Archive for the “Concert review” Category
Now that we’re well (and sadly?) past the era of composers’ cutting contests, where the likes of Beethoven would take a theme from a pretender and improvise a dazzling set of variations (the origin of the finale of the “Eroica” symphony), it is exceedingly, impossibly rare to witness what I heard in December.
Early in the month, the American Modern Ensemble played a concert at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The program was based around music from Robert Paterson’s terrific recent recording, Winter Songs, made with the same ensemble. The concert was bookended by Paterson’s CAPTCHA and the title sequence, about half the contents on the CD (there’s also the song-sets Eating Variations, Thursday and Batter’s Box, making for one of the best releases of 2013).
One of Paterson’s Winter Songs is “The Snow Man,” from Wallace Stevens’ poem. Preceding that set was another song of the same poem, “The Snow Man,” by composer Steven Burke. Two songs from two different composers using the same text, finding entirely different meanings and producing dramatically varied effects. In a strong and enjoyable concert overall, this was a special moment and had a powerful effect.
Paterson is an excellent, old-school style craftsman. He produces limpid melodies and harmonies, his small ensemble orchestrations are colorful and clear, and he values lyricism and beauty. His Winter Songs are just that: despite the overall feeling of shattered loneliness in the poems he collected from Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, and Billy Collins, the overall feeling is of interpretation at a distance, the composer and listener outside the experience of the poems themselves, safe from the emotional dangers.
Paterson’s “Snow Man” is only shrouded in ice, the warmth from the fire reaches out to touch the music. The singer, bass-baritone David Neal, and the music, describe the emptiness “Of the January sun; and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” like a docent describing a painting. Burke’s setting, which came out of a period of personal turmoil for him, is deep inside the music and the poem. His singer was a tenor, John Matthew Myers, and the accompaniment is only violin and piano, not Paterson’s chamber ensemble. The voice of the music is the voice of the snowman, the feeling is of experience, not observation. Burke’s is the sound of a man lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he’s going to do.
In contrast to all this is CAPTCHA, the nonsense text used on the web to verify that the user on the other end of the interface is a human being. Paterson collected a decent amount of these … words, such as they are, and made them into songs. They are utterly brilliant, and I’m not sure the composer recognizes their strength. Expertly sung by the great young baritone Jesse Blumberg, they are songs that poke fun at the entire art song tradition and yet fulfill the clichés of the style with skill and wit. That a man can sing “Voix gustroor/voice niionss/MUSICAL alengus/harmonic nstryfl” with a full, beautiful voice and an arched eyebrow, and convey meaning, testifies to how great this set is. By saying nothing, they mean everything. It needs to be a standard choice in the repertoire.
The concert was completed with songs from Tania Léon, Turning, and Russell Platt, “Two Whitman Panels” from his A Walt Whitman Cantata, that varied based on the quality of the poetry. Each composer writes fine vocal music, but Léon’s poetry couldn’t completely fill out her composing. The series of texts, sung by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, from Sarah White, Lucille Clifton, Janice Mirikitani and Judith Ortiz Carter, hint at both social isolation and rituals that extend from ancient beliefs to modern materialism, but their cores are minimal, and the music tries, not completely successfully, to press them in to a maximal expression. Neither side is wrong, but they mostly mis-fit.
Platt’s two songs, with Jesse Blumberg again, contrast with each other. His settings of the poetry are superb: the first, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” is a genteel love song, one man to another, while “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” has the pleasing roughness and muscularity that is so special in the poet. Platt captures each quality well.
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On Tuesday, January 21, 2014 several of the lesser-known works of composer Alvin Lucier were performed by the Southland Ensemble at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of central Los Angeles.
About 35 people attended with only a few empty seats in the compact venue that also doubles as a movie and video location. The reclaimed brick and cement interior of Monk Space was ideal for hearing Lucier, whose work is strongly informed by the relationship of sound and space.
The concert began with 947 (2001), a piece for solo flute and tape. A series of pure electronic tones was heard from a speaker system and flutist Christine Tavolacci matched the tone exactly, or played at an interval, or moved up and down around the electronic pitch by a few hertz. Sometimes the flute predominated, other times it was the electronic pitch and sometimes there was the zero-beating of the two – I thought the zero beating was more pronounced and effective in the lower registers. There were times a single electronic tone was heard and other times there was a mixture of electronic pitches, often slowly changing in loudness. When the cool, impersonal electronic tones were displaced by the flute, there was a sense of encountering a distinctly human element. The constantly changing relationship between the flute and the electronic tones propelled the piece forward, producing a haunting and pure feel.
