Sequenza 21: The latest CD of your compositions, Liminal on Divine Art, features three works, a short orchestra piece, Shoreline Rune, Liminal, your Fourth Symphony, and Prism, an older work for organ. How did you decide on this grouping?
Carson Cooman: A number of recordings of my music have been released, and the music on them has been grouped and organized in different ways, depending on the repertoire at hand. For this release, I wanted to try a “mini-album” (shorter length than a full CD and priced accordingly). So the symphony was the main affair, and then I chose two other pieces that would serve as a sort of prelude and postlude. I remember Lutoslawski said that he settled on his characteristic large scale form (short introductory movement followed by a main movement) because he felt there was too much information to digest for a typical listener in a traditional four movement symphonic structure. In a somewhat related way, I wanted to do an album where instead of lots of pieces competing to fill up the 80 minutes of time there was just one main piece and then two shorter pieces to take the listener in and out of it. I was grateful that Divine Art was open to doing this. Shoreline Rune was written as a birthday gift for Judith Weir, and then Prism was an organ piece from more than 10 years earlier, which I chose simply because I felt its mood worked as a postlude to the symphony.
S21: Judith Weir is the dedicatee for Shoreline Rune. How do you know Weir and which of her pieces would you recommend to listeners to get to know her work?
CC: I studied with Judith Weir for a year in college, and it was a remarkable and inspiring experience. While I had quite positive interactions in different ways with other teachers, I’ve often felt that I gained more in that short time with her than I did in all the other years of formal study combined. For my taste, you can’t really go wrong with digging into her output. And like so many British composers, she has pieces for all purposes: from major concert works for the world’s best orchestras to easy pieces for amateur congregational singers. This versatility of purpose is something I greatly admire and strive for myself, and for various reasons, it’s been far more common in the 20th/21st century in UK composers than in other countries.
But in terms of a few specific Weir pieces that are personal favorites: Her first big opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera, is a masterwork. The orchestra piece The Welcome Arrival of Rain is quite moving. And there are so many exceptional chamber works: I Broke Off a Golden Branch and the Piano Concerto being two personal favorites. Chamber music is a particularly good fit for her sensitive, transparently luminous musical aesthetic.
S21: Your Fourth Symphony is about climate change. What made you decide to respond to this global issue in symphonic form? Are you feeling either Adams breathing over your shoulder?
CC: I use the term symphony simply to imply that a piece is inspired by a “big subject.” Thus, the five pieces (four for orchestra and one for organ solo) that I’ve given that title all have different big topic inspirations. However, I really don’t see these pieces as “grand statements” that try and sum anything up—and certainly not in any truly cosmic way. They are much more akin to writing a personal essay (or a long Facebook post!), just reflecting and expressing in some way my own thoughts. And, in some ways, writing the pieces on those subjects (whether or not one believes music can express anything concrete) is just a way to help me organize and work out what I think. I get itchy around “grand statements,” which in the right hands can be remarkable experiences, but the arrogance of which they often smack personally doesn’t sit well with me.
My decision to use climate change as the inspiration for the symphony came simply after several years of thinking, reading, and personal processing about the issue. Certainly when writing any environmentally connected piece of music today, John Luther Adams’s presence is inevitable. I think it’s wonderful that in spite of its “experimental” roots, his work has in the last few years really entered the classical mainstream. I think what my pieces do and how they are put together are rather different from JLA, and while my piece does also have a climate/environmental inspiration, it’s a different work than Become Ocean is, for example.
As for the other Adams (John Coolidge), I’ve also heard everything he’s written, and there are many pieces that I greatly enjoy as a listener, but I don’t think much from his style has had an audibly direct impact on what I write. I think partially it’s because his most characteristic devices are now so instantly recognizable as his. I hear those influences very audibly in a number of composers today, and that’s totally fine—in a sense they are working in their own way in a new post-John Adams tradition. But just as a personal choice, I don’t want to use his devices so directly.
S21: Organist Erik Simmons has been one of your staunchest advocates. How did you come to work with Erik and what is it like writing for another organist?
