Archive for the “Concert review” Category
Posted by Paul Muller in Composers, Concert review, Contemporary Classical, Experimental Music, Festivals, Los Angeles, Microtonalism, Ojai, Premieres, tags: ICE, John Luther Adams, Ojai Festival, red fish blue fish
The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.
Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.
Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”
Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.
Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.
The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.
About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.
This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.
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The 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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The 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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Downtown 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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Friday 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:
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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April 1, 2015 was the date and the REDCAT Theater at Disney Hall was the site of a concert by the Southland Ensemble of the early music of the late Robert Ashley. A full crowd was in attendance with only a scattering of empty seats.
The Entrance (1965) was first on the program and this was video projected behind the stage showing a keyboard with stacks of pennies being placed on the keys. There were speakers in the back of the theater where the tones could be heard and as a new stack of pennies was to a key added the resulting tone could be heard entering what was a continuous chord. The stacks grew in number and eventually the sound produced was a large cluster chord that seemed to cast a spell in the theater – just loud enough to be heard but never very definite and always changing as stacks of coins were moved about or added to the keyboard. In fact this video was projected during the entire concert, providing a sonic foundation for all that followed. Robert Ashley, quoted in the program notes, stated: “I have never understood what ‘The Entrance’ means. It was ‘inspired’. I would guess that it means something like the way to get into another, different frame of mind – that makes the performance of the other pieces possible.” This continuous realization of The Entrance was well-suited to the REDCAT performance space and consistent with Ashley’s vision of it.
She Was a Visitor (1967) featured a female soloist spotlighted in one corner of the dark stage precisely repeating the words “She was a visitor.” As this continues, the listener becomes aware of musical suggestions heard in the patterns of speech. The audience was invited to join in by choosing a sound from the recitation and then vocalize that sound quietly for the length of one breath. There was some participation in this and it was most effective when sustained. Small pockets of sound arose among the audience in the darkened theater at varying times and this was an appealing addition to the repetition of the phrase. It was as if small communities of sound formed, disbanded and reformed in subtle collaboration with the soloist. That She Was a Visitor extracted these fascinating bits of musicality from simple repeated speech was a credit to the focus of the soloist and the theatricality of the staging. Such was the power of the moment that applause was held – it was as if we were witnessing the arc of a larger story as the stage was prepared for next piece.
The Wolfman (1964) followed and this piece was described in the program notes as “… treating the cavity of the performer’s mouth as a chamber that influences the nature of the feedback heard by the audience.” Accordingly, a very brave James Klopfeisch took up his position center stage under a spotlight and a microphone. Off to the right, Casey Anderson operated some equipment that played back recorded voices and generated various electronic sounds. The soloist began by humming a steady note into the microphone and attempting, with varying success, to induce feedback into the theater sound system. Different vocal techniques were used including sung notes and long, sustained shouts. As the piece progressed, the beeps and chirps of the accompanying electronic sounds became louder and seemed to compete with the soloist. The cries of the soloist into the microphone became more plaintive as the electronics gained in strength – perhaps as a metaphor for the individual trying to be heard in a society filled with informational clutter. At one point Klopfleisch began imbibing water in an attempt to change the sonic properties of his throat and mouth in order to match the power of the ever-rising electronics. The increasing distress of the singer generated an instinctive empathy for the individual striving to be heard. Eventually the electronic chatter slowed and then stopped, leaving just the soloist to bring the piece to a quiet ending. The stage lights darkened leaving just the enigmatic sound of the cluster chord from the video. The Wolfman is a memorable piece that gains its power from the courage of the soloist and the precision of the lighting, staging and sound systems – all of which was featured in this excellent performance.
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The spaciously comfortable sanctuary of the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, CA was the site for a concert titled gnarwhallaby: The Wild Beasts. On a pleasant Sunday evening, March 29, 2015, a nice crowd gathered to hear the six pieces on the program that included a world premiere. The concert was produced by People Inside Electronics and featured the formidable playing of the gnarwhallaby ensemble combined with historical as well as contemporary electronic sounds.
A question and answer session preceded the concert and a brief history of gnarwhallaby was recounted. It was noted that the instrumental combination of the group comprises a sort of miniature orchestra with piano, woodwind, brass and strings represented. This combination tends to drive their repertoire and much of their material has come from the late 20th century music of Eastern Europe, although they have performed a number of works by contemporary Los Angeles composers.