The acoustic space, electronics and flute were all in good balance – and this was essential to bring out the often subtle sonic interplay. Afterward, Ms.Tavolacci explained that the various effects were all carefully scored and she used alternate fingerings and rolled the barrel of the flute slightly in order to bend the pitches when needed. The pitch control by the flute was impressive, considering that it was being continuously compared by the audience to a series of steady electronic tones.
The second piece on the program was Theme (1994) and this was scored for four voices and sonorous vessels, on poems by John Ashbery. Each of the four voices spoke into a wide-mouth glass jar that was fitted with a microphone pickup and connected to a small portable amplifier. The John Ashbery poem – Skin, Meat, Bone - was recited into these jars, sometimes by a single voice and sometimes in various combinations of multiple voices. The words could occasionally be made out, but text was not distinct – and this was intentional. The jars muffled the words but tended instead to amplify the various tones and frequencies present in the speaking voices.
The result was that the cadences of the text and the patterns in the poetry produced a sort of dreamy tone cloud that hovered around the voices, changing in color and duration depending on what was being spoken at that instant. The varying voice combinations and registers created different intensities and textures from moment to moment and the effect was quite remarkable given the simplicity of the concept. This would seem to be an extension of Lucier’s well-known work from 1969, I am sitting in a room, where the spoken text is recorded, played back and the re-recorded many times in the same room. Eventually the words are lost but the characteristic sonorities of the space are distilled into the tape. The amplified jars in Theme seem to doing something similar to text spoken in real time.
Wind Shadows (1994) followed, and this was similar in structure to the opening flute piece. In Wind Shadows a constant electronic pitch was heard from the speakers, varying only slightly in volume. A single trombone matches the pitch, or plays slightly above or slightly below it. Sometimes the electronic pitch dominates, other times the trombone – and as with 747, your ear tends to hear one or the other. The effect is spare, but warms noticeably when the trombone dominates. The lower register of this instrument was particularly powerful when zero-beating occurred – it sounded like a flight of B17 bombers passing overhead. Trombonist Matt Barbier used two slide positions to match the electronic tone – one giving more control for bending the pitch upwards and the other better for slightly lowering to the zero-beat frequency. As with all these pieces, the balance between the electronics, the acoustic space and the players was excellent.
After a short intermission Septet (1985) was heard and this work is also along the lines of 747 and Wind Shadows, but with larger musical forces. A single electronic tone from the speaker system was matched by three winds and four strings: bassoon, clarinet, flute, bass, cello, viola and violin. The instruments entered in various combinations and sequences, rising and falling in intensity, creating a constantly changing spectrum of sounds. The assortment of timbres and the power of the ensemble against the steady electronic tone produced a fine variety; where the tones were dissonant, the effect was ominous, while at other times there was a feeling of tension and suspense or a sad mournfulness. There was even one section that, to my ear, sounded just like a train horn in slow motion.
The electronic tone from the speaker was set to a loudness that would mix well with the larger number of instruments, but when the instruments would lay out for a bit the electronics seemed too intense. No doubt a compromise, but this was the only time during the concert when the electronics sounded out of balance.
The final offering for the evening was Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) and this was a sound installation for microphones, loudspeakers and electronic sounds. An electronic tone was put out through the PA system and two specially positioned auxiliary speakers. These were arranged in such a way as to produce different sound patterns throughout the space. The audience was invited to walk about the space and in so doing altered these wave patterns. The result was that in some areas there was no sound, in others a definite pitch and yet by walking just a few paces it all changed. My smart phone tuning app seemed to think the sound in the speakers was pitched to B (247 Hz) but changing my position by just a foot or two altered this pitch considerably.
There was also a sound scanning feature. A portable microphone and amplifier were carried about to detect the pitch present in a given place and then amplify it outward, thus further altering the local sound patterns. Scanning irregularly-shaped objects – two 55 gallon drums were placed in the space – produced complex patterns and unexpected pitches nearby. Outlines of Persons and Things was a powerful demonstration of the hidden acoustic possibilities that are present in any given space.
This concert by the Southland Ensemble of works by Alvin Lucier, successfully realized at the boundary of music and acoustic science, provides us with a rare glimpse of the many creative possibilities that await us there.
The Southland Ensemble includes: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, April Gutherie, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jon Stehney, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci and Brian Walsh.
On Tuesday December 3, 2013 the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presented LA Now: Four New Angeleno Composers, the latest in the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts. Curated by no less an eminence than John Adams, works by Sean Friar, Julia Holter, Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Norman were performed for a mostly young and enthusiastic audience that filled three quarters of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In the pre-concert panel discussion we learned that over 100 compositions were considered during the selection process and that Mr. Adams sought music that “speaks of Los Angeles” and displayed a sense of provincialism – in the best sense of that word. The composers were each asked to identify what makes new music in Los Angeles unique, and comments such as “freedom to try things”, “dispersed”, “experimental” and “entrepreneurial” were heard. Noting that the musical forces specified in these four pieces were generally on the small side, moderator Chad Smith – LA Phil Vice President of Artistic Planning – asked “Is the orchestra still relevant? Do you write music for a full orchestra?” To which Julia Holter quipped “Only if you need to write such a piece to graduate…” and this provoked a knowing laugh from the many music students present. But the mood was upbeat – there is a lively new music scene in and around downtown Los Angeles, and Disney Hall is situated at the center of it.