CC: I’ve been very fortunate that my organ music has been well-received and played by many fine organists, but Erik has taken to it to a degree that goes above and beyond. He’s recorded four full CDs of my organ pieces so far, with several more in the works, including a double disc set of all my organ pieces inspired by pre-baroque genres. It’s not officially a “complete organ works” project, though in the end it will probably be close to that.
In my own organ performing, from time to time I’ve had this experience myself where I almost compulsively want to play and record as much as possible by a particular composer. Erik’s work with my organ music has been a bit like that, and I’m just experiencing it now from the other direction, which is very flattering. Our work together has also generated a number of new compositions, all of which he has recorded beautifully.
In terms of “writing for another organist,” that is always what I’ve done. None of my organ music is written for myself. I never play my own pieces, unless somebody specifically asks me to do it. The main reason is that, as a player, I enjoy most the sense of discovery and exploration of repertoire, and I already “know too much” about my own music, having spent lots of time writing it in the first place. Composition and performance are two different impulses for me, and I get different kinds of satisfaction out of them.
S21: Your own activities as an organist have included a considerable amount of commissioning, performing, and recording. Tell us about your most recent recording projects as a performer.
CC: Relating to what I said above about a kind of compulsive obsession, much of my recording activity the last few years has been devoted to the work of several composers: Thomas Åberg (Sweden), Carlotta Ferrari (Italy), and Lothar Graap (Germany). In all three cases, I’ve recorded CDs and also a large number of additional works for online/YouTube.
Lothar Graap has been the focus in 2015. Born in 1933, Graap spent most of his life in the former East Germany (DDR), and because of that, his work was not widely known outside until the 1990s. Several pieces were published internationally by the state publisher in those decades, including his Meditationen (Meditations) (1968), which I think is one of the true organ masterworks from those years of East Germany. Since 1990, Graap has published old and new pieces with many publishers in Germany, and his work is now widely used within that country. However, it is still little known in the USA, and my recording project was conceived partially to address that.
I really like his music; its very German aesthetic is appealing to me, since a French influence has become all-consuming and pervasive in 20th/21st century new organ music (in all countries, including the USA). There isn’t a French moment in Graap’s music, and I thus enjoy working with something that is different from so much of what one usually hears today in new organ literature. As a fine organist himself, Graap writes music that is beautifully conceived for the instrument; much of it is very well suited to the small and medium size organs that are my personal favorite kinds of instruments. Much as I enjoy hearing the whole spectrum of organ music in the hands of other players, my own personal tastes tend to gravitate towards organ music with a strong neo-baroque aesthetic, but re-imagined through the lens of the present era.
Much of my recording activity in 2015 has been devoted to Graap’s work. This summer, I released two CDs of his music and have also recorded some 75 additional works online. There are a still a number more that I want to do before I’m done with this project. Since we’ve begun this project, he’s also written a few new pieces for me which I’ll premiere in 2016.
In addition to those three composers, I’ve also (in smaller quantities) continued to perform and record works by many other contemporary composers as well. At last count, I’ve recorded organ works of more than 225 different contemporary composers since 2012.
As the organ editor for Lorenz Publishing Company, I am also simultaneously developing and commissioning new organ publications from many composers, covering the entire spectrum of organ literature: from pieces for part-time church organists to recital literature.
S21: You are an uncommonly prolific composer. My composition students often ask me how forebears such as Bach or Handel wrote so much music. While writing in many genres and styles, how does a composer in the Twenty-first century find their voice?
CC: Since the late 19th century, a romantic/post-romantic paradigm seems to have become the norm in terms of how one conceptualizes an output and body of work. This even true for people whose music has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with romanticism as an aesthetic or style. But the notion that one writes primarily big pieces (and fairly few of them) is something that has stuck with us in contemporary concert music circles. I think it’s this inheritance that makes it hard for many composers to think about the kind of productivity that was the norm in earlier eras (and not unheard-of from certain composers in the early 20th century either).
