew McIntosh.
Chippewayan Echoes by Kraig Grady opened the program, and this began with a smooth melody that started in the violins and was passed around and down to the lower strings. New lines were started and similarly shared, the various instruments weaving the melodies into a pleasing pattern. The harmonies were full and plaintive with perhaps a hint of sadness and solemn introspection. Chippewayan Echoes is a re-imagining of Native American melodies, as Kraig Grady writes in the program notes: “There is no attempt to produce an authentic historical rendition. Such a thing is not even possible. What is sought here instead is an emphasis on their melodic qualities that a translation to string quartet brings forth.” The piece is based on a single seven-note scale, with 7-limit just intonation. The result was a full sound, internally consonant and very smooth to the ear as played by the Isaura String Quartet. Chippewayan Echoes succeeds through the simplicity of its construction and the economical use of natural harmonic materials to impart a convincing encounter with primal sensibilities.
Tread Softly, by Andrew McIntosh, followed and this was the world premiere Tread Softly was written earlier this year for the Isaura String Quartet as a gift from the composer. This piece was originally envisioned as an etude for harmony in just intonation for string quartets, but ultimately became, as Andrew McIntosh writes: “…a small song with speech-like rhythms and miniature arpeggiated melodies.” Tread Softly begins with a sequence of soft tones coming from all the instruments and a bouncy feel – a bit like being on a boat rocking in a gentle swell. If the harmonies sounded a bit unusual, they were always agreeable. The second section sounded a bit more dramatic with some added tension in the chords. A pattern of alternating tones and single pitches prevailed and this produced some interesting harmonies. The last section was lush and flowing, with a settled, comfortable feel. Tread Softly offers a fine sampling of feelings and emotions, artfully expressed through just intonation
The Wind in High Places, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams was next, and this three-movement work sets out to sketch some of the more remote places in North America. The music of John Luther Adams is informed by his commitment to environmental causes and a long-time residence in his adopted state of Alaska. Above Sunset Pass is the first movement and the title refers to an isolated opening in the Brooks Range near the Arctic coast. This begins with high, needle-sharp tones in the first violin and sustained tones from the other strings, entering in turn, that evoke the sense of blowing wind in a mountain pass. The entire piece is played on open strings and this contributes a wide, expansive feel that adds to the feeling of majestic inaccessibility. As the pitches descend, inviting harmonies develop that are remarkable for their cordial warmth – the landscapes throughout this piece are never portrayed as harsh or inhospitable.
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On Saturday, April 2, 2016 the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for Rainforest IV, the landmark sound installation by David Tudor. Presented by People Inside Electronics and the Southland Ensemble, Rainforest IV filled the ample sanctuary and attracted a sizable crowd to witness the unique interaction between acoustic instruments, electronics and found objects. The world premiere of Other Forests, by Carolyn Chen was also heard, a work written especially for performance in conjunction with Rainforest IV.
The Rainforest IV (1976) installation consists of several stations, each with a series of found objects suspended from a framework made from small pipes, much like a tall coat rack. The objects varied in size, shape and materials – there was a piece of sheet metal about two foot square, metal bowls, plastic objects, a tambourine and a number of unstrung string instruments. Each object was fitted with a transducer that imparted vibrations from various recorded pitches and other sounds. Additionally, there was a pickup attached to each object and this transmitted the individual sonic response downstream to amplifiers and speakers – the idea being that each object was voicing an interpretation of the applied input as a function of its mechanical properties. The input signals to each found item could be rerouted – or several summed electronically – as needed during the performance. All of this was accomplished with a bewildering array of cables, connectors, analog amplifiers and speakers as based on David Tudor’s early circuits, specifications and schematic diagrams. Computers could also be seen as part of the installation – a more contemporary way to record and direct the signals.
In a 1988 interview, David Tudor explained the intent of Rainforest IV: “The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.”
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On Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, gnarwhallaby presented an evening German contemporary music in a concert titled DEUTSCHwhallaby. Four pieces were heard including a US premiere and the world premiere of Plainsound Lullaby by Wolfgang von Schweinitz.
