Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category
On Wednesday, September 21, 2016 the innovative Soundwaves concert series continued at the Santa Monica Public Library featuring the music of Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams as performed by the group Just Strings. Alison Bjorkedal, John Schneider and T.J. Troy comprise Just Strings, who specialize in performing music in just intonation. Ms. Bjorkedal brought two harps – one orchestra-sized instrument tuned in Pythagorean temperament and a second smaller Celtic harp also tuned in JI. John Schneider came equipped with two guitars and there were an array of percussion items surrounding T.J. Troy.
The concert opened with Yup’ik Dances (1995), a collection of short pieces by John Luther Adams. An active environmentalist, Adams has spent most of his composing career in Alaska, inspired by both the landscape and the people there. Although not precise transcriptions of Native indigenous music, Yup’ik Dances is informed by their sturdy directness. He writes : “These little pieces are part of a larger cycle based on traditional dance songs of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. It is my hope that they convey something of my deep admiration for Native cultures, as well as my love of the forests, rivers, lakes and mountains of this place.” Invitation to the Dance begins Yup’ik Dances and a light percussive drumming lays down a solid beat. The harp dominates with an appealingly exotic, but never alien melody. Overall, this has a warm and welcoming feel. Jump Rope Song followed, and this featured a simple back-and-forth between the guitar and harp, trading playful passages. The percussion was tacet, but the rhythm was ably carried along in the strings.
Shaman’s Moon Song was next, and this had a more purposeful feel as the drumming rejoined the ensemble. A dramatic melody from the strings added to the sense of importance as the piece proceeded, leading up to a nicely executed ending. Juggling Song featured the guitar and harp interweaving rapid phrases and rhythmic patterns so that even without the percussion there was a convincing sense of balance and motion. Yup’ik Dances concluded with It Circles Me and this had repeating, syncopated harp passages offset with a strong guitar counterpoint in the lower registers that was very effective. There was a slightly vexing feel to this, even as the light drumming contributed a reassuringly regular beat to the texture. Yup’ik Dances is an artful sketch of indigenous Alaskan music, elegant in its simplicity and yet realized with fullness by the players.
Harp Suite #1, by Lou Harrison followed and this is a collection of miniatures composed from 1964 to 1972. Jahla (1972) was first and this opened with finger cymbals and a lightly tapped tambourine. The harp joined with a quick rhythmic figure that established a nice groove as the piece progressed. The intricate development in the melody gave this a light, airy feel. Music for Bill & Me (1967) followed and for this Ms. Bjorkedal took up the smaller harp. A slow, deliberate melody arose that evoked a quiet, introspective ambiance. The distinctive character of this had all the markings of Harrison’s well known Asian influences. Avalokiteshvara (1964) was next and this featured two sets of small xylophones played by T. J. Troy and John Schneider that issued a complex set of repeating patterns. This established a solid, purposeful groove, and the orchestral harp entered with a syncopated melody that was most effective. Avalokiteshvara was precisely played by Just Strings, who imparted all the virtues of classic minimalism in good form.
The suite concluded with Beverly’s Troubadour Piece (1967) and for this the finger cymbals, bongos and the smaller harp wove a series of different rhythms in and around each other in a delightful pattern – all projecting a courtly, almost formal feel that was perfectly suited to the title. Harp Suite #1 is a brightly beautiful group of pieces, expertly played in this performance, and a telling example of how much Lou Harrison could extract from even small musical forces.
Another Lou Harrison piece, Lyric Phrases (1972) followed, and this began with the scraping of a stick on a gourd by T. J. Troy. A light knocking here also set a steady beat. The guitar joined in with the melody and the orchestral harp repeated a two-note repeating rhythm underneath. All of this had a light, easy feel with an overall sound that was reminiscent of near eastern music. The optimistic character of this piece filled the room with a cheerful buoyancy, abetted by the fine ensemble playing.