My own thinking is in many ways more like that of pre-romantic eras. I’m a professional composer, and so I write music to the best of my ability when I’m asked to do so: whether that be for professional orchestra or amateur chorus. The “great artist” ego has little appeal to me. I’ve always been relatively prolific, and I’ve found in my own experience (and with many of my friends and colleagues) that we all have different paces at which we work, and trying to change that pace is not going to be effective. You simply have to find your own musical metabolism and learn to produce the best work you can that way. No actual teacher of mine tried to make me write less, but when I was a student other people advised it, based on their own (slower) pace. There was nothing to be gained by that, however, as it simply wasn’t the way that I worked. It ultimately made no more sense than it would make for me to try and force somebody who writes really slowly to produce a lot more just for the sake of doing so.
But of course, I can’t escape that post-romantic aesthetic inheritance entirely. For example, I do make a conscious effort not to repeat myself and not to accept commissions/projects where I think the result might be just be a lesser version of something I’ve already done. Because I was born in 1982, I worry about things like that. If I had been born in 1682, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind! When people criticize Vivaldi (not really true, of course) for writing the “same concerto over and over again,” the notion that doing something like that would have been somehow “wrong” would have been rather foreign to him. But because I live when I do, I can’t escape entirely the milieu and aesthetic in which I came of age musically.
In the end, I just try and do the best work that I possibly can in the manner that has come to be my way of doing things. Each person needs to find for themselves what that method and pace is.
Comments Off on Composer Carson Cooman (Interview)
On Saturday, April 2, 2016 the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for Rainforest IV, the landmark sound installation by David Tudor. Presented by People Inside Electronics and the Southland Ensemble, Rainforest IV filled the ample sanctuary and attracted a sizable crowd to witness the unique interaction between acoustic instruments, electronics and found objects. The world premiere of Other Forests, by Carolyn Chen was also heard, a work written especially for performance in conjunction with Rainforest IV.
The Rainforest IV (1976) installation consists of several stations, each with a series of found objects suspended from a framework made from small pipes, much like a tall coat rack. The objects varied in size, shape and materials – there was a piece of sheet metal about two foot square, metal bowls, plastic objects, a tambourine and a number of unstrung string instruments. Each object was fitted with a transducer that imparted vibrations from various recorded pitches and other sounds. Additionally, there was a pickup attached to each object and this transmitted the individual sonic response downstream to amplifiers and speakers – the idea being that each object was voicing an interpretation of the applied input as a function of its mechanical properties. The input signals to each found item could be rerouted – or several summed electronically – as needed during the performance. All of this was accomplished with a bewildering array of cables, connectors, analog amplifiers and speakers as based on David Tudor’s early circuits, specifications and schematic diagrams. Computers could also be seen as part of the installation – a more contemporary way to record and direct the signals.
In a 1988 interview, David Tudor explained the intent of Rainforest IV: “The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.”
On Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, gnarwhallaby presented an evening German contemporary music in a concert titled DEUTSCHwhallaby. Four pieces were heard including a US premiere and the world premiere of Plainsound Lullaby by Wolfgang von Schweinitz.
The first piece was Stau (1999) by Steffen Schleiermacher and this begins with a sharp tutti opening followed by sustained tones and a second sforzando chord ending the phrase. The piano was then heard in its very highest notes with a rapid clicking sound. This sequence repeats several times, producing a feeling of mild vexation in the halting character of the piece as it inches forward. Stau is the favorite German term for traffic jam and anyone who has traveled the autobahn through a large city will have undoubtedly experienced this. As the piece continues some forward movement is heard – a solo from the clarinet and then in the trombone – but these are inevitably followed by a sudden piano crash – and we have come once again to a complete halt. The playing by gnarwhallaby was characteristically precise and powerful, and aptly reinforced the stop-and-go character of this piece. At one point the music moves ahead with an intense, driving beat and a bright, active feel – as if we have finally broken free of the stau – but this comes to an unexpected end, replaced by a sustained tone in the cello and soon we are back to the slower sequences. Stau is the perfect musical metaphor for that most infuriating of modern inconveniences: stop-and-go traffic on a freeway. The robust and accurate playing perfectly complimented the character and intentions of a piece that is fully attuned to the quintessential Los Angeles traffic experience.