The first piece on the program was Little Green Pop by Sean Friar and the instrumentation consisted of piano, trombone, soprano and tenor saxes, electric guitar and percussion. This seemingly small assemblage produced an unexpectedly large sound, beginning with a run of light staccato tones that evolved into a series of louder chords. The quick tempo and syncopated rhythms were guided nicely by the precise and clear conducting of John Adams. The tones seem to pop out of the instruments, the harmonies and textures changing with almost every beat and this created a kind of pointillist construction of sound that was very effective. At other times, separate lines would pile together combining into a wonderful mash. Cymbals added an element of majesty and motion that eventually culminated in a great blast from the horns. Sustained and quiet tones followed, producing a moment of calm reflection before building again in tempo and volume and leading to a rousing finish. This was a work whose architecture delivered impressive constructions of sound from relatively small musical forces and Little Green Pop was received with enthusiastic applause.
Memory Drew Her Portrait by Julia Holter followed and this was a world premiere commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This piece featured a more conventionally arrayed chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone and keyboard, with a string section consisting of four violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass – all presided over by John Adams conducting. The composer sang the solo vocals whose text was based on an extended original poem that forms the focus of this work. The opening mournful horn solo immediately sets the tone for this piece – a story of lovers parted. Ms. Holter was mentioned as being in the same league with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the pre-concert discussion and the comparison is apt, less because of the purity of her voice but more in the way that the music, text and voice are joined seamlessly to propel the serious emotional trajectory of the piece. The voice is an equal partner here and the smooth passages in the orchestra serve to effectively reinforce the mood of the text. The accompaniment is direct and accessible, yet adds the requisite atmosphere to the poignant lyrics. The combination of powerful poetry, insightful orchestration and the strong emotional component in the vocals fully connected with the audience, who responded with sustained applause.
After the intermission, Etude IV by Andrew McIntosh was performed by James Sullivan and Brian Walsh playing clarinet with Mark Menzies on violin. This is a quiet piece consisting of a series of scales that repeat in various combinations of intervals and pitches. This piece employs just intonation – a type of microtonal music that employs tuning based on the natural harmonic ratios of pitches and not the conventional 12 equal divisions of the octave. Etude IV is one of a series exercises that Andrew wrote to help the players practice in these different tunings. In the program notes Andrew states that “…present in the pieces is my fascination with some of the more orderly facets of the natural world so the forms and harmonic constructs of the pieces are often very geometric or symmetrical in some way… In Etude IV (my personal favorite) the symmetry is reflected in time as each phrase goes out of phase with itself…” The sound of this occasionally had an Asian feel and often produced interesting harmonies and timbres as the instruments ascended each of the scale patterns. The hearing was good – even in the higher elevations of Disney Hall where I was sitting – but some of the subtleties of the harmonic interplay were undoubtedly lost given the sizable space; this music is most often performed in a much more intimate setting. On the whole, it was a generally restful and almost meditative experience, a fine contrast to much of what was heard in the first part of the concert. Etude IV is very representative of the work being done with alternate tunings in the Los Angeles new music scene and the structure of this piece also owes something to process, another historical West Coast influence.
The final piece of the concert was Try by Andrew Norman and for this John Adams resumed his role as conductor of a group identical to that of Memory Drew Her Portrait, save the addition of a trumpet. But the sound could not have been more different – Try is a furious, high energy stringendo-on-steroids wall of sound that jumped off the stage and seemed barely contained by even the spacious Disney Hall. Swirling, always moving ,yet able to turn on a dime, this piece most reminded me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon music – and this, of course, is a compliment. The playing was precise and deadly accurate despite the frenetic pace and the ensemble managed to keep a keen edge on the river of sound that was sent flowing from the stage. Percussion and brass added an almost explosive element to the ever-building torrent and just when you were sure it couldn’t get any wilder – it went quiet. Piano and flute traded soft phrases and eventually the piano alone was left to repeat a theme of just a few notes. A slight acceleration in the final phrase, then some quiet quiet chords… and an audience sitting in stunned silence. This piece was an emotional roller coaster ride and received a loud ovation in response. It is hard to believe that the music of Andrew Norman won’t find its way to a movie screen or a TV series sometime soon.
