Archive for the “Concert review” Category

southland1On 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.

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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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pie20Saturday, July 25, 2015 at Boston Court, People Inside Electronics presented Man on a Wire, a concert of new music featuring pianist Aron Kallay.  A capacity crowd filled the Branson performance space to hear eight pieces incorporating electronics, piano, keyboards and acoustic instruments.

The first piece was Four Roses (1997) by Annie Gosfield and this was written for cello and de-tuned keyboard. Aron Kallay played the electronic keyboard and Maggie Parkins, cello. According to the program notes “Three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the ‘A’ string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura creates microtonal intervals between the open ‘A’ string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave.” This opened with stark, scratchy sounds from the cello that soon coalesced into a pleasing pizzicato groove while the keyboard added short, metallic notes that provided a good contrast. This order was then reversed, with long, sustained tones coming from the cello while the keyboard fashioned a melody from riffs of 8th notes that worked nicely against the smooth background. The cello then embarked on a slow, dreamy solo and when the keyboard entered again there was an added sense of tension that persisted through a brief revisiting of the opening theme. A sudden ending concluded the piece. Four Roses ably incorporates unconventional tuning into an engagingly listenable piece that was artfully performed.

Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke followed. This piece is for piano and fixed media and was performed during the May, 2014 People Inside Electronics concert in Santa Monica. A new video by Katherine Guillen was commissioned for this latest performance. Get Rich Quick was written shortly after the 2008 market crash and is a playful look at the fragility of our financial system. It begins with sounds of the frenetic bidding of a trading floor and the ringing sound of a coin spinning. A loud, scary piano crash follows, and a chilling melody is heard while a shower of falling coins is seen in the video. The dark melody builds in volume and tension as fragments from 1960’s-era commercials are seen extolling the virtues of consumer debt and stock market speculation. Phrases like “Debt is part of American life!” and “Investing is easy!” are heard while visions of conspicuous consumption are seen. Images of charts and currency tables are especially vivid in parts of this new video, with movement and bright colors that dazzle the eye. The music becomes increasingly ominous as the video narration turns suddenly righteous – “Pay those bills!”, “There’s no free lunch!”, and finally “Get out of Debt.” The video concludes with more falling coins and a music box melody of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Get Rich Quick has lost none of its relevance and the playing of Aron Kallay perfectly fit both the video and the musical message.

The next piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things (2015) by Jason Heath and this was for piano, violin and live electronics. Originally written specifically for the Villa Aurora performance space with five channels of audio, this Boston Court version was realized in stereo. Aron Kallay was at the piano and Shalini Vijayan played violin. The piece began with a lovely sustained tone from the amplified violin that was unusually deep and rich. The piano entered, but in an unexpected way. Aron Kallay was seen to be drawing a length of fishing line – or perhaps some thin wire – across one of the lower piano strings. The sound this produced was both exotic and profound, like some ancient Asian stringed instrument. When combined with the violin, the result was calm, soothing and meditative – a wash of warm tones without need of rhythm. A high, soaring violin line added a brightness and color and this was joined by several piano notes, struck now from the keyboard, breaking the spell. The violin became more active and piano chords added a new energy and movement to this middle section. At length the sounds of water lapping at a lake shore and a soft whispering were heard, adding an element of mystery. The violin played a soft solo of low, sustained tones and soon the piano joined with more notes bowed with the wire line, returning to the serenity of the opening. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is a beautifully transcendent piece that draws a surprising elegance from very simple sounds. The playing in this performance was equal to the task, delivering a delicate, introspective quality that precisely matched the music.

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synchromy717Friday night July 17 and Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert titled Music From Text presented by Synchromy, the Los Angeles-based composers collective. Brightwork newmusic was the featured performing group and a sell-out crowd gathered for an evening of contemporary music based on the spoken word.