D’avance (1996/97) by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf followed, and this was the US premiere. Starting with a sharp piano chord, this gave way to a series of light, rapid passages in the clarinet that were airily quiet, but soon gaining in volume. The piece then unfolded into an extended clarinet solo, ably negotiated by Brian Walsh, covering all possible combinations of changing dynamics as well as jumps in pitches and tempo. A complex tutti passage followed that was free of any unifying melody or beat, but effectively enhanced the mysterious and ephemeral flavor. A cello solo followed, as varied and disparate as that heard from the clarinet; and then more tutti passages, at times spiky with complex interweaving or smoother and more sustained.
D’avance proceeds with alternating solos and tutti passages, building in tension and always in a state of revision and transition. This music keeps the listener constantly in the moment, with no expectations raised and none delivered. It is never static but always changing – coherent yet unconnected. It is like walking in a dark forest where the shadows are continuously shifting and mutating into new forms inside your brain. Harmonies, when they occurred, never seemed intentional, but were instead transient and without pattern or repetition. A stark piano solo had a disconnected, jagged feel – full of short, complex phrases that subtly conveyed a sense of alienation. D’avance is a brutally difficult piece of music to perform and gnarwhallaby rose fearlessly to the challenge with a virtuosic display of their collective abilities. Devoid of beat, harmony and formal structure, but full of complex motion and kaleidoscopic textures, D’avance confronts the listener with elemental forces that are masterfully marshaled into a compelling musical perspective.
On Saturday, February 27, 2016 Boston Court in Pasadena hosted the Los Angeles-based composer collective Synchromy and The Argus Quartet who performed no fewer than 9 works of new music including three world premieres. A nice crowd filled the Marjorie Branson space to hear a concert titled walkabout that featured narration, video projections and music from seven different composers inspired by place and surroundings.
The first piece on the program was Sabina, by Andrew Norman from A Companion Guide to Rome, a collection of nine musical portraits based on churches in Rome. As Norman writes in the program notes: “The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the churches, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for a year of living in the Eternal City.”
Sabina was performed on this occasion by Clara Kim of the Argus Quartet as a violin solo. This begins with a series of quiet whispers that evoke a light breeze or the wind whistling softly through the stone arches of a church. This builds gradually into some lovely notes and runs of sound that unfold to create a more active, complex texture. The playing becomes more animated through an interweaving of sounds – much like a tapestry of colored threads – but with an overall warmth and wistfulness that is very appealing. All of this was performed with great skill by Ms. Kim who kept everything balanced and moving crisply forward. Towards the conclusion the pace slowed and a series of singularly high, thin notes coalesced into what could have been a simple hymn tune to finish out. For those who are familiar with Norman’s orchestral works – full of power and fury – Sabina reveals a more sensitive compositional touch and is a beautifully sketched likeness of a charming subject.
Cloud Trio, by Kaija Saariaho was next and a brief spoken introduction by narrator Chelsea Fryer was given about the instrumentation prior to the playing of this piece. As quoted from the program notes: “In this piece, the three instruments all have different tasks and functions, they represent very different aspects of string playing. These tasks are sometimes very concrete: the violin tends to behave as an echo or reverberation, the viola creates new clouds next to the existing ones and the cello often has a function of a shadow to the upper instrumental lines.”
Images of clouds moving slowly across a blue sky were projected on the screen above the stage and Cloud Trio began with smooth, sustained lines from each instrument that produced some enchanting harmony. As the piece progressed there was a more active feel in the violin – almost like the falling of rain drops – and a rapid, complex intertwining of the parts. Over the four sections of this work each of the instruments rose to the top of the texture only to be replaced with another, and this produced a fascinating series of combinations. The volume, rhythm or complexity would increase and then subside, and the feeling was variously mysterious, lethargic or dramatic, as if a series of different clouds were drifting by. A captivating violin solo emerged just as the piece finished and the Argus players carefully drew out each of the nuances in this well-played performance. Cloud Trio is imaginative music that invites the listener to conjure up vivid atmospheric images.
The world premiere of funeral song for the people of the ruined cities, by Zaq Kenefick followed and for this piece the full Argus Quartet took the stage. This music is an exploration of what hypothetical folk music might sound like for a people who have lost their cultural memory after some long-ago calamity. A short narration preceded the start of this and an anxious trill in the violin opened the piece with a strong sense of foreboding. Tutti passages followed with a growling sound in the cello and strong strumming of the viola. There is a rough, edgy feel to this – all is unsettled and seemingly in chaos. Despite its short playing time, funeral song for the people of the ruined cities is an expressive and unnerving musical glimpse into the grim future of a people who must exist without a past.
