(80 North 6th Street), composer and toy pianist David Smookewill celebrate the release of his New FocusCD Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Joined by album personnelloadbang, Karl Larson and Michael Parker Harley, Smooke will also perform and improvise on the toy piano. I recently caught up with him and discussed the new recording, compositional approaches, and some future plans.
Artwork: Alejandro Acierto.
What attracts you to composing for and performing on the toy piano?
The sound of the toy piano evokes an idealized childhood, the sort that no one I know actually enjoyed and yet many of us possess as a shared mental experience. I love having that association underlying my explorations of disturbing and unusual sounds. In addition, it’s relatively easy to travel with one—certainly compared to a cello—and I like that there’s a basic keyboard interface alongside all sorts of other ways to interact with the instrument. When I first started playing live, it was also a huge selling point to me that there isn’t a standard performance practice with the toy piano, so I could do what felt comfortable to me without feeling like there was going to be someone in the audience shaking their head at the way that I hold my hands or where I place my feet. I keep thinking that I’ll move on to other instruments, and have plans to build some original ones, but then I keep finding other things that I can make this little box do.
Did the macabre image of the title provide a jumping off point for the winds piece or was it incorporated latter on?
When I first discovered that the Nutshell Studies existed, before I even saw them in person, I knew that I would have to eventually use them as the title for a major toy piano piece. They are a remarkably close analogy to what I do with the toy piano in that they take something associated with childhood (dollhouses in this case) and treat them in a very adult manner. And even though they portray an extreme fascination with death, they are actual tools that are used to assist people studying forensic science, and so are not sensationalist or exploitative. So the title sets up the exact expectations that I want for the piece.
Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker.
What microtonal tunings do you use in the wind ensemble piece? How did you manage to detune the banjo? What other tunings appear in your music?
Like you, I do enjoy lots of different temperaments! Since every toy piano is tuned differently from each other, and none of them are in anything close to equal temperament, I tried to place the toy piano within an environment where its unique scale wouldn’t sound too wrong. From the very first conceptualizations of the piece, I knew that I needed an instrument to link the toy piano to the ensemble, in this case, the banjo. Two strings of the five-string banjo are one quarter-tone sharp of their regular tuning, and in writing the part I was very specific as to which notes were played on which strings. And so we I created a continuum from the aleatoric tuning of the toy instrument, through the professional instrument with folk associations tuned in order to make it sound somewhat distorted, into the more standard concert instruments. In that piece, concert instruments use quarter tones as well. Some Details of Hell also uses a lot of quarter tones, in that case in order to explore resonance off of a single low pitch. In A Baby Bigger Than Up Was, I compose out the vowel formants from the repeated text, which required a more systematic approach to mictrotones, using naturally-tuned thirds and sevenths in addition to quarter tones.
Your text-setting often takes a deconstructionist or fragmentary approach. Tell us a little about how you view writing for the voice and texted scores in general.
I love words and writing! I love them so much that sometimes I can feel hamstrung when I try to set a text. And I think that the human voice remains the absolutely most beautiful and expressive instrument that we have yet created. So, for several years I avoided text entirely while writing for voice. Some Details of Hell is the last piece in which I took a published poem that I love and tried to set it as clearly as possible. In that case, I spent months analyzing the poem, including its line breaks, and figuring out exactly how I could do justice to Brock-Broido’s incredible sensitivity to language. A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was is my most recent work for voice, and marks my return to the idea of text setting. But the text for that piece is unique in that it’s a story with all of the hallmarks of a narrative but published in alphabetical order, beginning with 19 iterations of the word “a” and ending with nearly an entire page of punctuation. So, every word is set exactly as it was published, but the text itself is organized in a non-narrative manner. The excerpt on the CD brings us from “a” to “breathing” in five minutes, but the entire piece is nearly an hour long—it all gets pretty intense when we reach the ms and the 72 statements of the word “mom” and 442 of the word “my”!