The first piece was Stau (1999) by Steffen Schleiermacher and this begins with a sharp tutti opening followed by sustained tones and a second sforzando chord ending the phrase. The piano was then heard in its very highest notes with a rapid clicking sound. This sequence repeats several times, producing a feeling of mild vexation in the halting character of the piece as it inches forward. Stau is the favorite German term for traffic jam and anyone who has traveled the autobahn through a large city will have undoubtedly experienced this. As the piece continues some forward movement is heard – a solo from the clarinet and then in the trombone – but these are inevitably followed by a sudden piano crash – and we have come once again to a complete halt. The playing by gnarwhallaby was characteristically precise and powerful, and aptly reinforced the stop-and-go character of this piece. At one point the music moves ahead with an intense, driving beat and a bright, active feel – as if we have finally broken free of the stau – but this comes to an unexpected end, replaced by a sustained tone in the cello and soon we are back to the slower sequences. Stau is the perfect musical metaphor for that most infuriating of modern inconveniences: stop-and-go traffic on a freeway. The robust and accurate playing perfectly complimented the character and intentions of a piece that is fully attuned to the quintessential Los Angeles traffic experience.
D’avance (1996/97) by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf followed, and this was the US premiere. Starting with a sharp piano chord, this gave way to a series of light, rapid passages in the clarinet that were airily quiet, but soon gaining in volume. The piece then unfolded into an extended clarinet solo, ably negotiated by Brian Walsh, covering all possible combinations of changing dynamics as well as jumps in pitches and tempo. A complex tutti passage followed that was free of any unifying melody or beat, but effectively enhanced the mysterious and ephemeral flavor. A cello solo followed, as varied and disparate as that heard from the clarinet; and then more tutti passages, at times spiky with complex interweaving or smoother and more sustained.
D’avance proceeds with alternating solos and tutti passages, building in tension and always in a state of revision and transition. This music keeps the listener constantly in the moment, with no expectations raised and none delivered. It is never static but always changing – coherent yet unconnected. It is like walking in a dark forest where the shadows are continuously shifting and mutating into new forms inside your brain. Harmonies, when they occurred, never seemed intentional, but were instead transient and without pattern or repetition. A stark piano solo had a disconnected, jagged feel – full of short, complex phrases that subtly conveyed a sense of alienation. D’avance is a brutally difficult piece of music to perform and gnarwhallaby rose fearlessly to the challenge with a virtuosic display of their collective abilities. Devoid of beat, harmony and formal structure, but full of complex motion and kaleidoscopic textures, D’avance confronts the listener with elemental forces that are masterfully marshaled into a compelling musical perspective.
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On Saturday, February 27, 2016 Boston Court in Pasadena hosted the Los Angeles-based composer collective Synchromy and The Argus Quartet who performed no fewer than 9 works of new music including three world premieres. A nice crowd filled the Marjorie Branson space to hear a concert titled walkabout that featured narration, video projections and music from seven different composers inspired by place and surroundings.
The first piece on the program was Sabina, by Andrew Norman from A Companion Guide to Rome, a collection of nine musical portraits based on churches in Rome. As Norman writes in the program notes: “The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the churches, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for a year of living in the Eternal City.”
Sabina was performed on this occasion by Clara Kim of the Argus Quartet as a violin solo. This begins with a series of quiet whispers that evoke a light breeze or the wind whistling softly through the stone arches of a church. This builds gradually into some lovely notes and runs of sound that unfold to create a more active, complex texture. The playing becomes more animated through an interweaving of sounds – much like a tapestry of colored threads – but with an overall warmth and wistfulness that is very appealing. All of this was performed with great skill by Ms. Kim who kept everything balanced and moving crisply forward. Towards the conclusion the pace slowed and a series of singularly high, thin notes coalesced into what could have been a simple hymn tune to finish out. For those who are familiar with Norman’s orchestral works – full of power and fury – Sabina reveals a more sensitive compositional touch and is a beautifully sketched likeness of a charming subject.
Cloud Trio, by Kaija Saariaho was next and a brief spoken introduction by narrator Chelsea Fryer was given about the instrumentation prior to the playing of this piece. As quoted from the program notes: “In this piece, the three instruments all have different tasks and functions, they represent very different aspects of string playing. These tasks are sometimes very concrete: the violin tends to behave as an echo or reverberation, the viola creates new clouds next to the existing ones and the cello often has a function of a shadow to the upper instrumental lines.”
Images of clouds moving slowly across a blue sky were projected on the screen above the stage and Cloud Trio began with smooth, sustained lines from each instrument that produced some enchanting harmony. As the piece progressed there was a more active feel in the violin – almost like the falling of rain drops – and a rapid, complex intertwining of the parts. Over the four sections of this work each of the instruments rose to the top of the texture only to be replaced with another, and this produced a fascinating series of combinations. The volume, rhythm or complexity would increase and then subside, and the feeling was variously mysterious, lethargic or dramatic, as if a series of different clouds were drifting by. A captivating violin solo emerged just as the piece finished and the Argus players carefully drew out each of the nuances in this well-played performance. Cloud Trio is imaginative music that invites the listener to conjure up vivid atmospheric images.
