(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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We are a little spoiled here in Charleston, the biggest little city in America, so if the new music portion of Spoleto Festival USA 2017 is a little less adventuresome than last season’s 40th anniversary program (which featured a production of The Little Match Girl by Helmut Lachenmann as well as a ravishing new production of Porgy & Bess), it may be that our expectations have reached impossible limits.
Quartett May 28, 31, June 3
The US premiere of a Royal Opera House production, Quartett blends Italian composer Luca Francesconi’s score for two singers and two orchestras — one live and one pre-recorded — to German dramatist Heiner Müller’s 1982 play. Directed by John Fulljames and conducted by Spoleto USA’s own John Kennedy.
Music in Time / Tempus Fugit May 28
New musical works from a new generation of composers from around the globe come together in a program featuring members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra led by conductor Jeffrey Means. Included are Tempus Fugit by Argentina’s Jose Manuel Serrano, Abysses by Estonia’s Helena Tulve, and Encore/Da Capo by Italy’s Luca Francesconi.
. Music in Time / Sounding Peace May 31
A celebration of the centenary of American composer Lou Harrison with some of his wonderful music integrating musical traditions from around the world, as well of the the work of younger composers Ted Hearne and Jonathan Holland.
Music in Time / Lecture on the Weather June 5
John Cage composed his classic performance piece Lecture on the Weather as a celebration of the USA’s Bicentennial in 1976. Using texts by Henry David Thoreau, recordings of nature, and projections, Cage’s work is a prescient and timeless sonic rumination on environmental and social concerns. An excerpt from the work reads: “More than anything else we need communion with everyone. Struggles for power have nothing to do with communion. Communion extends beyond borders: it is with one’s enemies also. Thoreau said: ‘The best communion men have is in silence.’” Also on the program will be Canadian composer Anne Southam’s Natural Resources.
Music in Time / Dialogues with Pedja Muzijevic
Four Haydn sonatas are interspersed with three modern works by Jonathan Berger, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, to offer listeners a fresh landscape for hearing works anew.
Mahler 4 and Dreaming
John Kennedy leads the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 4, as well as the US-premiere performance of Dreaming by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which won the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2012.
For those or more conventional tastes, there is Tchaikovsky’s grand opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s classic verse novel. Soprano Natalia Pavlova sings the part of Tatyana, among the greatest of female lead roles in the repertoire. The opera will be directed by Chen Shi-Zhen; Farnace by Vivaldi, to feature countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo under the direction of festival alumna Garry Hynes, and Mozart’s Great Mass.
And, of course, there will be plenty of New Music in Geoff Nutall’s Chamber Music series, details to come.
As my old poli-sci professor used to say in class 50 years ago; “Charleston? Put that city under glass.”
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Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Michael Papadopoulos, organ; Graham Ross, director
Harmonia Mundi CD HUM907653
On the Christian calendar, tomorrow (January 6th) is the Feast of the Epiphany. There are several aspects to Epiphany. First, it is the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, and so ends the celebrations of that merry season. Second, it is the commemoration of Jesus the Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Finally, in the spirit of ending a party with a magnificent and mysterious flourish, it is also commemorates the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
It is this third aspect of Epiphany that has most often drawn composers to create music commemorating the festival. On the Harmonia Mundi CD Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany,Graham Ross presents a program of primarily sixteenth and twentieth century selections. It is Ross’s seventh such recording for HM that is based around one of the events or seasons on the liturgical calendar. Here the interested believer may find much music that, in addition to being entertaining, informs them about the history of the liturgy. However, Christian and secularist alike can enjoy the high level of musicality and sheer beauty of the voices of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.
The hymn singing alone, accompanied with rousing verve by organist Michael Papadopoulos, is remarkable. It includes favorites like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” as well as a lovely rendition of “O worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness!” Renaissance era motets are well represented. Omnes de Saba by Orlande de Lassus is a particularly jubilant album opener. Purity of tone from sopranos and sepulchral notes from basses are on display, and carefully balanced, in Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. Clarity of contrapuntal lines feature in Clemens non Papa’s Magi veniunt ab oriente and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum.The varied tone colors brought to bear in William Byrd’s Ecce advenit dominator Dominus provide a sense of mysterious grandeur appropriate to the festival. Careful tuning of cross relations, as well as seamless alternation between the rhythms of chant and polyphony, supplies listeners to John Sheppard’s Regis Tharsis with a particularly evocative glimpse into another era’s harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.
Balancing the early music selections are a number of fine pieces from the twentieth century. A standout is Long, Long Ago by Herbert Howells; an initially tender melody gradually rises to an exciting climax, juxtaposed with a steady buildup of added note chords. Another is Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock, in which an intricate swath of modal melodies is set against strongly articulated tutti chords. Despite the considerable challenges it poses, Illuminare, Jerusalem, by Judith Weir, is taken at a spirited gallop. Judith Bingham’s alluring Epiphany pits a colorful organ part against sinuous vocal chromaticism. Lennox Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is delivered with haunting delicacy. All of this is capped off by the large-scale title work, a tour de force of choral writing by Arnold Bax.