(This is an expansion of an earlier post for a concert ultimately postponed due to snowstorm Jonas in January)
Augustus Arnone performs a double bill of Milton Babbitt’s solo piano works including the complete Time Series, at Spectrum, Sunday March 6, at 12-5 pm (12 and 3:30)
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of his major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2008. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread over three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. Due to a postponement caused by storm Jonas in January, Arnone is performing the second and third concerts in one afternoon this weekend!
The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). Arnone’s performance also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording. This much constitutes concert II, the first half of this Sunday’s double bill, which starts at 12 noon.
In the final concert (concert III) which starts at 3:30, Arnone presents a variety of works spanning nearly all of Babbitt’s professional career, from the mid 1940s through the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Tutte Le Corde (1994) represents Babbitt’s most streamlined and ingratiating late style, which is a nice inclusion for the final recital of the series. On this recital we’ll also be treated to some of Babbitt’s wittiest and pithiest: Minute Waltz (1977) and It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), which are perhaps the only Babbitt works to clearly project rhythms associated with a familiar genre. It Takes Twelve to Tango leaves us unsure whether to imagine a single 12-legged Argentinian dancing spider or a communal square dance gone dodecahedral! Either way, brilliant sparks fly from these eccentric collisions of tradition and avant garde.
Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1947), the earliest work in the series, is to my ears the closest Babbitt ever came to neo-classicism, its first movement being a clean perpetuum mobile and its second movement a veiled tribute to Schoenberg’s expressive piano textures. While Duet (1956) is the closest Babbitt ever came to a lullaby, his Semi-Simple Variations, of the same year, is perhaps his jazziest jaunt on the ivories, an adventure amusingly exploited in the Bad Plus and Mark Morris Dancers’ adaptation.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete without Babbitt’s most uncompromising trailblazing Partitions (1957) and Post-partitions (1966). Nowhere is his engenius originality more startlingly on display than in these works. In Partitions in particular, the activation and deactivation of various high, low, and middle registers of the piano guides the listener through an uncanny but navigable maze of contrapuntal intricacy.
Between the two concerts, at 2:30, will be an interview-discussion between me and Indiana University composer-theorist Andrew Mead, a former student of Babbitt’s at Princeton and author of the acclaimed book An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994, Princeton University Press) and many articles. This will also be an opportunity for questions from the audience. Whether you’ve been merely curious about Milton Babbitt’s music and legacy, or are already a long-time follower, this is an opportunity to spend part of the afternoon in the good company of Babbitt’s music and its admirers.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concerts II & III
Sunday March 6, concert II at 12 pm; pre-concert discussion at 2:30; concert III at 3:30.
$20, $15 (Students/Seniors) for each concert or $30/20 for both concerts.
On February 16, 2016, Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert of Cold Blue Music artists in the lively Koreatown district of Los Angeles. A good crowd came out to hear music by Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, Michael Byron and Peter Garland. Three premieres were heard including the world premiere performance of In the Village of Hope by Michael Byron.
The first piece, Vocalise (1979), by Michael Jon Fink, was for piano and performed by the composer. This opened with series of quietly beautiful notes, like the melody from a simple hymn and unfolded with the spare elegance that is the hallmark of Michael Jon Fink’s compositions. The warm acoustics of the cozy Monk Space – with brick walls on three sides – allowed for an extra long duration and decay of the sustained notes, adding to the sense of serenity. Vocalise is not a long piece, but contains all the essential elements of peaceful sensibility that informs this composer’s music.
From a Folio (2013), also by Michael Jon Fink followed, and for this piece of seven movements cellist Derek Stein joined the composer, again on piano. Each of the movements are compact and variously declarative, quietly powerful, unsettling, questioning, solemn or even sorrowful. Sustained cello passages were often set up by a series of simple piano notes or chords, a contrast that proved to be very effective. At other times a soft call and answer pattern between the cello and piano prevailed. The subtle touch on the piano was complimented by the sensitive playing of Derek Stein who discerned the quiet intentions of this work perfectly. The graceful consistency of these seven movements give From a Folio a notable sense of tranquility combined with a satisfying cohesiveness.