The world premiere of funeral song for the people of the ruined cities, by Zaq Kenefick followed and for this piece the full Argus Quartet took the stage. This music is an exploration of what hypothetical folk music might sound like for a people who have lost their cultural memory after some long-ago calamity. A short narration preceded the start of this and an anxious trill in the violin opened the piece with a strong sense of foreboding. Tutti passages followed with a growling sound in the cello and strong strumming of the viola. There is a rough, edgy feel to this – all is unsettled and seemingly in chaos. Despite its short playing time, funeral song for the people of the ruined cities is an expressive and unnerving musical glimpse into the grim future of a people who must exist without a past.
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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.
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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.
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On Friday, January 22, 2016 the wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a diverse concert of electronic music by four groups of artists. A standing-room only crowd turned out for an evening of intense sounds created by computer algorithm, spectral analysis and traditional percussion. The room was filled with all kinds of amplifiers, speakers, mixers, patch panels and miles of cable. The four sets made for a varied program that challenged both the mind and the ear.
First up was PDRM, by John Krausbauer and David Kendall. According to the program notes this piece is “…constructed from a ‘just’ tuned, three-string electric guitar with real-time and algorithmic delay and spatialization processing.” Four large speakers were placed on the four corners of the completely darkened performance space that also included active strobe lights. PDRM began with a warm, droney sound from the bowed guitar, accompanied by a substantial bass line in the electronics, providing a solid foundation. The sound filled the room and the consistent texture immersed the audience in a congenial sonic wash. As the piece progressed the volume seemed to gradually increase and the tempo quickened slightly as well. PDRM is very powerful experience that takes control of the senses – there were occasional bass tones that were felt as well as heard. The complete darkness and compelling sounds command the listener’s attention; Krausbauer and Kendall might consider adding an aromatic component to their performances to further extend this sensual dimension. The steady drone and flickering of the strobes give PDRM a distinctly primordial feeling – as if the audience is gathered around some ancient communal bonfire, meditating together in a deep trance.
Next up was an improvisation by percussionist Ted Byrnes with William Hutson on accompanying electronics, and this marked their debut as a duo. Hutson operated an old school reel-to-reel tape machine fed with a ten foot loop of tape that stretched across the room and produced a steady stream of metallic clattering and crashes as well as what sounded like a barrel of broken glass shards being rolled across the floor. To this chaos Byrnes added his athletically active drumming with a variety of mallets and brushes on a standard drum kit along with a number of found objects. The rhythmic drumming formed a kind of counterpoint to the crashing tumult from the tape and this became an anchor for the ear. The piece took on an epic character as it progressed: the heroic drummer in combat with the forces of anarchy. This contrast was so effective that the listener often found himself rooting for the drumming to prevail. Byrnes was a constant blur of motion and activity, yet the continuous outpouring of the electronics added a helpful consistency to the texture, filling in for those times when Ted changed drum sticks or reached down to add a new object to his kit. There were quiet stretches, as when brushes were used on the drum heads, but overall the intensity and drama that emerged from this mix of electronics and drumming proved to be a winning combination. The addition of fierce electronics to the animated style of Ted Byrnes was inspired, achieving a new level of energy and excitement for this duo.
Cameron Shafii, the San Franciso-based composer was next, presenting a solo sound piece, part of a collaboration with Joe Gilmore that according to the program notes, “…transforms brass and string instruments by spectral analysis.” This began with a loud drum clap followed by exotic electronic tones that added a vaguely alien feel. The steady electronics were accompanied by a drumming rhythm, producing a sense of anxiety and mystery. The volume seemed to rise as the piece progressed and the drumming became more concentrated and powerful – at times the beats were felt as blows to the chest. The electronic sounds morphed into purer tones and a series of loud rumbles, like distant thunder could be heard. At one point the mood lightened and there were some lovely harmonies. The total darkness and the relentlessly increasing power soon restored the feeling of menace, however, and at times the sound overwhelmed the senses and verged on the painful. Cameron Shafii and Joe Gilmore have crafted a daunting listening experience that operates at the harrowing edges of human perception.