The idea of looping appears in two different guises on the album: down.stream where you use a loop pedal on your toy piano and the overdubbed bassoons on 21 Miles to Coolville (bonus points for that title, by the way). Obviously, your music eschews a conventional approach to minimalism. But irregular sorts of repetitions prove to be a throughline, from your vocal settings to the aforementioned looping structures. How do you deal with repetition in your compositional language?
We never experience true repetition. Each time an event is encountered, we perceive it within a context, and any previous contact with that idea or similar ones colors the new experience. I’m fascinated by that idea and also by nature, where near repetition is quite common, but true repetition is almost unimaginable. I think a great deal about listening to the interaction between various bird calls, or predicting ocean waves, or watching rivers where the water is forever changing and forever the same. In my music, I try to play with these concepts by having ideas or words or motives recur but generally subtly changed. 21 Miles to Coolville (and thanks!) is completely written out, and has been played by four bassoons and also by Michael Parker Harley as a solo with prerecorded Harleys. The only difference in how I created to that piece from any previous compositions is that the quarter note pulse remains constant throughout. And my approach to looping pedal in my solo performances is a bit different from most people in that I generally am using it to create drones and sustained sounds, which are otherwise incredibly difficult to produce on the toy piano, and to allow for the buildup of more orchestral textures. When I was in high school, the music of the minimalist composers was one of my first entries into the classical music world, and I still adore minimalist and post-minimalist music and art. So, I feel the influence of that aesthetic very strongly, and try to be patient in my own music, allowing ideas to remain in place for as long as necessary, and I do sometimes enjoy unadulterated recurrence.
Tell us about the gig! How did you come together with National Sawdust to present a portrait concert? Who is playing and what will be on the bill?
With the new CD, I wanted to launch in New York, where so many of the performers live, as well as in my home of Baltimore. I’ve been hearing so many amazing things about National Sawdust, and I was fortunate enough to have them agree to host this concert. We’ll be presenting four of the six tracks from the CD, all performed by the players on the album: loadbang, the pianist Karl Larson, the bassoonist Michael Parker Harley, and myself. In addition, loadbang and I will improvise together to close out the show. I’m very excited to have this opportunity to share the stage with such amazing people and players!
What’s next for David Smooke? What projects are in the pipeline?
I’m going to be playing live quite a bit more than usual over the coming months, with shows in Boston on the Opensound Series on February 11 and in San Francisco at the Center for New Music on February 24, among others. And I’m working on a piece for the Baltimore-based Sonar Ensemble right now that uses a recording of a run on a nature trail near my home as the ground layer over which the ensemble will perform.
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NEW YORK – On December 18th, Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron appeared at Corpus Christi Church as part of Music Before 1800’sseries there. Their program, titled “Christmas at the Courts of 15th century France and Burgundy,” featured polyphony and plainchant that celebrated the Advent and Christmas seasons. Led by Scott Metcalfe, the fifteen-person ensemble was frequently broken into subsets and often sang without use of a conductor. Metcalfe instead led much of the proceedings from behind a harp or alongside the singers, setting the pace in alternatim hymn settings by Guilliame Du Fay, antiphonal pieces with a large group of unison singers and a smaller group of soloists.
The first half of the concert featured music based on the O Antiphons, a collection of eight melodies that fall in the liturgical calendar as the chants that lead us from Advent to Christmas. Each verse of the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features text from one of these antiphons. The polyphonic pieces that followed the chants employed material associated with the O Antiphons. Jacob Obrecht’s Factor Orbis quoted two antiphons, as well as a plethora of other texts and tunes, including a secular one bound to please the composer’s patron. Josquin Desprez’s O Virgo Virginum setting focused on just one antiphon, the eponymous eighth chant reserved for Christmas Eve in the Medieval Church (most denominations have since winnowed the number of O Antiphons from eight to seven in their respective liturgies). A six-part motet, O Virgo Virginum features stirring antiphonal passages for two trios and a veritable tapestry of interwoven short melodic motifs sung against the chant. Ave Maria gratia plena, by Antoine Brumel, was sung by three of the women of Blue Heron, providing an attractive timbral contrast to the preceding male-dominated selections.