LA Now: New Angeleno Composers was an exciting event much appreciated by the sizable audience. Credit goes to John Adams for what must have been no small effort to curate and produce such a concert. Congratulations to all the composers whose work was performed, it was a night to remember.
Concert notes, composer links and more information about this performance are here.
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Before JACK Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ “In iij. Noct,” String Quartet No. 3 Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival, the stage crew turned the lights off in the Clark Studio Theater for a test run, so that everyone in the audience could gauge whether they could withstand the extended period of essentially total darknes. The lights were down for one minute, and once the last light went out I counted to myself, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand.” By the time I hit twenty, the lights were on their way back up.
That is the profound power that darkness has, it drastically slows our personal sensation of time. It’s in that time-altered environment that we hear the musicians, one each in the four corners of the room, playing Haas’s piece (it’s duration can be flexible but JACK played it for about 70 minutes). The darkness is purportedly no gimmick, it’s at the core of the piece, as Haas described in post-concert remarks led by John Schaeffer. But the problem with the compostion, and it is a serious problem, is that it spends so much thought on darkness and none on time.
As a composition, the String Quartet takes the form of a series of structured cues — it’s fair to consider them improvisatory, but that’s a distinction that can easily shift responsibility away from the composer and onto the players. The musicians have different kinds of musical material to work with, things like sequences of effects, instructions to form chords from a tonic pitch using the overtone series, a notable and glaring quotation from one of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria . Playing in the dark, away from each other, they have to come to consensus on each section.
JACKS’ unanimity in this concert was impressive. They’ve played this work almost three dozen times, in Ari Streisfeld’s telling, and although there have been performances in their account where they had to fight over events and direction, this was smooth and assured. But the net effect is that the piece has no form, that it’s a disjointed series of effects — none of them particularly compelling — interrupted by involving tonal material. It’s discontinuous, but there’s no intent to that, no shape, no argument for that structure.
The effects — tricks with the bow, quiet tapping on the fingerboard — evaporate in the dark, though there’s the benefit that the piece doesn’t come off as simplistic horrow music. They don’t linger in the mind, and don’t effectively mark moments in time. When the quartet builds their chords, or when they move via glissandi up and down through pitches, the piece is remarkable. That’s when it builds structure through time, and since it’s working with such a proufoundly altered sensation of the dimension, it starts to open up extraordinary worlds of aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual possibilities.
I get the impression Haas doesn’t hear this, because his instructions let go of all the power in the music. It’s easy, but lazy, to hear his work as avant-garde. He is avant-garde in a bourgeois sense, titillating with sensation. But he’s not in the meaningful sense of an obsessive focus on one single, simple idea, it’s permutations and possibilities. One hour of chord building in pitch darkness, the musicians at the edge of their senses to hit the exact intonation, the audience in constant anticipation of where the music will go and what will happen next, that might be extraordinary. One hour of scrapes and squiggles and some notes — with an entirely superfluous bit of Gesualdo throw in — in the dark, is a gimmick, and ultimatley disappointing.
On Thursday November 7, Betalevel, that famously obscure underground venue in Chinatown, hosted a concert of microtonal music entitled The Things That Overpower Us. The program featured the music of Kraig Grady, in Los Angeles for the week and who brought his personal greetings from the metaphorical Island of Anaphoria. A standing-room only crowd of about 50 jammed into the small space to hear performances by Tangerine Music Lab and a string quartet consisting of Melinda Rice, Mona Tian, Andrew McIntosh and Ashley Walters.
The concert began with an extended improvisation by Tangerine Music Labs that was loosely based on a series of selected individual words: Fire, Ginger, Lanterns, etc and short phrases such as The Hawk Cries and Return. The piece began with a series of slow, steady chords by Ryan Tanaka on keyboard and this was soon joined by warm sounds from the viola, played by Deanna Lynn. The smooth, languid feel from the flute-like registration of the keyboard was complimented at times by counterpoint in the viola but there were never any sharp edges. The words selected were sung by vocalist Emily Loynachan in simple, declaratory passages of just a few notes, playing off the other two instruments with a fine sense of timing. The blend and balance here were excellent and the piece flowed agreeably to a quiet conclusion.
This was followed by a string quartet composed by Melinda Rice based on familiar American folk songs surrounded by sounds produced by extended string techniques. The piece began with soft, small, airy sounds that were soon in the company of a traditional folk tune played strongly in the violin. The effect was something like coming out from a long walk in the woods into a sudden clearing and seeing a house, with smoke curling from its chimney. The piece proceeded in this fashion – the folk tunes, and then mouse or perhaps bird-like sounds from the extended techniques. Sometimes the folk tune would be carried by a single instrument, other times in full four-part harmony, but these were separated by sounds that evoked nature. This was a very effective structure – the traditional tunes provided an anchor of familiarity while between these were the more imaginative sounds. Given the Scots-Irish flavor of the folk tunes, it conjured a convincing portrait of an early America that was thinly settled and predominantly wilderness.