The last piece in the program was VRS, a project from Ellen Phan of Los Angeles who presented “…a new piece exploring modalities of experimental sound.” This piece deftly unpacked an eclectic variety of sounds – a loud buzzing, gongs, bells and the crash of smashing china. The pitches accelerated and became higher and more cutting even as the texture attained a sort of frenetic consistency. Voices were heard in an unintelligible scat singing and the electronic sounds assumed a bouncy, arcade-like feel. As the piece progressed a powerfully percussive hammering dominated, and this soon morphed into a nicely rhythmic groove. VRS is full of fast-changing textures that made for a refreshing wash of bright colors and energetic surfaces that agreeably filled the performance space and the listener’s ear.
Update on the wulf: The building has now been sold and the wulf is seeking new accommodations, although no schedule has been announced. Fund raising for the expected moving expenses has been successful and donations are still being accepted – see www.thewulf.org for details.
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On Tuesday, December 8, 2015 the first Green Umbrella Series concert of the season featured three Los Angeles-based string quartets: Calder Quartet, Formalist Quartet and the Lyris Quartet. Disney Hall was mostly full for the event, evidence of the strong following contemporary music has attracted by this concert series over the years. The music for the evening spanned works by John Cage and Christian Wolff to two world premieres and LA Philharmonic commissions from John Luther Adams and Tristan Perich.
First up was the Formalist Quartet performing Music for Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Originally written for prepared piano, this piece was arranged for string quartet by Eric Byers, cellist for the Calder Quartet. This opened with a flurry of pizzicato figures that nicely approximated the expected percussive jaggedness of a prepared piano. These irregular rhythms were soon supported with a soft, soothing undertone from the cello. This made for a good contrast and the piece took on an exotic, almost Asian feel. Some sharp rapping on the wooden parts of the string instruments along with some new pizzicato reinstated the rhythmic to prominence and also added a bit of mystery to the mix. Rhythmic textures alternated with smoother sections as the piece progressed. As played by a string quartet this new Byers arrangement of Music for Marcel Duchamp came across as finely drawn and delicate, with a quiet, contained feel – especially in the comparatively vast Disney Hall performance space.
The Calder Quartet followed with Edges by Christian Wolff, arranged by Chiara Giovando. This began with a high, thin sound in the violins followed by a solid pizzicato thump in the cello. More high, stressed sounds followed, adding a palpable tension. At times there were very soft – almost inaudible – sounds that focused the listener’s attention. At other times there were fast and furious runs full of thunder and drama, and at still other times slower, more harmonious stretches. Edges was notated by Wolff using a graphical score and this was skillfully interpreted for strings by Chiara Giovando. This outcome was successful in that there were a wide variety of individual textures and dynamics present that, combined with the precise playing of the Calder Quartet, made for a highly detailed and intricate experience taking the listener beyond the normal boundaries of string quartet music.
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On Saturday, November 21, 2015 People Inside Electronics presented the contemporary vocal chamber ensemble Accordant Commons in a concert at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. A Saturday night crowd of new music enthusiasts gathered to hear an evening of vocal music combined with electronics.
The first piece presented, “those remaining words in nuance”, by Chen-Hui Jen featured soprano Stephanie Aston who began with a soft sustained pitch, accompanied by electronics fed through speakers on the stage. More pure tones and vocalizing followed and this gave a vivid sense of multiple voices – Ms. Aston sang along in harmony and this was quite effective. “those remaining words in nuance” is based on two fragments of text in two different languages -Mandarin Chinese and English – with deconstructed phenomes from each used as vocalise materials The electronic sounds were derived from voice and synthesis of voices.
As the piece progressed, the electronics produced cooler, remote-sounding tones and the blending with the solo voice added a familiar human element. That the overall feeling was one of a curious strangeness, but free of anxiety. Ms. Aston skillfully found her pitches quite accurately and sang with careful attention to the often wide dynamic changes. Towards the end the electronics emitted a series of chirps and whistles that could have been whales calling and this produced a warm, natural feeling that drifted off to a whisper at the finish. The sense of ensemble in “those remaining words in nuance” is most impressive and provides a new benchmark in the artful combination of electronics and the human voice.
Improvisation was next and this featured the three voices of Accordant Commons: Stephanie Aston, Odeya Nini and Argenta Walther. This began with whistling and breathy sounds and was answered with low moans from the electronics. As the piece progressed soft, sustained tones from the singers mixed with tweets and calls in the electronics, building in volume. A series of falling pitches followed that morphed into thunder and a sharp shriek into the microphone faded into a low roar. There was an exotic and isolated feel to this, as if we were hearing the sounds of some foreign fauna in a remote canyon or valley. By the finish, more breathy sounds and low sighs drifted off into a thunderous background while squeaks and squeals added to the echoing ambiance. Improvisation takes us on a journey to a unique, primal landscape crafted from voice and sound.
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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.
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