Breathe by John Frantzen began the concert and this performance was the world premiere. Breathe is based on a poem written by composer’s brother about the trials, hardships and relationships as experienced in military life. In the program notes John Frantzen states that the music “strives to frame these words of support, honor and camaraderie in a journey of love, loss and enlightenment.” The piece began with a short section of the text spoken by a narrator followed by high-pitched bird calls and some bowing of the strings that suggested a lonely breeze in a far away place. The sound of a distant snare drum effectively evoked the military setting. The soprano voice of Justine Aronson was heard and the generally unsettled character of the passages in the strings hinted at the stress and confusion that is present in wartime. This was also portrayed by two actors on the stage whose movements intentionally suggested the strong bonds shared by soldiers in the field. At length the music gave way to a slow, dirge-like unison that was very beautiful. More dramatic action followed, ending in a sudden silence and the spoken word ‘breathe’. The viola and cello again took up the sorrowful theme and this was especially moving, even as the snare drum recalled the military context of what was fundamentally a story about relationships. Frantzen was able to draw a surprising amount of emotion out of the small musical forces in this piece. Breathe is a powerful work that captures both the anxiety and deep emotional attachments that are the essential elements of a soldiers life lived in harm’s way.

The next two pieces on the program were both based on text by Tao Lin and were played consecutively. The text of the first of these was taken from the poem I will learn to love a person and the music by Christopher Cerrone bore the somewhat expansive title I will learn to love a person and then I will teach you and then we will know. This began with spoken text followed by gentle tones in the vibraphone and clarinet. The entrance of Ms. Aronson’s lyrical soprano voice added to the delicate, airy texture and carried the melody forward by weaving in and around the vibraphone line. The dynamics here were carefully observed, adding an extra element of vividness to the realization. This piece agreeably reflects the calm character of the poetry and, as Christopher Cerrone states, “In writing these pieces, my hope is to create a work that reflects the strange and beautiful experience of growing up at the turn of the (21st) century – and will continue to have meaning after that moment passes.”

A declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder by Jason Barabba followed the Cerrone piece without pause. This was played by a viola, cello and contrabass trio and started with a high pizzicato in the viola and some fast dissonant passages in the lower strings. There was tapping on the wooden parts of the instruments and this added to the feeling of a distant uncertainty as the anxiety mounted in a series of running phrases in the bass, viola and cello. Rapid running of the fingers up and down the strings produced a series of soft, unworldly screeches that added to the tension. This music is also based on the poetry of Tao Lin, but provided a fine contrast with the serenity of the previous piece. Jason Barabba writes that “Because this work is a reaction to a complex and provocative poem, I’ve chosen to take advantage of some of the more unusual techniques that have been introduced for these instruments.” These were deployed with good effect and the string players managed everything quite smoothly. The piece briefly turned warm and dark, but held to the tension of the preceding sections. The fast and turbulent finish was fittingly taut and mysterious. The playing of a declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder was well matched to the writing of the music and these combined to persuasively express the composer’s intentions.

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ICE1The International Contemporary Ensemble – ICE – was one of the featured groups performing at the 69th Ojai Music Festival. On Friday, June 12, 2013 ICE presented a varied concert of virtuosic pieces at the gazebo in the center of Libbey Park. A good-sized crowd turned out to hear the ICE artists play traditional acoustic instruments artfully combined with amplification and electronics.



Dan Lippel was first with Electric Counterpoint, a piece for guitar and tape by Steve Reich. The music was immediately recognizable as classic Reich and bubbled along with a satisfying groove. The playing by Dan Lippel here was seamless with the tape and the sound reinforcement system seemed to be up to the task of projecting out into the open spaces of the park. The recorded bass line was particularly effective when present and there was all the energy typical of the music of Reich. The piece unfolded in several sections that were variously festive or a bit more introspective, but all consistently active and upbeat. This was the perfect opening piece for the afternoon and the audience was visibly pleased.

This was followed by Jennifer Curtis and David Bowlin performing Apophthegms, a piece by John Zorn for two violins. This was very different and surprisingly complex music, with fast runs, flurries of pizzicato and unexpected changes in direction. Quiet passages followed loud sections, and fast, complex sections were followed by softer and more uniform stretches. Some of the quiet parts had a decidedly sinister feeling and a creaking sound from the violins added to the tension. The amplification, for the most part, worked in favor of the instruments although there were times when very soft segments were lost in the ambient noise of the park. As the piece concluded, a faster and more animated feeling took hold as the two violins weaved wonderfully bright and complex patterns that shimmered to the finish. Apophthegms is a virtuoso piece in every respect – from both a composing and performing standpoint.