In the Christmas section of the concert, split among the two halves of the program, the five-voice motet O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factus est by Johannes Regis served as a centerpiece, with two other pieces that emulated it presented as well: the aforementioned Obrecht motet, and Brumel’s Nato canunt omnia. Like Factor Orbis, the other two motets featured multiple texts, chants, and interwoven melodies. Blue Heron presented these mélanges of material with enviable skill, allowing the complex counterpoint to come through with abundant clarity.
Scott Metcalfe. Photo: Liz Linder.
To celebrate New Year’s Day, nobles from Fifteenth century French and Burgundian courts exchanged lavish presents, including commissioned vocal works. In a section spotlighting these gifts, called estraines, the audience was treated to an assortment of chansons by Dufay, Nicholas Grenon, Guilliame Malbeque, Baude Cordier, Johanna Tinctoris, and Gilles Binchois. For these selections, instrumentalists joined Blue Heron: Metcalfe playing harp, Laura Jeppesen vielle and rebec, and Charles Weaver lute. The variety of textures obtained by the various ensemble groupings in this section of the program was lavishly multifaceted.
Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’sGloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.
The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance.
The next concert on Music Before 1800’s series is on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM, when baritone Jesse Blumberg joins instrumental ensemble ACRONYM in a program devoted to music by Johann Rosenmüller. Blue Heron returns to Corpus Christi on October first: the week before my birthday. I certainly plan to make it my business to hear them again.
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On October 28th, a triple bill at Spectrum in NYC:
Mivos Quartet performs Yvonne Wu’s piece “Utterance,” the winner of their annual call for scores.
Iktus Percussion will showcase an evening of “clever, outrageous and adventurous” theatrical music by Rick Burkhardt, Paula Matthusen, and Paul Pinto (whose new album minis/Trajectories is out now).
Quiet City will perform as a sextet: Vasudevan Panicker (piano), Pat Muchmore (cello), Tiffany Chang (percussion), and three guitarists from the Glenn Branca Ensemble: Luke Schwartz, Arad Evans, and Greg McMullen. The set will include pieces by each of the guitarists and a Muchmore cello solo.
More info and RSVP on Facebook
On September 15-18 at Spectrum, Collide-O-Scope Music begins its eighth season with a Festival celebrating the music of Robert Morris. A wide range of works will be featured, for electronics, piano, small chamber ensemble, and string quartet. In addition to Collide-O-Scope personnel, there will be guest performers, notably JACK Quartet. I recently interviewed Morris about the upcoming concerts: our exchange follows.
How did this Festival of your music come about?
Out of the blue, on April 20, 2015, I received an email from Augustus Arnone proposing this festival of my music. I had never met Augustus nor heard him play in person, but I knew of his great pianistic talent and industry in playing the complete works of Milton Babbitt and the complete “History Of Photography In Sound,” by Michael Finnissy. I knew also of his new music ensemble called Collide-O-Scope. He proposed that the festival should feature my piano works (of which there are many), my small ensemble pieces, some of my electronic works, and string quartets, which would be played by the JACK Quartet. The members of the JACK were once students at Eastman where I teach, and two of them had studied composition with me. They have premiered two of my string quartets: Arc (1988)and Allegro Appassionata (2009) written for them. They will also play my most recent quartet called Quattro per Quattro (2011).
Why was Spectrum picked as the venue?
Spectrum is a New York City performance space that is well known for presenting progressive art and music. Collide-O-Scope has played there many times. In the last five years, more intimate informal performances spaces, by contrast with concert halls, are becoming the norm for new music concerts and events. This is perhaps a tradition that stems from the old NYC downtown music venues of the 1980s and 90s for alternative and improvised music.
What will the pieces for electronics be like? How do you think they will resonate in an intimate environment like Spectrum?
The electronic/computer music pieces are not that loud as such things go. One of the two pieces called Mysterious Landscape is quite intimate in character, while the other piece, Entelechy 2012 for piano and electronic modification, is sometimes brash and dramatic with subtle, timbreally unique gestures often including microtones, vibrati and glissandi—categories of sound impossible to produce on acoustic keyboard instruments.