The first piece was Pour quatre [For Four] (1968) by Włodzimierz Kotoński (1925-2014) and this began with a series of light, rapid runs of notes from several instruments, played independently and with no common beat. Sforzando entrances by individual players appeared against this busy background and the overall effect was quite intriguing. As the piece continued, different duos of instruments would begin a section, be joined by a third instrument and then drift apart as the combinations reset. This gave rise to a procession of different textures of varying densities that was quite engaging. Although no electronics were used in this piece, the program notes state that Kotoński composed by “Eschewing strict meters, tempi and traditional score format in favor of a cue-based and texturally/temporally improvisational notational technique, the aesthetic of this piece is less like chamber music and more like the unpredictable and ineffable environment of the early electronic pieces.” All of the strong entrances were cleanly played and the wilder parts efficiently managed by gnarwhallaby, making Pour quatre the perfect reference point for the rest of the concert program.
Next was Music for Magnetic Tape and Piano Solo (1971-72) by Andrzej Dobrowolski (1921 – 1990) and for this two large speakers were placed on each side of the piano that began the piece by emitting a loud rumble of thunder. A sustained and anxious sound followed and a crash from the piano dramatically signaled the entrance of the soloist. A variety of mechanical sounds, clicks and squeaks from the speakers were accompanied by a series of rapid runs on the keyboard and the alien feel of the electronics was offset by the more musical counterpoint in the piano. Different sounds came from different speakers – at times and the piano had to compete to be heard. The electronic sounds eventually settled into a menacingly low rumble, like some sinister alien presence lurking nearby in the shadows. The piano played lightly – but still sharply – as if reflecting the anxiety that was hanging in the air. In this charged atmosphere the piano evoked a mixture of dread and fear as if waiting for the creature to strike. The electronics now became more animated, like a pin ball machine, going faster and faster. The piano responded with a series of frantic passages as if in a full panic, followed by a sudden crash and silence. Now alone, the piano issued quiet, but anxious notes as the electronics started up again with a dull roar that grew in volume, before finally fading completely away. Music for Magnetic Tape and Piano Solo is a powerful and frightening piece of music that demonstrates how effectively electronic sounds can trigger primal emotions.
The Wild Beasts (1978) by Morton Subotnick (b. 1933) followed, for piano, trombone and electronic ghost score. This work was originally inspired by an exhibition of Les Fauves paintings, and Subotnick writes: “I was left with the impression that each subject was portrayed as ‘normal’, but that we were seeing this subject through a strangely prismatic atmosphere… an atmosphere comprised of rare and possibly ‘unearthly’ gases… an atmosphere in which normal expectations of color and shape would not exist. This was the visual counterpart to my ‘ghost’ idea, i.e. a traditional musical instrument played into an unusual and continually transforming atmosphere … an atmosphere in which the normal sound expectations would not exist.”
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Art Share LA, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, was the scene of a concert Friday February 27, 2015 entitled Terrain featuring works by Brian Ferneyhough, Brian Griffeath-Loeb and Elizabeth Lutyens. The occasion was the first anniversary of the WasteLAnd ensemble and a nice crowd turned out for an evening of complex music and birthday cake.
The concert began with Recomposition #4 (2012) by Brian Griffeath-Loeb and this featured Mark Menzies as solo violin. According to the program notes “… Recomposition #4 takes Ferneyhough’s iconic violin solo, Intermedio alla Ciaccona, and subjects it to an array of transformations. The original is amplified, constricted, recolored, warped, looped, erased, and – on occasion – left unaltered, presenting a surreally divided consciousness that challenges both identity and authorship.” This began with loud, intense chords in the higher notes and sharp, rapid runs that became very shrill at times. At other times the sound was softer, as when the the strings of the violin were gently rubbed by the bow. A variety of extended techniques were evident and at one point Mark Menzies was rapidly fingering the strings of the violin without using the bow – and just that slight contact sent out a series of ghostly tones that were barely audible in the Art Share performance space. As the piece progressed, Menzies seemed to be attacking the violin as the complexity and energy continued to build. There was a sense of being witness to a titanic struggle: the violinist as individual against the world. The piece concluded as a soft high tone slowly gathered strength until it sounded like a whistling tea kettle, followed by a sudden silence. This was a virtuoso performance by Mark Menzies and was received with sustained applause.