The world premiere of In the Village of Hope (2013), by Michael Byron was next, performed by harpist Tasha Smith Godínez, who commissioned the work. This is an ambitious piece, full of constant motion but with an engaging and exotic character. It has a soft, Asian feel and the steady patter of notes fall like raindrops in a warm tropical shower. A light melody in the upper registers is joined in masterful counterpoint below, and the piece glides delicately through several key changes as it continuously unfolds. Listening to the Cold Blue recording of this piece one imagines that the harpist would be a great flurry of motion – but the technique of Tasha Smith Godínez in this performance was superb; her graceful fingers never seemed hurried or her movements labored. The tones from her harp were clear and strong; the lively acoustics of Monk Space made them almost seem amplified. A drier acoustic environment might have served to bring out the intricate texture more clearly. Michael Byron, who was in attendance, admitted to a certain trepidation when he turned in the imposing score, but Ms.Godínez never asked for any changes or modifications and proved more than equal to the task in this performance. In the Village of Hope is a profoundly impressive work, in both its vision and realization.
This week in New York, Austrian Cultural Forum celebrates the music of Georg Friedrich Haas. Haas, currently MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia, is a thoughtful and innovative composer. The two programs curated by ACFNY, both free (with reservations), are excellent opportunities to hear two different facets of his creativity.
On Wednesday February 24th at 7:30 PM at the ACF, JACK Quartet performs String Quartet No. 3 In iij. Noct., a piece that occurs in total darkness.
On February 26 at 8 PM at Bohemian National Hall (321 East 73rd Street), the Talea Ensemble presents the following program of large ensemble and chamber works: La profondeur (2009), for lower instruments, I can’t breathe (2015), a US Premiere that commemorates Eric Garner, played by trumpeter Gareth Flowers, tria ex uno (2001), and …wie stille brannte das Licht (2009), featuring vocal soloist Tony Arnold. James Baker conducts.
Elliott Sharp may sometimes be characterized as a cellular composer, but he is by no means a cellular thinker. Rather, he seems to conceive of things in large swaths of creation, only then removing skins and reconnecting veins until each organism revives by means of unexpected blood flow. The Boreal collects four somewhat recent examples, of which the 2008 title composition, performed here by the JACK Quartet, employs awesome extended techniques, including bows strung with springs and ball-bearing chains, in addition to standard hair.
But through this recording it’s not so much the craft as the art that shines. Like the electric effluvia on the cover photograph, Sharp’s writing emits an attractive aura all its own, leaping from one motif to the next with ionic inevitability. The new bows reveal inner voices in the second movement, which with its sonic forensics swabs the seat of creation for any residue left by whoever last sat there. Whether plying striated territories in the third movement or touching off cyclical measures in the fourth, the musicians are fully present and work their touch to suit the needs of changing topography. It is a piece that would fit comfortably in the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire, but which feels just as much at home in JACK’s hands. Sounding almost electronic yet with such intimacy as to only be renderable in real time, the quieter passages especially highlight the potential of these extensions.
Fearless musicianship is characteristic of the album as a whole and is embodied to its fullest at the fingers of pianist Jenny Lin, who gives Oligosono (2004) more than it ever dreamed of in an interpreted life. Raw technique again pays dividends, forging rhythmic codes through a tactile relationship with the piano strings. Lin handles these messages as if by her very DNA, harmonic overtones reinforcing one another through mechanisms of repetition. Each section is grafted to the ones before and after it (even the first and last carry unheard continuities). The insistence of certain impulses exists not for the sake of minimalism, but to maximize the potential for incidental utterances and hidden voices within the instrument’s architecture. The whole thing feels like a medical test of space-time itself as the depth-soundings of the third and final movement give chase to biological data, savoring the imprints left behind of an entity they cannot ever catch. Here is the piano as machine, the body as instrument.