Kraig Grady’s solo violin piece was next, a tribute to Lou Harrison. This proceeded in a series of strong, marcato passages, often syncopated. A photo of an antique telegrapher’s key was projected on the wall behind the performer and the work included a series of Morse code passages that were embedded in the rhythms. A long time ago I was able to read Morse code but I confess I couldn’t detect anything of the familiar patterns here – but the effect was certainly present.
Mica followed, a string quartet written by Terumi Narushima, who teaches at the University of Wollongong and is also married to Kraig Grady. Ms. Narushima explained that Mica was inspired by the sheen of the granite buildings in a big city, the mineral mica being the constituent of granite that gives off the brightest reflections. The piece begins with a series of slow, gentle chords that build in volume and then subside, reminiscent of an ocean swell on a lazy summer day. The microtonal technique here was nicely done and a feeling of a soft warmth was effectively realized. A Google Earth view of Anaphoria was projected on the wall and its state of seeming serenity was entirely appropriate. As the piece proceeded, a sharpness and intensity emerged that put one more in mind of the hard glint of sunlight reflecting off a granite skyscraper. The effective use of dynamics and skillful selections from the palette of pitches made hearing this piece a delightful experience.
The final piece in the program was Poole’s Lament by Kraig Grady, “a tribute to Grady’s colleague Rod Poole who was working on an arrangement of a set of Irish tunes before his tragic death.” This was performed by the string quartet. Poole’s Lament is based on a setting of an Irish reel and the piece begins with the tune resolutely played in standard tuning. Trills creep in to cover the main theme and the piece gradually unpacks into a series of long tones and quiet chords. Microtonal passages further enhance the sense of an unwinding process. In his comments prior to the playing of this work, Kraig Grady described the piece as following the arc of the natural processes that occur in the repose of death. This was not portrayed as morbid or unseemly in the music, but rather as a gentle disassembly into eternity. Soft tones and quiet pizzicato notes concluded this sweetly elegant commemoration.
By way of encore, the string quartet was asked to improvise – as a group – on a series of placards held up by Kraig Grady. The words on these signs triggered all manner of interesting responses from the musicians, and proved to be very entertaining. This speaks to the high level of musicianship provided by Melinda Rice, Mona Tian, Andrew McIntosh and Ashley Walters. The excellent playing, enthusiastic audience and the company of the composers made The Things That Overpower Us a memorable evening of new music.
On Friday night, November 1st the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a program by three outstanding improvisational musicians: Tim Feeney on percussion, Ken Ueno, vocals and Matt Ingalls, clarinet. A little over an hour of improvisational music was offered in the reclaimed second-story industrial loft that is the Wulf, and a small but dedicated group of listeners gathered comfortably in the informal space. On this occasion there were no overhead lights – just a single back light behind the performers – and this added to the unusual atmosphere.
The three performers all have long experience playing experimental music using extended techniques. Tim Feeney came equipped with a table full of items for percussion: files, steel bars, a variety of mallets, a wooden stick, scrapers, copper plates and several bows. Tim has played extensively in Boston’s improvising community and has appeared at experimental spaces such as the Red Room in Baltimore, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ken Ueno is a composer and vocalist who is accomplished in Heavy Metal sub-tone singing , Tuvan throat singing and other extended vocal techniques. He includes attending West Point and winning a Rome Prize in his extensive resume and has appeared at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Musik Triennale Köln Festival among many others.
According to his website, Matt Ingalls is “ a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area Improv Scene, and is known for his ‘composerly’ solo improvisations that explore extended techniques on his instrument that interact with the acoustic space, often as combination tones.” Matt is also founder and co-director of sfSound a new music ensemble, and is active in computer music programming.
The first piece began with a series of quiet gestures : a breath of air through the clarinet, the soft rubbing of the drum head and a low vocal whooshing sound that combined to evoke a dark, windswept plain at night. A lonely sort of howl sounded in the distance, adding to the wilderness atmosphere. As the early part of the piece progressed the sounds grew louder and more distinct – a heavier scraping on the drum, a distinct huffing sound from the vocals and regular squeaks from the clarinet. A solo voice drone with vocalise accompanied by bowing on the drum produced an interesting sonic combination. Other combinations of voice, clarinet and percussion took their turn – with one player resting – as the piece continued, building in intensity. As the clarinet reached a full screeching cry the effect was palpably primal in its impact.
At this point, as the intensity subsided somewhat, Matt Ingalls switched over to an apparatus consisting of a garden hose fitted with a bass clarinet reed and what seemed to be an extendable tube that might have been a vacuum cleaner attachment. This produced a low reedy sound whose pitch and volume was modified by the position of the extendable tube and by a plate held to its end, used in the manner of a horn player stopping the bell. This produced a low, mournful sound that combined nicely with the bowed drum and the overall effect as the piece concluded was that we were in the presence of something alien, but nevertheless sympathetic.