Terrain (1991-1992), by Brian Ferneyhough was next and this again featured Mark Menzies as violin soloist, backed by an ensemble of eight instruments. Terrain has been described as a violin concerto reconfigured with modern forms and this seems entirely appropriate. The piece begins with an extended violin solo that is filled with rapid streams of notes, short bursts and punchy passages – all infused with the frenetic energy that is so characteristic of Ferneyhough’s music. As the other instruments join in there is a striking independence in the playing, with seldom any rhythmic cohesion between sections or the soloist. Add to that the quick runs and dissonant harmonies, it would seem to be a recipe for chaos. And yet, the overall feeling has a kind of organic textural wholeness – like looking at the shimmering surface of a lake or a choppy sea. The sound sometimes comes in waves – as in one passage when the brass surged together, centering the music temporarily. Terrain is full of allusions to powerful geologic forces operating deep within the earth – the shifting combinations and alignments of the various instruments keep the energy level high with the violin sometimes leading and sometimes lost in the mix. Hearing this music is a sort of aural equivalent of an abstract expressionist painting. The playing by WasteLAnd as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe was precise enough that all of the details came through clearly and Mark Menzies once again performed brilliantly.
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The Blue Whale in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles was the venue for a concert entitled “The Other Side of Valentines Day” by the group Synchromy – appropriately on Sunday, February 15, 2014. A nice crowd turned out to hear an evening of original new music performed by soprano Justine Aronson, Matt Barbier on trombone and pianist Richard Valitutto. In all, some ten pieces were heard, most of them by Los Angeles-based composers. The concert programs were handed out in envelopes in the manner of a Valentines card – a clever touch that added to the convivial ambiance.
First up was Song for Justine and Richard by Nick Norton, based on a lyric by Conor Oberst. This began with some quiet notes in the upper registers of the piano that evolved into some nice harmonies as piece progressed. After some moments Justine’s voice entered with a single quiet word: “Never.” Her smooth soprano, and also the very high notes in the piano accompaniment, had to compete against some kitchen noise that occasionally intruded on the quieter sections. But the sweet, introspective feel of this piece was effectively brought out by good ensemble and careful observance of dynamics by the performers.
A silhouette of constrained motion, by Tina Tallon followed. This was a solo trombone piece including mutes and extended techniques played by Matt Barbier, who filled the room with all manner of squeaks, growls and guttural sounds. A wide variety of timbres and textures ensued, and as the piece continued one got the sense that a sort of feral language was unfolding, conveying a kind of elemental emotion. There was the sense of hindrance, impediment and perhaps slight vexation, but overall there was a more distinctly organic feel to this – an intriguing exercise in musical and non-verbal communication.
Falling, a work by Jason Barabba was next, based on a text by Annie Jankowski. This featured Justine Aronson’s voice whose range and power were more clearly evident. Richard Valitutto accompanied with a series of trills while long arcs of strong vocal passages soared overhead. The piano was more in an accompanying role, although the piece was punctuated with sharp notes and dramatic crashes that Richard does so well. At one point a sort of dance rhythm broke out and towards the end some recited text – “Grasping at hope that flies right by” – was very effective.
Parking in Cars by Dante de Silva followed and this was built around a mashed recording of a cautionary public service announcement from 1947 titled Are You Popular? Dante de Silva added a bouncy, 50’s sort of tune that incorporated its lyrics from the film: “Ginny thinks that she has the key to popularity – parking in cars with the boys at night.” This phrase was repeated, almost rap-like, while Matt Barbier played along, adding a jaunty bass line. The result produced a feeling that was part nostalgia and part amazement at a message so clearly out of date with 21st century deportment. But all this was more in fun than embarrassment and Parking in Cars proved to be a very enjoyable piece.
Next up was McCallum Songs by Nicholas Deyoe, written for piano and voice and based on a series of love poems written by Clint McCallum. The music consists of several shortish sections that opened with low piano chords and soft vocals, lending a somber tone to this. The text carries the story forward and was sung by Ms. Aronson with a quiet purity of tone. The feelings conveyed by these pieces are variously anxious, wistful, plaintive, frustrating, yearning, angry – all of the emotions that are part of the subject. Some of the text was narrated and this added to the sense of intimacy. Nicholas Deyoe has often exhibited a lively pyrotechnic flare in his compositions, but the McCallum Songs are elegantly infused with a soft, understated passion.