Rebekah Heller was next, playing Concatenation, for bassoon and electronics by Rand Steiger. This began with a low rumble of notes that seemed to be re-processed for echo and delay and then sent to the speakers – this nicely increased in density as the playing continued. The sounds soon came in rushes with great clouds of notes pouring out over the audience. There were also slower sections where the sustained bassoon tones and electronics gave a distant, lonely feel that contrasted well with the busier stretches. These sounds were pleasantly matched to the backdrop of oak trees and shrubs, perfectly at home in the woodsy surroundings. As bursts of notes echoed away, it was as if the music was receding back into a forest. The sound also seemed to move from left to right at times, giving a convincing sense of motion and movement. A low trill accompanied by some futuristic electronic sounds at the conclusion gave the impression of a flying saucer rising rapidly upward, taking off and leaving the earth behind. Rebekah Heller’s performance – played with out a score – was a triumph of energy and concentration and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

Nuiko Waddenh followed with Polvere et Ombra a piece for solo harp by Suzanne Farrin. This began with a series of rapid arpeggios, fast notes and a low strumming sound that gave a somewhat darker edge to the piece. There was a sense of rapid movement and velocity throughout and a series of sharp, furious chords that were expertly delivered. Towards the end the feel of the piece turned a bit lighter, but still mysterious, becoming very quiet at the finish. The amplification was both necessary and precisely applied to allow the naturally soft harp to be heard in the open spaces of the park.

San, by Du Yun, a piece for cello and electronics was next, and this was performed by Katinka Kleijn. Ms Kleijn took the stage clad completely in black and wearing a white mask. A large bass drum, equipped with a foot pedal, was situated next to her chair. The piece began with low, scratchy tones from the cello and several solid strikes on the bass drum gave this a very Asian feel. Some higher knocking sounds coming from the electronics – and the white mask worn by Ms. Kleijn – added a strong sense of ceremony and ritual to this. As the piece progressed there were complex, layered sections that alternated with slower and more somber stretches. There was a sense of struggle woven throughout and as the piece concluded the percussive sounds in the electronics and the striking of the bass drum conjured images of a violent battle. The complex playing, the combination of electronics, a bass drum and the wearing of the mask were all smoothly handled by Ms. Kleijn who delivered a spirited and drama-filled performance.

ICE2Next was a piece by Mario Diaz de Leon, Luciform, for flute and electronics. This was performed by Claire Chase and began with some light trills and rapid runs from the flute with a kind of low roar in the electronics that seemed to be moving slightly in pitch. This soon became very complex in the electronics with the flute supplying a series of fast repeating phrases. The pace slowed and the flute took up a low, dark melody while the deep roar returned to the electronics, producing an overall sense of menace. As the piece continued the electronics became very active and the volume increased, as if sending a warning. The tension increased in the somber flute, evoking a melancholy sense of pervasive alienation and the piece concluded with a frenetic finish. Luciform was another instructive example of how electronics and solo instruments can be artfully combined given good writing, playing and sound engineering.

The final work on the program was Rock Piece by Pauline Oliveros and this was performed by all the ICE musicians. They began in front of the audience, each with two smooth ocean rocks, striking them together more or less randomly. There is not supposed to be a common beat or volume in this – your brain actually works to find rhythms and counterpoint from the perceived sounds. As the players fanned out into the audience, the sounds of the striking lessened and became more diffuse. The players slowly returned back to their starting point and the sounds again became more distinct. The outdoor acoustics ultimately worked against the hearing of this and the one piece in the concert that was performed without electronics seemed to suffer the most.

This concert by ICE provided a lively and forward looking series of pieces that featured exceptional playing and impressive writing that skillfully combined the strengths of acoustic instruments and electronics.

Photos by Bonnie Wright (used with permission)

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Ojai100The 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.

Ojai300This 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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rvh10The Dog Star 11 series of new music concerts continued on Sunday, May 31, 2015 at The Wild Beast performance space on the campus of Cal Arts. Reinier van Houdt, coming all the way from the Netherlands, was on hand to perform Green Hour, Grey Future (2014/15) by Michael Pisaro. An attentive audience sat quietly in the sun-splashed Wild Beast as the 73 minute-long work for solo piano and electronics gracefully unfolded.