The second piece opened with a series of long, low clarinet tones. In time this was joined by a light tapping of the drum and soft vocals. The clarinet broke into a series of scales and arpeggios that gave the texture a bright, active feel that increased in dynamic as the piece progressed. Eventually the clarinet – amplified – produced an almost painful series of shrieks and screeches accompanied by a rapid tapping in the percussion and a forceful drone in the voice. A series of trills by the clarinet quickly broke into powerful sheets of sound that poured out – reminiscent of Coltrane or a Rahsaan Roland Kirk – in a fluid and intense expression. The familiar sonic territory exerted a strong pull on this listener – you could feel the old dynamism welling up and it was the perfect compliment to what had gone before. The piece slowly wound down from this high point and the voice, percussion and clarinet recombined effectively to produce a calming sense of the sacred as the piece concluded.
This performance was an impressive display of what can be created with extended techniques in the hands of experienced and capable improvising musicians. The varied sounds that were produced by all three players during the course of this performance was a real marvel and gives us a fine example of what is possible beyond the limits of conventional playing.
The next offering at the Wulf will be on November 17, 2013 with James Klopfleisch presenting.
It was an evocatively strange and ambiguous experience to hear Anton Batagov play Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories last Sunday evening in the newly restored Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory. The room is stunning, beautiful and elegant in a way that speaks not just of easy riches but of plutocracy and power. It’s the size of a studio apartment, and sitting in it is like being in the intimate quarters of the people whose riches ensure their legacy in and on buildings across the city.
And there we heard Feldman, the last of three concerts to inaugurate the Armory’s chamber music series. Fitting and strange — a born and raised New Yorker from a middle-class that won’t exist for many more generations, and one of the great and most uncompromisingly avant-garde composers in the Western classical tradition. A Jew in what is essentially a castle for old-money WASPS, making music that utterly ignores conventions of form, structure, development, harmony, melody and rhythm.
By the time in his career of Triadic Memories (1981) Feldman was not avant-garde anymore, that’s what my composer’s sensibilities tell me. He was, as the piece tells me both on paper and in my ears, a great composer in both history and craft; making music that developed and spread ideas important to the continuing development of knowledge about how to compose music, and notating those ideas with imagination, concision and profound skill. It’s a great piece of musical aesthetics and a great piece in the piano literature, pianistic in a way that makes it an absolute peer to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich, Ravel, Nancarrow, Carter and Ligeti.
Batagov dedicated the concert to Lou Reed — we had heard news of his death that morning — another ambiguous element. Reed is important and rightfully beloved, but his status in rock music and pop culture was, just before his death, cemented by his licensing of his song “Perfect Day” to sell PlayStations. Rock is part of mass culture and has never been able to escape commodification, selling is part of the point of its existence. Feldman is never going to sell any product, the three evenings of performances probably sold about 400 tickets. That many people heard Batagov’s transparent, affecting performance.
His concentration, his thinking, were exceptional. The music is terrifically challenging in a way that the likes of Lang Lang would never dare approach. The pianist must be on the knife’s edge of awareness, keeping a strict tempo for ninety minutes and placing notes in rhythms that are both exact and exceedingly finely varied. The technical point is to keep many pulses going at once through a specific period of time. Harmonically the music is tonal and dissonant, but there’s no predictable harmonic rhythm and there are few phrases, a handful of tightly confined one-handed patterns in the middle and towards the end. The physical demands are rudimentary, save for stamina, the intellectual demands are daunting. His measured tempo, slower than most of the recordings I know, shaded the experience with an initial and enticing feeling of tension: could he make it work at this pace?
Unerringly. I praise Batagov when I write that his playing never made the demands of tempo, thought and action noticeable. These are the things I did notice: uncanny and rich timbres of difference tones and especially overtones morphing out of the piano (the pedal is halfway down throughout the piece) — the first octave and fifth were almost as strong as the fundamental pitches — and demonstrating the great acoustic of the room, which gives even the softest notes fullness and presence; the audience so quiet that the sound of a second-hand ticking on a watch somewhere in my row was noticeable (although several people left during the performance, highly disruptive and puzzling — why did they come?); the sense of time not passing but accumulating. There are intellectual and mystical depths to Feldman, paths through those can be explored by each listener. What is objectively true about the piece is that it defines time not as notches on a line but a container to hold a set of events, it beings, proceeds through action and ends, and the arbitrary points that mark the first measure and the last could just be windows into something that is eternal. That’s as great as it gets.