Impressive performances throughout, combined with thoughtful programming, makes Mater ora filiumthe ideal recording for Twelfth Night!
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The idea for Nate Felix’s at home show, Classical Music Kegger, came to him when he saw an opera performance in a train station when he lived in Los Angeles. Felix decided to compose a show with only pianos. Despite the fact that he had never composed a piano piece, nor did he know how to play piano, when Felix returned to his hometown of Austin, he somehow snagged six free pianos off of Craigslist and got to work. Felix wants to give his community more than just the music itself. so he donated the pianos to schools.
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Elizabeth Bell Friou, award-winning composer and co-founder of New York Women Composers, Inc., died on Monday, December 19, in Tarrytown at the age of 88. Known professionally as Elizabeth Bell, she served as a member of the Board of Governors of the American Composers Alliance (ACA) and was involved in numerous other music associations.
A direct descendant of the ninth US president, William Henry Harrison, she was born in Cincinnati in 1928 to William Procter Bell and Sophie Buckner Bell. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1950 and from the Juilliard School in 1953.
Ms. Bell served as the music critic of the Ithaca Journal and received commissions from a range of musical associations, including New York State Council on the Arts, the Bradshaw/Buono duo, the Inoue Chamber Ensemble, North/South Consonance, the Putnam Valley Orchestra, and Vienna Modern Masters. Her musical compositions have been performed world-wide in concert halls and cathedrals from New York to Eastern Europe, Russia and Armenia. A lifelong advocate for the role of women in musical composition, she was a leading proponent of the International Alliance for Women in Music, established in 1994 to unite three distinguished organizations, the International Congress on Women in Music, the American Women Composers, and the International League of Women Composers.
She married astronomer Frank Drake in 1953 and they had three sons. Following their divorce, she moved from Ithaca, NY, to Tarrytown, NY. In 1983 she married attorney Robert Friou.
She leaves three sons: Stephen David Drake of Nashville, (married to Kim Carpenter Drake), Richard Procter “Rippy” Drake of Oberlin, OH, (Alice Moore), and Paul Robert Drake of Cape Cod, MA, (Ellen Sullivan); two step-daughters, Elisabeth Friou Mote (Gary Mote) and Jane Friou Clemens (David Clemens); six grandchildren, Becky Barger Gauthier (Ronald Gauthier), David Allen Clemens, Amy Jane Clemens, Grace Cecelia Drake, Elizabeth Harrison “Harris” Drake, and Spencer Logan Drake; and two great-grandchildren, Ava and Wyatt Gauthier.
A memorial service will be held on Monday, January 16, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 PM at the Coffey Funeral Home, 91 North Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, tel. 914-631-0983.
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Our pal Marvin Rosen says: “I am all packed and ready to leave home for WPRB. In a little over an hour, the 2016 VIVA 21ST CENTURY PLUS – “INTERNATIONAL EDITION” – 25-HOUR LIVE WPRB RADIO BROADCAST – goes on the air.
Hope that you can join me for at least for parts of program and please keep me awake at least over night. You can contact me on Facebook, Twitter @MarvinRosen or just call: 609.258.1033
On WPRB 103.3 FM Princeton NJ, or on the Internet at: http://wprb.com/
Panic Duo, consisting of violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nic Gerpe were featured in a People Inside Electronics concert on December 10, 2016 at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. The event was held in the roomy church auditorium and a full size crowd braved the weekend holiday traffic to hear seven contemporary pieces, including a world premiere. With one exception, all the pieces were by Los Angeles area composers and five were in attendance.
The first piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things by Jason Francesco Heath, inspired by the Villa Aurora, the cultural center and artists’ residence in Pacific Palisades. This opens with lush tones from the electronics accompanied by sustained violin notes above. In a most unusual form of piano preparation, a fishing line is drawn across the piano strings and amplified, filling the performance space with the most amazingly deep and resonant sounds. The combination of the electronics, violin and piano string produce some lovely harmonies and a warm, soothing texture. There is no perceptible pulse and the piece floats dreamily along with a feeling of nostalgic introspection. About midway through, the piano is played from the keyboard and the violin becomes more restlessly active. This purposeful feel soon gives way to the slower pace of the opening while the sound of surf, wind and quiet whispering is heard from the electronics. The line is drawn once again across the piano string, restoring the mystical ambiance at the close. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is an extraordinary piece that perfectly captures the sense history present in the Villa Aurora.
Who Cares If You Listen, by John Frantzen followed, and the title was based on the famous 1958 High Fidelity magazine article written by Milton Babbitt. In his remarks prior to the performance of this piece, Frantzen explained that he was inspired by the sounds of some of the famous quotes about music, starting with Babbitt and including sayings by Busconi and Ives. Solemn electronic sounds begin the piece, soon joined by the solo violin. The pounding of construction equipment was heard through the speakers and trills in the violin introduce an element of anxiety. Faster violin runs give way to repeating passages having the same rhythm and cadence as the speaking of the phrase “Who cares if you listen.” This was reminiscent of the vocal patterns heard in Steve Reich’s string quartet Different Trains, but in this case no recorded voices were heard. The Busconi quotation was less concise and illustrated with rapid violin phrases – precisely played by Pasha Tseitlin – along with a dance-like pizzicato section. The final quotation came from Charles Ives: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”, apparently in response to a heckler at a concert he was attending. This was accompanied by increasing volume in the electronics and a much faster tempo for the violin, resulting in a dramatic finish. Who Cares If You Listen is an artful blend of electronics, masterful violin playing and the sounds of speech patterns that combine to produce an intriguing extension of the sentiments expressed in the underlying quotations.