The title of this piece comes from a poem by Susan Howe titled “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” The third section of that poem, “Taking the Forest” contains these lines:


Eve of origin Embla the eve
soft origin vat and covert

Green hour avert grey future
Summer summon out-of-bound shelter

The line “Green hour avert grey future” suggested to the composer a long, gradual transition from the vibrant green of the living present to the “grey” uncertainty of a distant future. Michael Pisaro writes: “So my idea was to take this hour for the piano and have it tilt ever so gradually from green to grey in its own particular fog-like way.”

The piece proceeds in a series of seven minute units that gradually increase in density, although in an artfully indirect manner that includes tone sequences, harmony, melody and loudness. The death of Mark Trayle, a close friend of the composer, also added a solemn dimension to the concept of transition in this work. Green Hour, Grey Future is dedicated to Reinier van Houdt and written in memory of Mark Trayle.

The piece opens with a single sustained piano note in the lower register. There is a pause, and the same note repeats twice more, followed by a longer pause. The note repeats twice again but this time with a bit less space between. After a somewhat shorter pause, the same note was repeated three times and a soft electronic matching tone was heard from the speakers. The electronic tone was sustained and smooth, although binaural beating could be heard at times – and the piano was silent.  A long stretch of silence then concluded the sequence.

The opening sections proceeded in this way, with the opening piano note or notes rising in pitch and the matching electronic tones typically increasing somewhat in volume. Soon three or more notes and were played consecutively, followed by the electronic humming and another long pause of silence. The feeling was peaceful and calm, but anticipatory – like waiting for a distant signal. The slowly unfolding patterns in these early sections worked to focus the attention of the listener, and each new sequence seemed to add another piece to an emerging picture.

Very gradually the piece increased in complexity – a chord might be heard, or there were two or more consonant electronic pitches sounding together. The number of notes from the piano increased to something like a series of short phrases and finally becoming a steady stream. The piano and electronic tones now overlapped while the tempo – although never rushed – became incrementally faster. The piano notes, now played in the middle register, began to weave around the electronic humming in the background to produce a wonderfully warm mix of melody and sustained tones.

At this point a low percussive pinging sound was heard from the speakers turning the mood noticeably darker. The piano melody also took on a disconcerting feel as the louder, percussive electronics contended for attention in the foreground. This gloominess, however, gave way as pitches in the piano and electronics rose briefly to more optimistic levels. Bell-like tones from the speakers and a light tinkling sound added a mystical feel.

Before the warmer feel could fully establish itself, however, a solitary low starting note from the piano and a sustained low humming in the electronics recalled the beginning of the piece, now with a touch of menace. The piano sequences seemed to meander and drift while a low, rough rumble from the electronics overwhelmed the texture at times. This combination continued along for several minutes with the electronics clearly predominating. In the latter sections of the piece the piano continued its quiet, uncertain melody while the sounds of running water, birds, rain drops and the roar of an overhead jet were heard from the speakers. The piano notes finally slowed, and the piece came to a close.

In the course of 70 minutes, Green Hour, Grey Future carefully unfurls its beguilingly slow transition from spare simplicity in the opening, through a warm optimism in the middle sections and into the fog of an indeterminate future at the close. The electronics and piano were nicely matched in this performance, with the colors and moods most vivid in the middle sections. Reinier van Houdt, whose cool temperament and formidable powers of concentration combine so well, played this piece to perfection. A look at the score afterwords showed the sequences of notes on the staff marked with the timing in minutes, and Reinier used a stopwatch at the keyboard to mark his way through the piece.

Reinier van Houdt was planning to stay in California for a few more days so that a recording of this piece could be made. Watch for Green Hour, Grey Future – it will be worth a listen.

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HV10The Dog Star concert series, sponsored by Cal Arts, is a Los Angeles cultural landmark that features new music in a number of venues around town over the course of some 18 days. On Saturday, May 23, 2015 the Happy Valley Band arrived from Santa Cruz to present a Dog Star concert at the Wulf along with the group Desert Magic. A standing-room crowd packed into the smallish venue for an evening of original rounds and a high-powered experimental transcription of “the Great American Songbook heard through the ear of a machine.”