These two pieces, both composed in 2012, complement each other in other ways. Mysterious Landscape is an improvisational electro-acoustic piece lasting about 30 minutes to be played by one or two performers. It complements my desire to connect music with nature as in my outdoor pieces. Here the sounds and processes of nature are brought inside a performance space so that natural sounds—birds, insects, frogs, mammals, wind, and water-—are mixed together with computer-generated sounds to project a serene sonic environment that reflects on a peaceful relation of humans to nature. I will play the piece with a video slideshow using landscape photographs I took in the southwest and eastern United States, south India, Sri Lanka, and Kyoto, Japan.
Entelechy 2012 is quite a bit more abstract in structure and design. It also involves indeterminacy, but of the composed type; in this case, two isomorphic, composed out structures are played against each other in a different coordination from one performance to another. This underlying structure is based on a ring of 24 elements that include all the permutations of four elements once each. This ring guides the timbres, gestures, and pacing of the piece. However it does not produce a sense of stability or unity in any of the performances. Rather the composition is designed to be radically impermanent, providing surprising and novel experiences as it moves on, as much as in jerks or surges as ebbs and flows. Incidentally, The word “entelechy” was coined by Aristotle to refer to the condition of a thing whose essence is fully realized, implying an actuality that directly stems from some potential idea or concept. Augustus will play the piece with sound modifications that are not controlled by a live performer.
Do you enjoy being part of the performances of your electronics installations?
Yes, I do. I enjoy improvisation, on one hand, and being in control of the nuance of the electronic sounds, on the other.
You’ve frequently composed for piano. What draws you to the medium?
I began playing piano before I could read music and took lessons. Even today, I improvise as much as I play written-out compositions; however in recent years, I play for myself only. Thus the piano has been the instrument on and from which I get musical ideas of all sorts, and is often the medium in which I try out new compositional ideas and modes of expression. I like to contrast the percussive and dynamically mobile character of the piano—which you find most prevalently in jazz of all types–with the colorful and intimate resonances found a good deal of new music. You might say, Bartok, Stravinsky and Babbitt versus Debussy, Boulez, and Feldman.
The piano program contains the premiere of a new work, Foray (2016). What were some of the compositional ideas you worked with in this latest piece?
Foray was directly influenced by Augustus’s playing, which I finally heard live last spring in a Collide-O-Scope concert featuring the music of Milton Babbitt and some younger composers. His remarkable ways of voicing and articulating piano sound made a big impression on me. So in mid-July an idea for a piano piece popped into my head and the character of the piano ideas was something I thought Augustus would like to play, so I dedicated the piece to him. The basic idea of the piece is that an opening series of ten chords arranged in an arc (maybe a rainbow, since each chord is of a different harmonic “color”) each generate music in subsequent sections of the piece. Thus the form is the arc followed by ten sections in different registers and densities. As the music goes on, the derivation of the music from the chords gets progressively more complicated and obscure in the way the music is parsed, registered, and embellished. The process is from isolated objects to mixtures and blends—an entropic process.
By the way, the other pianist on the program, Margaret Kampmeier, is also playing music I dedicated to her: from my Nine Piano Pieces.
Have your works been performed before by Collide-O-Scope Music? What does their ensemble bring out in your work that perhaps others don’t?
Well, not exactly. Some of the players who are members of Collide-O-Scope as well as guest artists on this festival have played and recorded my music. Sunghai Anna Lin (violin), Margaret Kampmieier (piano), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet) and Tara O’Connor (flute) were once members of the New Millennium Ensemble that played and recorded my sextet Broken Consort in Three Parts, as well as other pieces over the years. These are wonderful musicians who understand how to interpret the multiplicity of structure and expression in my music.
Could you tell us a bit about the ensemble works that will be heard on the festival?
Traces (1990) for flute and piano was commissioned by the National Flute Association in 1990 as a contest piece. As the title suggests, the piece moves forward by tracing and retracing various melodic lines in the piano by the flute and vice-versa,
Raudra for flute alone was written for Elizabeth Singleton in 1976. It takes its name from the fourth of the nine “rasa’s” of Indian music and dance, connoting the mood of fury and anger. I’m looking forward to Patricia Spencer’s performance.