Unphotographable, by Scott Worthington followed and this combined electronic waveform tones with Matt Barbier’s muted trombone. This had a distinctly alien feel as the electronic waves began zero-beating and the trombone joined in, adding to the rhythms. It sounded, at times, like a sort of machine language was being spoken and the trombone playing was precise enough to blend in seamlessly. This piece occasioned an interesting reversal in the sense that the acoustic instrument was combined with the electronic waves as if it were another oscillator. Matt Barbier returned after the intermission for another solo work Mantram: Canto Anomimo by Giancinto Scelsi. This was a more conventional piece – no cold sine waves here. There was an exotic, Asian feel at times and this gave Matt Barbier a chance to stretch out using various slide effects and powerful playing that filled the room.
An arrangement of the Gershwin standard They’re Writing Songs of Love, But Not for Me, by Michael Finnissy was next, performed solo by Richard Valitutto on piano. This began with a tentative feel – as if the music was just below the surface, searching for itself. This had the effect of engaging the listener as the familiar melody slowly came into focus, artfully spanning the decades since the original was first heard. The playing by Valitutto had just the right touch of balance between old and new.
Walk of Shame, written by Richard Valitutto followed, performed by Matt Barbier on a muted bass trombone. A variety of interesting textures were produced with a sort of buzzing from the mute often riding on the pitch. The melody moved along quickly, with rapid passages, adding to a sense of pace. The playing required consistently good technique and Matt Barbier delivered even as this was his final piece in a long concert.
The concert concluded with Simple Daylight , the noted song cycle by John Harbison, based on a text by Michael Fried. Originally commissioned by Lincoln Center Simple Daylight was first sung by Dawn Upshaw and begins with a sharp piano introduction that settles into a distinctly mysterious feel. The voice enters, building drama, even as the lyrics seem concerned with the ordinary. The music and the text work together effectively throughout, creating tension that results in a kind of indefinite, disconcerting awareness. Now a faster section that adds a further measure of anxiety, and the mood turns variously loud, dramatic, scary, and at times quiet and reflective. This is a complex piece, always something just beneath the surface, but the lyrics and the music always compliment each other perfectly . Harbison’s wide experience with choral church music is evident as he weaves a delicate thematic thread through each of the songs that comprise Simple Daylight. The playing in this performance – and especially the singing of Justine Aronson – never wavered under the many demands of this long work at the end of a full evening of concertizing.
Synchromy will appear at Boston Court in Pasadena July 17, 2015 in a program that will feature Brightwork and a variety of new music.
Photos by Tina Tallon
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On Tuesday November 11, 2014 Piano Spheres presented a concert by Richard Valitutto entitled NAKHT. The venue was the RedCat performing arts space at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and the 275 available seats were mostly filled to hear an evening of solo piano nocturnes. This was the first major recital by Richard Valitutto, who is a member of several leading new music ensembles that appear regularly throughout the city.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with Nocturnes (1929 – 38) by Francis Poulenc. Five nocturnes were played from this piece and the first of these, No 1 in C major, began with a warm and welcoming feeling and reflecting, from time to time, just the slightest tinge of regret. This piece gracefully unfolded with an accessible beauty. The acoustics in the hall were good and Richard applied a sensitive touch to the flowing melody line and its stately ending. The second movement, No 5 in D minor, has a much quicker feel, like a group of children running about inside a large house. The subtitle of this nocturne translates to “moths” and perhaps this accounts for the lively feel. The fast runs and rapid rhythms were accurately and precisely rendered while at the same time allowing the playfulness of the music to come through.
Other nocturnes from Poulenc were variously slow and stately with an introspective feel, sophisticated and engaging, like a group of friends out on the town or dramatic and expressive. The last nocturne, No 8 in G major, was softer and more reserved, almost church-like in its solemnity, but with a certain uplifting sensibility. All these Poulanec nocturnes were played with an ease and smoothness that highlighted a sense of openness and warmth.