Desert Magic opened and presented several pieces from their upcoming CD A Round The Sun. Alex Wand, Steven Van Betten and Logan Hone played variously guitar, percussion, saxophone and all sang vocals. All of their music is in the form of a round and draws small vignettes about everyday topics and events. Some of the lyrics heard included “blood moon selfie”, “I was born under the desert sun”, “howl at the moonlight” and “the battery in the camera died and I saw a real sunset”. There was even a a piece whose patter was built around “Dog Star” and this drew some knowing laughs from the audience. The blend of guitar and vocals had a pleasant, folk-like feel and the round form produces an engaging texture. A variety of simple percussion elements brought out the beat, and added to a pleasing groove. The singing was often in harmony and perhaps Desert Magic could have wished for better acoustics, but the audience was generally charmed by this performance. Desert Magic is releasing the music from their CD on the solstices and equinoxes of the year 2015.

The Happy Valley Band followed, comprised of piano, two violins, electric guitar, two saxophones, electric bass and drum kit – various combinations of these instruments were employed for the different pieces performed at this concert. According to the program notes “ the ensemble plays transcriptions of popular music classics, made through a process of machine listening and sound analysis.” This is a massive oversimplification – the processing of a classic pop tune involves three major stages: audio separation, pitch plus rhythm analysis and symbolic notation generation. According to David Kant’s website the process proceeds as follows: “ First, the original audio recordings are separated into individual instruments using signal processing tools. The separated instruments are then translated into raw note on and off data through pitch and amplitude analysis. Finally, the raw note data is transcribed to music notation.”  The end result is a computational rendering of what the machine has perceived within the recorded music, and this is translated into a musical score and performed for humans to hear. An excellent technical summary of the entire process appears here.

The first piece played by the Happy Valley Band was It’s a Man’s World by James Brown and is a good example of how all the processing actually sounds. It began with a frantic series of runs by the two violins, with loud entrances quickly following by the drums, bass, guitar and saxophone. The notes from the players come in sheets as an overwhelmingly complex texture, but at the same time the voice of James Brown was heard singing the familiar tune – a kind of cantus firmus that anchored the listener against the whirlwind of rapid variations. The rhythms of each instrument sounded independent – the players followed their scores using the pulse from the sung lyrics and not from a formal beat, but this only added to the originality of the sound. Not surprisingly, the pitches and harmonies always felt connected to the familiar tune, being derived from the same materials.

The drums, bass and electric guitar, especially, pushed the volume up to hard rock levels and this nicely complimented the source material. The organic complexity in the playing was reminiscent of the music of Brian Fernyhough and the use of pop classics as a starting point provided a reassuring measure of accessibility. The volume and high energy level brought a sense of spectacle that quickly captured the attention of the audience. The sheet music for each piece ran to dozens of pages, and these were tossed off the stands by the musicians and fell to the floor in great white heaps.

A number of pieces were played including You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin, Suspicious Minds (We’re Caught In a Trap) – the Elvis standard, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and several others. The soulful music always worked well and Suspicious Minds was surprisingly powerful, especially the chorus where the saxophones produced an outburst worthy of Coltrane in his late free jazz period. The music seemed to come in waves, washing out over the audience in great surges like some primal force.

The Happy Valley Band has created a very appealing mix from the most unlikely elements – highly complex music played at rock band decibels and fashioned from the pop classics of the past.

The Happy Valley Band is:
Alexander Dupuis (guitar),
Conrad Harris (violin)
Pauline Kim Harris (violin)
Beau Sievers (drums)
Andrew Smith (piano)
Mustafa Walker (bass)
David Kant (saxophone and arrangement)

Special Guest: Casey Anderson (saxophone)

The Dog Star 11 concerts continue through June 2, 2015 at various venues around town.

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Pisaro15Downtown Los Angeles was the venue on Monday, May 4, 2015 for a concert by Michael Pisaro and Graham Lambkin – marking the release of their new CD, Schwarze Riesenfalter, on Erstwhile Records. A standing-room only crowd packed into the Wulf to listen to an atmospheric mix of guitar, keyboard, percussion and recordings.

The concert consisted of a single work based loosely on the text of Summer, a short poem by Georg Trakl that begins:

The twilight stills the lament
Of the cuckoo in the wood.
Deeper bows the wheat,
The red poppy.