Along A Rocky Path (1993) was composed for the Arlington Trio (violin, clarinet and piano). Like many of my pieces, Along a Rocky Path reflects aspects of natural landscape—especially less frequented and more rugged terrain. Shortly after completing the piece in January 1993, I came across a poem of the eighteenth-century Japanese poet, Uragami Gyokudo, from which I took the title of my trio.
There is no heat on this rocky path,
The sound of the water from a mountain stream is most pure,
By the red leaves, I know there must be a man’s hut nearby;
My traveler’s path is hidden in the white clouds.
Over the twisting path hang the waterfalls of Mount Lu,
The plank roads of Szechwan cross the steep mountains.
There is no need to bemoan the journey:
Wherever I chant my poems is home.
Out and Out (1989) was composed for Marianne Gythfeldt in the spring of 1989. It concerns the interplay between the two instruments; the clarinetist and pianist interact to shape the musical continuity, often doubling each other’s notes and rhythms. The resulting demarcation of one musical line by another affects every aspect of the piece, producing exceedingly great reaches of reference, pulling together music from every part of the piece.
Drawn Onward (2014) is a recent work for violin and piano written for the Irrera Brothers, an emerging violin/piano duet. The title of the piece involves a palindrome that is embedded in the following longer palindrome: “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?” The idea of a symmetry inside another symmetry is at the heart of the composition. For instance, each of the two players has their own musical materials, but the violin material is embedded in the piano material and vice versa. Since the two performers from whom I wrote the piece are brothers, I thought that working with mutually embedded materials an apt way of composing a piece particularly for them.
Did the JACK Quartet work with you when they were at Eastman?
As I mentioned earlier they did as composition students, but they were not the JACK Quartet yet. You can read about the interactions we have had in the following interview article: “Interview with the JACK Quartet, John Pickford Richards, Ari Streisfeld, Christopher Otto, Kevin McFarland, And Joshua B. Mailman,” Perspectives of New Music, (2014) 52/2.
String quartets often are particularly significant pieces in composers’ respective outputs. How would you characterize the quartets that will be heard on the festival?
Although I wrote a string quartet in 1976, Arc of 1988 is my official first quartet. Due to the difficulty of the music, I had to wait 21 years before it was played. The JACK decided to learn it in 2008 and have played it here and there since then. The second quartet, Allegro Appassionata, was written for the JACK in 2009 for a special concert at the Tank in NYC. The third, Quattro per Quattro was premiered and recorded by the Momenta String Quartet in 2014 with Benjamin Boretz’s string quartet, Qixingshan. Now I will hear the JACK’s interpretation!
Are these quartets significant in my output? I think yes: they are all extended, ramified compositions; each embodies a harmonious relation between singular compositional craft and intense emotional particularity; each is quite challenging for the performers. But as your question implies, string quartets are considered the high-water mark for composers of all stripes. I can only hope my quartets will be appreciated as such.
Sep 15 – 8:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert I – Electronic Installation Works
Augustus Arnone, piano, and Robert Morris, Electronics
Mysterious Landscape (2012)
(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)
Sep 16 – 8:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert II – Music For Solo Piano
Augustus Arnone and Margaret Kampmeier, pianos
39 Webern Variations (2010)
Night Vapors (1967)
14 Little Piano Pieces (2002)
Foray (2016) ** World Premiere
(pre-concert discussion with Morris at 7pm)
Sep 17 – 8:30 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert III – Music For Mixed Ensemble
Along A Rocky Path (1993)
Out and Out (1989)
Drawn Onward (2014)
Sep 18 – 3:00 pm
Robert Morris Festival, Concert IV – Music For String Quartet
The Locrian Players present music from the past decade. The repertoire that their curators find is always a fascinating listen and often includes several premieres. Check them out (for free) on Friday.