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A funny thing happened last night during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of 200 Motels. The audience turned on itself.
Before the show, the chorus warmed up the crowd with some catcalls, and that prompted the room to loosen up. The vibe was fun. The orchestra did a wave. The audience hooted and hollered like they were at the Fillmore. During an awkward silence, some brave soul chanced a “Freebird!” shout, and was lucky to get hearty laughs instead of groans.
It seemed like a loose crowd, that was in the mood for a fun show. From my vantage point, the audience was dominated by old Zappa fans. (A very nice old man in my section was cheerily wearing a bright yellow Wazoo helmet.) But it seems there’s some kind of critical mass that just can’t be escaped at an orchestra concert. Before long, concert etiquette killed the mood.
The concertmaster drunkenly stumbled onstage with his bow tie on his head and his shirt untucked. It was a cute gesture, but it signified a lot of what was to come, which was a serious orchestra trying way too hard to have fun. Esa-Pekka came onstage to a rock star’s ovation, but he simply mounted the podium and got down to business. The rambunctious crowd almost completely settled down by the time the Overture was finished.
A few hearty folks kept up the rowdy atmosphere during the opening numbers. They’d whistle and shout out one-liners in response to jokes in the show. Unfortunately for them, by the time Lonesome Cowboy Burt had left the stage, the rest of the audience had fully reverted back to reactionary classical concert mode. From that point on, the groundlings were shushed mercilessly. One poor fellow, who just did not want to settle down, kept doing his best to stay in rock ‘n roll mode. His neighbors nearly had him ejected. After several minutes of prudish hissing and reprimands to “Be quiet!!”, the guy gave up and behaved for the rest of the show.
The shift in behavior was a drag for the performers as well. The built-in gags that were designed to elicit audience participation later in the show fell flat. Everyone sat in their seats like they were watching a concert version of an opera, instead of the Zappa show they paid to see. Maybe if the LA Phil had let us take beers inside the hall, left the doors open, and let the musicians wear street clothes, the audience wouldn’t have reverted to “square” behavior. Odds are that it would have happened anyway. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around it, no matter how primed an audience is to have fun at a classical concert.
As for the show itself, it was a muddle. That’s the nature of 200 Motels, and I hope no one was expecting something else. The only real frustration was that the vocal mics were so incompetently mixed to an ear-splitting level. There was no blend between the orchestra and the soloists. They might as well have been in two different rooms. That disparity rendered Zappa’s orchestra score (the ostensible reason that we were all there) an afterthought, which is unfortunate given all its charms. For my money, the most arresting sonorities were the stacks of woodwinds during the masturbation scene.
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A bit past the halfway mark in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll comes a passage marked “Lebhaft” (lively tempo). It begins with a bright, energetic horn fanfare that is quickly answered by bird calls in the flute and clarinet. The flow of the piece makes it sound like Siegfried – Wagner’s son as much as his character – has awoken from gentle slumber to find himself in the woods. But there was nothing like that sensation when Alarm Will Sound played the original sinfonietta version last Friday to open their “The Permanent Collection” concert, which itself opened their new residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Limor Tomer is remaking the Met into the most interesting performance space in the city, with programming that rivals that of Miller Theatre and the use of the gallery spaces for live music. Alarm Will Sound has some great programming on tap, including an all Steve Reich concert November 16, but Alan Pierson and the group choose to set their first concert in the museum’s physical collection by showing the roots of their ensemble. Pierson hints at something of an argument about the sinfoniette being the prototypical new music ensemble, which is sort of true and sort of not – it depends on what year you’re look from, and which direction you turn your attention.
Wagner was certainly making new music in the nineteenth century, but that’s not what the Idyll is. It’s one of his loveliest works, but the aesthetic is entirely different than that of the new music movement that began around a hundred years ago. The music is about cadences, modulations between chords and tempos and the gestural language used to effect those. That’s where the expression is, and Alarm Will Sound is steeped in the aesthetic of non-narrative expressive language. They strung along the notes, played nicely, but had nothing much to say about the actual music. It had me searching for my recording of Glenn Gould conducting an intellectually critical and lovely take with the same forces.
Thomas Adés Living Toys is more in their style, but only superficially. I’m not a fan of the music, or his work in general. I find his composing masks an ordinary romantic sensibility in a lot of bravura hand-waving material that, if it doesn’t amount to something ordinary, amounts to little at all. There is a mismatch between the density of musical activity and the density of thinking. It suffered in inevitable comparisoin with all the great pieces from John Zorn I heard last month, music that is overwhelming with both detail and musical, aesthetic and intellectual meaning. But Adés is more old music in new music clothes.