A black storm threatens
Above the hilltop.
The ancient trill of the cricket
Dies in the field.

A recording of bird calls, some indistinct voices, and a loud piano crash began the piece, establishing a mood that was at once outdoors, dark and primal. The soft clanging of a gong was heard and the roar of a crackling campfire increased in volume along with vaguely menacing voices – it was as if some sort of ceremony was taking place deep in the wood. The voices faded and the solitary piano notes became warmer and welcoming as a sense of natural balance emerged. Graham Lambkin reached inside the piano, sounding one of the lower strings that morphed into a low groan. A sudden, sharp rapping on the piano case and some taut notes added a new layer of tension. Michael Pisaro rose from the piano bench and took up his electric guitar – a buzzing drone was heard along with a few loud pops – it was as if the instrument and the electronics were synthesizing the fire heard previously.

The piece proceeded with a sense of lurking jeopardy from the recorded voices and the scratchy sounds from Graham Lambkin’s processed violin, offset at times by a strong but calming melody in the guitar. This sense of contrast carried the piece forward – oscillating between a low, simmering anxiety and a more organic wholesomeness. At length Pisaro put down his guitar and took up the small gong, circling the performance area and filling the air with soft, contemplative sounds. Splashing water was heard and some light notes from Graham Lambkin at the piano mixed with the gong in a pleasantly airy amalgam. The recording now issued what sounded like someone walking through a thicket, and it was as if the woods were filled with benevolent spirits.

New notes from the piano shifted the mood to a decidedly darker tone and the gong was replaced with finger cymbals that added a sense of uneasiness even while maintaining a mystical feel. A low drone appeared, followed by a recording of sustained harmonica tones, some clicks and pops – all accompanied by the moaning voice. The piano, played once again by Michael Pisaro, sounded a series of somber notes and whirring sounds were heard, enhancing the darkness and mystery. This took on a dreamlike quality and the sounds of falling rain added a sense of sadness. The rain increased – a definite downpour now – as the piano continued with its sorrowful melody. The sound of wind arose in the recording and some whistling by the performers increased the palpable sense of loneliness. A recording of the piano theme previously heard was played through a tiny speaker placed center stage, and this small, ghostly sound seemed to haunt the performance space as it quietly faded away. The brief sound of footsteps in a corridor concluded this highly atmospheric and evocative work.

The playing was integrated seamlessly with the various recorded passages – and kudos to Pisaro and Lambkin who had to manage all the technology and move about on a completely darkened stage. The recordings and live playing were artfully synchronized and yet the whole seemed to be greater than the sum of the individual parts. The playing and the recordings both were necessary to complete the entire picture so vividly painted by this piece. The experience drew in and captivated the audience, who responded with sustained applause at the conclusion.

Schwarze Riesenfalter is available from Erstwhile Records. Excerpts can be heard at SoundCloud.

Photo by Ethan Swan (used with permission).

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lapqFriday night, April 10, 2015 and Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles was the venue for a concert titled I Hold The Lion’s Paw featuring the The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. A knowledgeable crowd gathered to hear four pieces of percussion music that included a world premiere.

The first piece on the program was Mallet Quartet (2013) by Joseph Pereira, written for two vibraphones and two marimbas. Pereira writes about this piece: “Each pitch is considered on its own as a scale, of many timbral particles waiting to be examined. For the most part the focus is on the resonances, the attacks, and the overtones. Whether it is the playing technique used or simply the natural sounds of the instrument, these can all be exposed and manipulated in different ways, depending on the register they are in.” The metallic sounds of the vibraphones and the more organic tones from the marimbas provided a rich set of contrasts and possibilities that were exploited throughout this piece. From the very first chord that came crashing down from the stage there was the immediate sense of ‘many timbral particles’ flying through the air. The feeling was like being inside a bipolar grandfather clock with metallic clangs and twinges intermingling with wooden knocks and rapping. Rapid and independent runs from each instrument added to the general cloud of sounds that alternated between a metallic, industrial hardness from the vibraphones and a more comforting, natural sound from the wooden marimbas.