Friday, August 26 at 8PM
Derek Bermel A Short History of the Universe
Martin Suckling Visiones after Goya**
Elliott Carter Figment IV
Royden Tze Starscape***
Jonathan Dawe Silent like the Snow
Julian Grant Know Thy Kings and Queens
Louis Conti Ohne Heimath
* World Premiere ** U.S. Premiere *** New York Premiere
10th Floor Performance Space, Riverside Church
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To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.
Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.
The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.
In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.
The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.
Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.
The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.
The centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is ocassion to celebrate. After Augustus Arnone’s three recitals earlier this season playing Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, now his group Collide-O-Scope Music is treating us to another rarely performed gem: Babbitt’s Arie da Capo (1974). It’s the major mixed ensemble chamber work from Babbitt’s middle period, and named in dedication to its original performers, the Da Capo Chamber Players, whose flutist Patricia Spencer is also now a member of Collide-O-Scope and is part of the ensemble performing Arie this Friday—now that’s authenticity!
Babbitt drinks tea
Arie ca Capo rewards the listener on repeat hearings, which thankfully are possible. Although premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Arie was recorded by Harvey Sollberger and the Group for Contemporary Music (Nonesuch 1979) and later by Ciro Scotto (Nimbus 1987). As with most of Babbitt’s mature works, its sectional structure maps out a variety of textural combinations (or shall we say combinatorics). Each of its five sections presents a solo instrument in an aria against the other four accompanying players: clarinet, cello, flute, violin, and then piano each has its turn in an intricately shadowed limelight. Moreover, each of the five arias contains a quintet, trio, quartet, trio, and quintet again. (The relation between its rhythms, textures, pacing, and precompositional structures are discussed in a 1988 Perspectives of New Music article by Ciro Scotto.) Of Babbitt’s works, this one especially abounds in loquacious social interplay. It will be conducted by Robert Whalen and played by Arnone (piano), Spencer (flute), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Gregor Kitzis (violin), and Valeriya Sholokhova (cello).
Additionally, Arnone will again tackle the solo piano work Tableaux (1973), from the same time period as Arie, and Patricia Spencer will play Babbitt’s later work None but the Lonely Flute (1991).
Charles Wuorinen, a composer associated with and influenced by Babbitt but whose music sounds nothing like Babbitt’s, is represented on the program by his trio for piano flute, and bass clarinet (2008)—a polished and vibrant neo-baroque surface full of bustling energy and clarity.
from Chris Bailey’s Timelash
Christopher Bailey’s rapidfire Timelash (1999/2016), also to be performed, bases its “quasi-morse code rhythms” on the first 16 measures of Babbitt’s violin and piano work Sextets. Resonances of carefully selected harmonies are also explored in this piece (of which further details here.) On the same program, a composition by Lou Bunk exploits the pliability of the clarinet, presenting cross-sections and intersections of three distinct themes, separated by silences.
Continuing the tradition begun earlier this season, this concert’s intermission will feature an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert D. Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades.
Collide-O-Scope: Chamber works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Bunk, and Bailey (mid-concert discussion with Robert Morris) Friday, June 17, at 8pm, $20, $15 (Students/Seniors). Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St., NYC.
Most New Yorkers are walking about, minding their own business, completely oblivious to the international sonic earthquake vibrating through their midst all week: The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF). The first wave of the festival (seven concerts) took place as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last week. Yet the lion’s share of the festival is happening right now: 28 more concerts during June 13-19, at Abrons Arts Center on Grand St., for a total of 35 concerts. Yes you read that correctly: 35 concerts of electroacoustic music, including some 350 works, by almost as many composers from all around the world! Indeed a mammoth undertaking organized, produced, and presented miraculously by Hubert Howe, Travis Garrison, David Reeder, Howie Kenty, and a highly dedicated energetic staff.