Truly new, and truly excellent, were Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto and Ragtime Dances 1 and 4 by Charles Ives. These works are at the heart of Alarm Will Sound’s purpose, music that explores the possbilities of the future and that was written with experimental values at the fore. Ligeti’s work comes from his cloud phase, a period when he heard music as something like a collection of webs, gossamer strends connecting to each other across distances and forming sections that fill in space with a tantilizing wispiness. This was a beautiful, concentrated performance, the music clearly excites the players’ interest and concentration, everything focussed and spooky. The Chamber Concerto doesn’t tell stories, and it displays instrumental prowess in subtly challenging ways, the results tickle the bass of the skull in rare ways.
The Ives’ dances are rarely played or recorded, which is a shame because they are brilliant and practical, distilled and sharply written examples of his art and his importance. Ives was always pinning popular tunes to his pieces, but there’s something about hearing him create and lay out his own ragtime beat that is revelatory. True to form, he fractures it deliberately and exuberantly, and like a pinata, the yield is delight, joy and real, substantial satisfaction.
Q2 will have the concert archive available to stream, check their site for availability
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The Society for Minimalist Music is holding their biennial conference this year on the campus of Cal State Long Beach from October 3d through the 6th. Opening day included a concert of piano music by primarily west coast-influenced composers who have appeared on the Cold Blue Music label, and two of whom – Michael Jon Fink and Kyle Gann – were in attendance. The venue was the Daniel Recital Hall which comfortably held the audience, consisting mostly of conference attendees. The pianist was Bryan Pezzone.
The wide variety of expression in this concert – even within the context of piano music – illustrates the extent to which minimalist music has evolved past its stereotypical image of repetition and stasis. Nine pieces by six composers were listed on the program; here are some impressions and reactions.
The concert opened with Five Pieces for Piano Solo (1997) by Michael Jon Fink, whose spare, soft style is very engaging. Part 1, Passing, starts off with single tones and then a series of interesting chords that build into a slight tension. This continues in part 2, Mode, now with some dissonance, producing a somewhat more strident sound. Fragment, for Lou Harrison, the third part, provides a welcome contrast with a series of soothing low arpeggios that are then repeated in a higher register. The tension reappears in part 4, Echo with the same repeating figure and is resolved in the last part, Epitaph‘ with a slow, calming bell-like finish – the final chord seems to hang in the air, evaporating into silence. The long pauses between parts and the simple elegance of the sequences add to the introspective nature of this quiet music.
Hermetic Bird, a section from Peter Garland’s Bright Angel (1996) followed with a driving, bright sound incorporating powerful chords and echoes. It is as if a light has been switched on or you are facing the sun just above the horizon. This piece was written in memory of Kuniharu Akiyama and according to the program notes, Garland states that “Bright Angel refers to a view point on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, where one gets a spectacular view of canyons and depths. I was there at sunset, thinking of Kuniharu and of this piece, thinking about life and death.” As the work progresses it becomes softer with overtones floating above thick chords and sounding almost church-like. The piece concludes with louder section supported by a prominent bass line and is as satisfying in its strength as the ending of Five Pieces for Piano Solo was in its softness.
A second Garland piece was heard, The View from Vulture Peak (1987) and this was followed by Ponkapoag Bog (2008-09) by Daniel Lentz. This has a warm, soft feel – as reflective and nostalgic as Garland’s music is dynamic. Ponkapoag Bog is filled with lovely chords that become bouncy and playful as the piece progresses – a full sound that is bubbly and almost dance-like at times. Daniel Lentz is based in Santa Barbara, California but interestingly this piece was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Ponkapoag Bog is an actual historic New England Native American site nearby. Ponkapoag Bog is a sunny piece, full of optimism, and in its denser sections reminded me a bit of a Prokofiev piano concerto.
Sad from Kyle Gann’s Private Dances (2000) suite was next. According to the program notes, Kyle “…had to excise some of the original 11-against-13 rhythms, but the piece is still tricky. The idea was to have a clear harmonic rhythm while thoroughly obscuring the meter…” Byran Pezzone carried this off nicely and to my ears the ornamented moving line in the melody and the solemn – but never somber – feel of this piece sounded almost conventional. Private Dances was commissioned by Sarah Cahill and was premiered by her on a New Albion CD.
as she sleeps (2000) by Michael Byron followed, a piece consisting of soft chords, pauses and a spare, economical style as befits a work dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The other pieces listed on the program were La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (1980) by David Mahler, and Requium (1976), another Daniel Lentz piece. The program concluded with Celesta Solo (1981) by Michael Jon Fink.
Bryan Pezzone, known for his film and studio work, did a masterful job on the keyboards, readily adapting to the different styles and requirements of each piece. Afterwords, Cold Blue Music hosted a reception in the lobby, and Jim Fox could be seen moving among the guests with his usual gregariousness. It was a fine evening for hearing minimalist music and for reconnecting with acquaintances.