There were quiet stretches and these had the feeling of being in a dark basement full of active industrial piping off in the distance. At other times the tutti crescendos that increased in tempo as well as volume produced an energetic, industrial feel – but without becoming overwhelming. A variety of mallets were used to create a series of changing effects and textures from each instrument. Joseph Pereira’s experience as principal timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is embedded in the sinews of Mallet Quartet – the techniques for extracting just the right sounds and colors were masterfully scored and in this performance carefully executed.

Lullaby 5 (2013), by Nicholas Deyoe, followed and for this the stage was reconfigured with four percussion stations having, variously, marimbas, vibraphones, drums, cymbals and other assorted percussion. This began with a light tapping on a snare drum and then cymbals followed by a sharp report from a drum. Some bowed sounds were heard, a flurry of loud percussion, and then a quiet stretch. A mysterious feeling predominated in the softer spots and carried forward a growing tension that was periodically discharged by loud tutti drum rolls and cymbal crashes. The piece progressed this way with slowly rising levels of stress broken by sudden surges in volume and energy. A drum stick drawn over the surface of a cymbal was especially effective in one of the quieter places. The louder sections were vintage Deyoe, who demonstrated that he can bring his characteristic intensity and frenzy to a percussion piece. Lullaby 5 is reminiscent of Lullaby 4 – written for cello, trombone, clarinet and piano – and comprised of the same tension/release pattern heard here. Lullaby 5 is an exacting exploration of strong feelings along these same lines, proficiently expressed by the LAPQ.

The Year Before Yesterday (2013) by Shaun Naidoo was next. The program notes state that “Naidoo’s use of rhythm, form and melody creates a gorgeous and singular sound-world that truly expands the existing percussion repertoire. … This work was among the last that Naidoo completed before his early and unfortunate passing in 2013.” Scored for marimbas and vibraphones The Year Before Yesterday begins with low trills that lay down a nice bass foundation followed by a series of single notes that generate a feeling of building tension. We are walking deep into a dark forest, and the crescendos and decrescendos add a sense of adventure to the journey . There are stretches of syncopated melody that add energy and movement as well as slower sections – as if we are resting from our trek, surrounded by the sounds of the forest. The Year Before Yesterday is a marvelous sonic exploration of an unknown place, powered by percussion and our imagination.

After an intermission, the final piece of the program was the world premiere of I Hold The Lion’s Paw (2013-2014) by Andrew McIntosh. For this there were two percussion stations center stage and one each in the right and left balconies. The piece began with single notes struck on bowls at all four stations followed by chime tones. There was a sense of being surrounded by the sounds and an overall exotic feel. From time to time water was added to the bowls, raising their pitch and this became something of ritual throughout the performance. The vivid imagery and sustained sense of motion and movement evoked a kind of sojourn, as if we were walking along some strange path. At times it felt as if we had arrived at some fantastic, yet dangerous hamlet – the mix of percussion changing towards chimes, bells and cymbals – and a great flurry of sound that felt orderly and civilized. At other times it was as if we were caught outdoors in a violent storm, complete with sheets of rain and loud claps of thunder.

I Hold The Lion’s Paw is a large-scale piece and, as Andrew McIntosh quoted in the program notes: “To summarize Morton Feldman, the form of a piece of music over 20 minutes or so in length ceases to be concerned with structure and instead is about strategy. There is a point in any long piece where you lose an emotional connection to the shape as a whole, and the piece then becomes about the moment-to-moment flow of experience and memory.” If the journey was long – and it seemed as if we had circled around and revisited a place or two – the sounds were always interesting and the variety engaging. The spacing of the percussion stations between stage and balcony was used to good advantage. The coordination of each remote station – with the slight delays in sound arrival – was nicely exploited and precisely executed by LAPQ. Different stretches of the piece varied in dynamics, texture or color and the journey was enhanced by the presentation of ‘gifts’ to the listener – elements that were unexpected or the result of the placement of the different percussion stations. This piece has a certain resemblance to McIntosh’s Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, from a recent CD; the same sense of exotic exploration comes through. I Hold The Lion’s Paw is a vast, but always interesting work that extracts the maximum from the varied percussion pieces of the ensemble, and this performance was superbly realized by the LAPQ.

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is:
Nick Terry
Matt Cook
Justin DeHart
Cory Hills

Mallet Quartet, The Year Before Yesterday and Lullaby 5 are available from Amazon on a CD titled The Year Before Yesterday

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