The variety on offer is astonishing. There are pieces for live instruments or voice and electronics (live processing or premade sounds); pieces for synthesized sound, sampled sounds, and both together. Some works feature video. Other works feature graphics generated through live video feeds of the performer, or graphics generated through movement. Concerts are heard alternately in two small traditional auditoriums and a cozy cocoon-like space with 16-channel surround sound, seating in the round, amongst stratospheric ceilings. Sound art and visual art installations are mounted in the hallways and foyers. The concerts are at 12:30, 2, 4, and 8pm; workshops and paper presentations on such topics as “Oral History as Form in Electroacoustic Music”, “Orient Occident: An Alternative Analysis,” and “Wireless Sensing” occur in the mornings, at NYU.
Among the international cast of composers and performing artists heard in the festival are Tania León, Ken Ueno, Alice Shields, Clarence Barlow, Elizabeth Hoffman, Simon Emmerson, Alvin Lucier, Shelly Hirsch, Annie Gosfield, Phil Niblock, Alan Licht, Judith Shatin, Michelle Jaffe, Maja Cerar, Marianne Gythfeldt, and Arthur Kampela. Most of them are on hand and the casual atmosphere is conducive to conversation with and among participating artists.
Togo seed rattle
One of the most interesting works I heard was Precuneus; Sonic Space no.8—Iteration No.4 (2016) by Michael Musick. This is a work for live performer and “sonic ecosystem.” And yes, it sounds as great as that sounds. During the performance, Mr. Musick gently wafted throughout the stage, as if in a trance, while playing sometimes a recorder and sometimes a Togo seed rattle and other percussion instruments. Meanwhile Mr. Musick’s software reacted in the most delightfully musical way. Its “digital agents” listen to the live sounds and spontaneously extract features from them and then generate new sounds sculpted by these features. These sounds percolated and jiggled all around the hall in a delicate lavander tornado for the ears.
Zhaoyu Zhang’s Night Snow brought my ears close up and inside mysterious objects and intriguingly close to strange materials in action—as though my ears were intimately touching the source of the sounds, quiet sounds of brushing, crushing, caressing, burning, scraping, and feathering. Deeper sounds were felt more than heard, creating an altogether visceral experience, evoking what the ancient Chinese poet Juyi Bai’s calls the four senses: tactile (cold), visual (bright), feeling (to know), and auditory (to hear)
On the same concert, Larry Gaab’s Weird Orbits Need Explaining seemed to use the lyrical gestures and sweeps of melody to steer the trajectories of other sonic material. An eerie yet friendly vocality emerged. So much I wish I could go back to hear again
violinist Maja Cerar in action
The highlight of the late afternoon concert was Xiao Fu’s Longing, a ravishing audio-visual kinetic spectacle that lasted nearly a quarter of an hour, involving two performers supported by a crew of four who manipulated hand-held projectors and sound. It is based on a song of the Huang He Ge from the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Beautifully colored hand-painted animation of Chinese calligraphy was projected on a video screen with computeized sound before two women emerged in flowing costumes, gracefully dancing and singing (both). One of them later played the flute against the sonic digital backdrop while a new, and highly original, ornate style of colorful animation permeated the visual field, zooming and granulating. Strikingly colored calligraphic imagery punctured the progression toward a taut climactic episode in which the second performer dramatically played an accelerating drum pattern against flickering virtuosic lines of the flute.
AV artist Michelle Jaffe
The overflowing diversity of creativity witnessed in this festival is simply inspiring. What I described above is only a snippet of what happened on the first day. After today there are still five days left. So most of the highlights are yet to come. It’s well worth the trip to this somewhat neglected corner of Manhattan, between Chinatown and the Williamsburg Bridge.
The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF), June 13-19, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street, near the F/M train Essex st. station) Each show $15 (evening shows $20); day pass $40; festival Pass at $160.
Since its inception, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM has displayed a catholicity of style in its program selections. This year is no exception. Director Louis Karchin and the players present works ranging in character from serialism to spectralism, with a bit of neo-tonality in between. This is only fitting: the League has long welcomed composers of myriad styles into its membership. This year’s season finale is equally representative of this musical diversity.