Proof Of Erdös, written in 2006 and performed by Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon under the direction of David Bloom, is something of a non-portrait. Despite being inspired by the persona of mathematician Pal Erdös, it doesn’t so much illustrate a life as one of its many panels of expression. Here the bowing, while more familiar, sprouts a forest that is less so. Feelings of tension give way to silence and reset. Sharp’s expanse of internality is overrun with genetic details, a mitochondrial frenzy turned inside out, a tuning of the self to the self until there is no self left to tune.
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Rundel, gives the final reading of the program, performing On Corlear’s Hook (2007) with commitment. The piece is cinematic in scope—think 2001: A Space Odyssey—but works its cosmic drive inward rather than outward. It inhales dark matter with the appetite of a black hole. The vaster instrumental forces at work enhance this feeling of inwardness. Every new shift of texture and color is a veritable terabyte of information compressed into a drop of ink on staff paper. It is the nervous system as metropolis, and sensations as traffic running through its streets. Harp, strings, and brass work together toward a unity that feeds on self-fragmentation. Epic, to be sure, but only the beginning of life.
These pieces are translations: of inside to outside, of colors to emptiness, of stillness to vibration and back again. In them are whispers of screams and vice versa. Together, they are a mirror, cloudy but usable, waiting for the polish of an open ear. Like the void within that ear, Sharp’s is a sonic universe devoid of politics, an environment where one can simply listen, be, and listen to being.
(For more information and samples, please click here.)
Helmut Lachemann, 80, this November, is one of the most important, original and influential living composers. To hundreds of younger composers whose ambition is to push the boundaries of music and sound beyond its presumed limits, he is a God-like figure, the reigning king of musical post-modernism. Think Stockhausen or Cage, tripled down. Extreme, thrilling, unexpected, visionary, painful, edgy. If he were a Zen master, his mantra would be “Who knows the sound of a beetle lying on its back?”
For listeners who prefer their “classical” music with a touch of consonance, he is one of those composers whose work is more fun to talk about than to actually listen to.
All of which makes John Kennedy, director of contemporary music for SpoletoUSA, a brave man, indeed, for making the American premiere of Lachemann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) the centerpiece of this year’s Spoleto Music in Time Series. Conceived on a grand scale, Lachemann’s retelling of the tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale of the little girl who measures out her final hours by striking matches for a moment of warmth on the freezing street, employs 106 musicians and various other theater performers.
Lachenmann refers to his compositions as musique concrète instrumentale, basically a musical language that embraces the entire sound-world made accessible through unconventional playing techniques. According to the composer, this is music
“in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound- or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.”
To take a simple example, guitarists generally try to limit the sound of nails clacking on strings or accidental glissandos produced by sliding their fingers up and down the strings between chords. Their goal is play as faithfully as possible only the notated sounds. In Lachemann’s musique concrete world, these scratches, squeaks and sighs are all part of the music. Through amplification and a plethora of techniques that he has invented for wind, brass and string instruments, Lachemann creates difficult, uncompromising works that are, like their creator, wholly original. His scores place enormous demands on performers. They may be only works in the modern repertory in which players may need a shower after the piece is finished.
Coming as it does in the 40th Anniversary Year of Spoleto with all the attendant “feel good” celebrations, the programming of such a controversial composer as Lachenmann is a welcome sign that SpoletoUSA that the nation’s best—and probably most financially successful–arts festival is still not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of original performance. Founder Gian Carlo Menotti would be proud.
To appreciate Lachemann requires listeners and performers to forget whatever inherited notions they may have about beauty in music. “Try to like it,” he often tells audiences about to hear his work for the first time. For those willing to suspend their preconceptions, his music offers great listening experiences and, yes, even a strange kind of beauty.
Lachenman will be in attendance at the Festival and will participate in a conversation between Kennedy on May 27 (including a performance of Lachenmann’s piece Got Lost); a performance of Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Kenndy’s Spoletudes on June 4, and a performance by Stephen Drury of Lachenmann’s monumental piano solo Serynade, plus Oscar Bettison’s 2014 work for small ensemble An Automated Sunrise (for Joseph Cornell).
Have a comment? Leave it on our Facebook page. The robot spammers have taken over the comments here.
Eminent composer, college professor, and Lutoslawski scholar Steven Stucky has died, aged 66. The cause was brain cancer. Below, listen to one of his beguiling works, the Notturno movement from Serenade for Wind Quintet.