The second piece in the concert was as above, so below (2014) by Richard Valitutto and this occasion was the world premiere. Some adjustments were required; the music rack on the piano was rotated allowing access to the strings within. As above, so below began with the plucking of isolated strings – with those in the higher registers sounded with a bell-like purity and were left hanging nicely in the air. The lower notes produced more of a clanking sound, but this made for a good contrast. The listener soon became accustomed to the use of these extended techniques, and as the piece proceeds they become a normal feature of the sound palette. Eventually notes were struck from the keyboard and this registered as a more percussive sound compared to the lovely sustained pitches of the plucked strings. A dialogue unfolds between the two sounds as the piece gradually develops into a quiet, meandering mystery. It is like a nocturnal wandering inside an old house while hearing the chimes of a grandfather clock. Based on the lunar cycle and “..simple canonic procedures like those we hear in Renaissance and Baroque music” as above, so below has a more flowing, introspective feel than its underlying structure might suggest, resulting in a pleasing level of thoughtful reflection.
Due Notturni crudeli (2000) by Salvatore Sciarrino was next and the first movement Senza tempo e scandito started with a series of strong, pounding high notes followed by a pause, a short passage and then a repeat. This became a steady, march-like pulse as the piece progressed, broken only by rapid runs that skipped down the keyboard. The feeling was quite unlike a traditional nocturne and was more reminiscent of an automaton caught in some perpetual factory process. Intimidating and impersonal, this movement only turned softer towards the end as it slowly died away. The second movement, Furia, metallo, was even more forceful, with loud pounding chords and rapid runs in the middle registers. There were a few quiet stretches but these simply served to reinforce to harshness of the more robust sections. The program notes for this piece state “…the predominating attitude is one of violence and hysteria, examining the dichotomy of disparate gestures and their pugnacious incompatibility.” The playing by Richard Valitutto was skillful throughout and carefully attuned to the strong emotions present in Due Notturni crudeli – the cruel nocturnes.
After a short intermission La chouette hulotte (1956-58) from Catalogue d ‘oiseaux, 3 Livre by Olivier Messiaen began with an ominous feel, like walking outside into the inky blackness of a cloudy night. Changing rhythms and running passages ensued, with a building sense of uncertainty and tension. The title of this piece translates to Tawny Owl, and is part of the Messiaen series of piano works that focus on birds and bird calls. He writes about this piece: “Darkness, fear, the heart beating too fast, the meowing and barking Little Owl, the cries of the Long-Eared Owl, and then there is the call of the Tawny Owl: sometimes gloomy and painful, sometimes vague and disturbing (with a strange tremor), sometimes shouted out in terror like the cry of a murdered child!” All of this is viscerally present in La chouette hulotte; at times Richard Valitutto seemed to be attacking the keyboard and at other times caressing it, artfully drawing out all of the foreboding and drama that is packed into this piece.
Next was a work by Aleksandr Skryabin, Poem-Nocturne, OP 61, (1912) and this began with a light, rolling melody accompanied by warm chords. This is a more traditional type of nocturne and is evidence of very controlled writing – there is a sense of slight tension and of something held back. Skryabin was heavily influenced by Chopin and, as the program notes state: “…during his middle years Skryabin became interested in composing ‘poems’, an appellation he derived from the late-Romantic concept of tone poem. However, unlike those heroic and tragic chronicles, most of Skryabin’s piano poems focus on the ephemeral beauty of a few simple gestures, favoring grace over grandiosity.” The delicate sense of anticipation in Poem-Nocturne approaches impressionism in its simplicity and subdued texture, and the understated feelings were all carefully articulated in this performance.
The final work of the evening was NCTRN (2014) by Los Angeles composer Nicholas Deyoe, commissioned for this concert by Piano Spheres. For this piece the piano was prepared so that the right-most key made a wooden knocking sound instead of hitting the string to make a note. This simple adjustment became an effective focal point as the piece progressed. Anyone familiar with the music of Nicholas Deyoe would normally expect to hear a thunderous roar from the piano, but apart from a few sharp chords NCTRN was a model of carefully controlled atmospherics. This is surprisingly economical music, with pauses and silences that added to a deep, evocative feel. The knocking sound made by the prepared key produced a keen sense of slowly building anticipation, becoming more insistent as the piece progressed. The sudden ending was the perfect, unexpected finish. The playing was everything NCTRN required – a fine touch with precise control that sustained the tautness throughout. The audience received this performance with sustained applause and cheering.
With artists like Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Vicky Ray and others, Piano Spheres has, with this satellite series concert by Richard Valitutto, recognized a new voice for the music of an upcoming generation.
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