Composer Jeffrey Mumford remembers the recently departed Pauline Oliveros in the following obituary.
I had the honor of being a TA for Pauline Oliveros during my graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego from 1979-81.
Our worlds couldn’t have been more different.
I was deeply discovering the endless inventiveness and poetry in the music of Elliott Carter, with whom I would soon study, and was also working with Bernard Rands as my major teacher at UCSD.
A composer of color, I came from Washington, D.C. steeped in the music of among others, Count Basie, which resonated throughout our house in my youth.
I also loved (and still do) Brahms for many reasons, not the least of which is his sense of expansiveness and sweep, yet without one wasted note. He along with Schumann make me feel at home.
I had heard of Pauline and a bit about her early experimental work, before I came to UCSD.
What I found I got there and started working with her, was another kind of inventiveness in her approach to her work and most important for me, the permission to be myself, whatever that was and whatever that would be.
I was also impressed with her centeredness and sense of humor, an enduring whimsy not often found in our business.
She was at home with herself.
She left me alone to discover aspects of group improvisation and to impart what I was discovering to the students with whom I worked, and of course to deeply hear sound and its implications on its own terms.
Her’s was a quiet yet strong voice, who was the embodiment of integrity, holding true to her convictions, but always open.
She was always there, offering strength of creative purpose. She will be missed.
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NEW YORK – Austrian Cultural Forum New York makes part of its mission supporting chamber musicians from Austria, bringing them to the United States for concerts. One of the best of these concerts I have attended was this past Thursday’s New York debut of Ensemble Lux, a string quartet with formidable technique and ambitious tastes in programming. Their concert ranged across a century’s worth of music, from Anton Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet (1909), to la pureté de l’envie blanche, a piece from 2010 by the Lux’s second violinist, Thomas Wally.The concert opened with Olga Neuwirth’s settori, a showcase for extended techniques: alternate bowings, rapping on the wood of the instruments, Bartôk pizzicatos, altissimo register filigrees and harmonics. Neuwirth uses this expansive palette as the means to fascinating, expressive ends. Hans Erich Apostel (1901-’72) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. The musical materials and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School are on display in Apostel’s 6 Epigramme. While the pieces are well constructed miniatures, his last name is telling of his relative place in the 12-tone pantheon.
More engaging was Schoenberg’s String Trio. Written after the composer’s heart attack, a program reflecting this experience is often ascribed to the work. Whether one thinks it appropriate to do so, the piece is a remarkable late work by Schoenberg, juxtaposing the techniques of twelve-tone music and neoclassical phrasing with some of the visceral gestural language of his earlier Expressionism. Lux’s performance paid note both to the work’s Apollonian and Dionysian features. Correspondingly, Webern’s 5 Movements, aphoristic vignettes written at the beginning of atonality’s appearance, were played with exquisite care by the quartet.
la pureté de l’envie blanche juxtaposed periods of silence with angular runs nearly at the instruments’ bridges. There were also tremendously quiet sustained passages. One was struck by the dynamic range the quartet had been able to deploy in ACFNY’s small performance space, from thunderous outbursts in settori to the extreme pianissimos of Wally’s work. Ensemble Lux’s precision and control mark them as a group with a promising future. Hopefully, their next visit to New York will be soon.
Meredith Monk turns 74 today. An early birthday present came from ECM Records on November 4th: a recording of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature project. We do not have the benefit of language: the “text” consists of songs, chants, and syllabification in unknown tongues. And there is no narrative per se, but there are clues present in the piece’s sound world that readily suggest its environmental message: at times with clarion calls; at others, with poignant vulnerability.
Joined by a versatile troupe of vocalists (many of whom also play instruments on the recording), Monk sings with tremendous vigor and impressive range. The panoply of extended techniques on display, both vocal and instrumental, elicit a veritable catalog of sounds. Some are imitative of all manner of fauna: insects, birds, and mammals. Vocal play with “nonsense” syllables moves between jazz scat and primordial language. Likewise, the materials inhabited by the instrumental forces coexist between rustic primitivism, minimalist ostinatos, and sophisticated microtonality.
Monk is not afraid to make sounds that aren’t conventionally “pretty:” howls, chittering, and screaming among them. However, she often manages to evoke beauty even in the most raw and unconventional moments of On Behalf of Nature. It is as if we are being implored, by any means necessary, to attend more fully to the world around us. While we are deprived the visual and choreographic elements of its staging in this audio-only recording (one hopes ECM might consider producing a film of the work’s acclaimed stage incarnation), the music is amply impressive all by itself. It is Meredith Monk’s birthday, true, but her gifts are shared with us.