Huck Hodge’s Alêtheia is filled with percussive passages, glissandos, and extended techniques juxtaposed with supple melodic gestures. It makes a bold impression. In a recent interview with League member Luke Dahn, Hodge clarified his particular use of orchestration as follows, “There is the combination of roughness and elegance in my music – the way that coarse yet sumptuous timbres may create a framework from which emerge elegiac lines of melody. Some listeners have identified a certain violence in my music, but it is a regenerative violence — destruction as an act of rebirth — like the restorative nature of a forest fire.”
Sempre Diritto! (Straight Ahead!) by Paul Moravec is a robust work filled, as one might imagine, with direct melodic gestures. These are supported by harmonies redolent in Romanticism. However, the piece is not merely nostalgic for a bygone era or a particular geographic area. Instead, Moravec molds these various elements into staunchly individual music of considerable character.
Composed for the pianist Peter Serkin, Charles Wuorinen’s Flying to Kahani references his opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The title is the name of the second “undiscovered” moon of earth, found in Salman Rushdie’s book upon which the opera is based. A piano concerto, but one cast in a single movement, it is abundantly virtuosic, both in the piano’s solo passages and in the orchestral parts. While its harmonic language is unmistakably chromatic, like many of Wuorinen’s recent pieces there is an exploration of pitch centricity (Kahani is built around the note C) and reference chords.
The longest work on the program, clocking in at some twenty-five minutes in duration, Felipe Lara’s Fringes explores the world of spectral composition, serving as an homage to the work of such French composers as Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey, and Pierre Boulez, However, Fringes is not just built on the harmonic series found in orthodox spectralism, but also on a complex array of effects-based orchestration. Much like Hodge’s work, there is an architecture of sentiments – of gentleness contrasted with violent outbursts. Another layer of Lara’s music is his use of antiphonal seating, with instruments spatially dispersed onstage creating a vibrant colloquy. Thus once again in its Season Finale concert, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM shares a collection of pieces from the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries that display diversity, virtuosity, and a wide range of reference points. One thing shared by all the works: the durable quality of the music.
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On Monday, May 23rd, with a performance by JACK Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, the New York Philharmonic’s second Biennial begins. Running until June 11th, a plethora of concerts are contained in this year’s offerings. Last week, Music Director Alan Gilbert outlined some of them at an “Insights at the Atrium” event. You can watch a video of it below.
On Tuesday, May 24th, Q2whets listeners’ appetites for the Biennial with a 24-hour marathon devoted to the NY PHIL. Hosted by composer Phil Kline, it features recordings from the orchestra’s archive and record label. At 7 PM, there will be a live broadcast from National Sawdustof violinist Jennifer Koh playing from her Shared Madness commissioning project.
A few other events that I’m particularly enthused about:
Cheering for the home team, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM, conducted by Louis Karchin,presents a concert on June 1st at Miller Theatre with works by Huck Hodge,Felipe Lara, Paul Moravec, and Charles Wuorinen.
On June 2-4, a staging of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest will be given as part of the NY PHIL’s Contact! series.
Cellist Jay Campbell curates Ligeti Forward, a series of three concerts on June 3-5, performed by alums of the Lucerne Festival, conducted by Gilbert. Using György Ligeti as a starting point, the concerts incorporate a number of composers who have been influenced by his work, including Unsuk Chin,Marc-André Dalbavie, Gérard Grisey,and Alexandre Lunsqui.
On June 8, the Aspen Contemporary Ensembleperforms a program that features the NY Premiere of Steven Stucky’s composition for tenor and ensemble The Stars and the Roses. A setting of three Czeslaw Milosz poems, the affirming character of both the words and music of this piece are made even more poignant by the composer’s recent passing.The concert also includes NY premieres of works by Esa-Pekka Salonenand Stephen Hartke.
On June 9th, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Brooklyn Knights join forces on two programs that feature pieces by, among others, Lisa Bielawa, Theo Bleckmann, Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis, Carla Kihlstedt, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.
There’s more Stucky on the Biennial’s finale on June 11th; a concert given by the Philharmonic features the New York premiere of his Pulitzer prizewinning Second Concerto for Orchestra. Also on the program is the cello-filled Messagesquisse by Pierre Boulez and the U.S. Premiere of Per Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8.