The concert concluded with Athabascan Dances (1995) by John Luther Adams and this series of five short pieces formed a natural book-end with the opening suite. Grandpa Joe’s Traveling Song was first, and this included the orchestral harp, guitar and what looked to be a group of rattles from the percussion that set down a rhythmic groove. There was a rural, almost country music feel to this – a sound more familiar than that of the Yup’ik Dances. A nice harp solo was heard towards the end followed by a da capo finish. They Will All Go was the next piece and here bongos were played with a mallet to set the beat while the harp carried a light melody above counterpoint in the guitar. This graceful lyricism here clearly revealed the influence of Lou Harrison, longtime mentor to JL Adams.
Deenaadai’ followed, slower and more dramatic. The harp, guitar and what looked to be a small dulcimer all contributed separate melodies – barely connected – and yet the sum of them coalesced nicely. Deenaadai’ sets a serious mood, crowned by the sounding of mystical bells at the end. By contrast, Grandpa Joe’s Hunting Song had a bright, happy feel, and a more dance-like rhythm. The joy of time spent in the outdoors and in nature was clearly evident and it seemed, again, like our own country music but with a generous Asian influence. Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man completed this set and conveyed a solemn, declarative sense that also felt a bit distant. Odd rhythmic figures were scattered throughout in a way that increased the solitary feel. As this piece progressed, it became more animated with the addition of a strong, rattling percussion. The guitar and orchestral harp engaged in a lively duo, as if duplicating the potlatch gift-giving ritual. As Potlatch Song of a Lonely Man approached its conclusion the drumming and strongly syncopated harp produced a more plaintive feeling, as if summarizing the plight of a lonely man in the clannish Athabascan culture.
All of the works performed by Just Strings in this concert were skillfully played and the alternate tuning smoothly realized. The small scale of these pieces by Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams served to highlight the importance of the craft and detail so artfully employed in the creation of this music.
A recording of many of the pieces performed in this concert is available from Microfest Records.
The next Soundwaves concert is Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 7:30 PM and will feature pianist Vicki Ray.
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One of the noteworthy recordings released in 2016 is the Kepler Quartet’s third volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records). Johnston, who turned ninety this year, is well known for his work in unconventional tuning systems, namely extended just intonation. The complexity of some of his works in this system, notably the Seventh Quartet, included on Kepler’s volume 3, ranks up there with some of the toughest chamber works in the literature. Even a seemingly more straightforward piece, such as his Fourth Quartet, a trope on “Amazing Grace,” can provide both formidable pitch and rhythmic challenges. Recently, I was in touch with the violinists of the Kepler to discuss Johnston’s work and the new recording.
Eric Segnitz, 2nd violinist for the Kepler Quartet and producer
When did you first become familiar with Ben Johnston’s work?
I was aware of the original Fine Arts Quartet’s 1964 recording of Ben’s 4th Quartet (Amazing Grace) as a student in the late 70″s, from studying briefly with Leonard Sorkin–the FAQ 1st violinist who commissioned the piece. I subsequently played it several times for the Present Music concert series in Milwaukee, as well as Calamity Jane and her Daughter, Ben’s transcription of Harry Partch’s Barstow, and a few other works.
When you decided to go about recording the quartets, did you have any idea how long it would take to realize the project?
No idea whatsoever. But we made the commitment to Ben, to New World Records, and to ourselves to complete it–damn the torpedoes!
An article in the N.Y. Times (and other writers) have called Johnston’s Seventh String Quartet “the most complex ever written.” Do you agree? Why do you think it is so hard?
The crazy crawling harmonies, that’s obviously extremely complex. The challenge that is not-so-obvious is that he is dealing with the way time passes, movement by movement; time passing so quickly that it leaves you in the dust, time elapsing at a normal pace– but with a surreal 3D layering of palindromes offset by various cell lengths, or time dragging so slowly that it’s hard to fully comprehend the rigorous structure which exists. To me, that is the underlying brilliance of the piece.
How does the Seventh Quartet compare to the others in terms of difficulty?
In the sense of the sheer number of pitches involved, yes, #7 is the most difficult. But that is only one type of challenge posed by Ben. In Quartet #6 (also on this 3rd CD) for instance, every chord overlaps with the one both before and after it. Given the nature of the chords to begin with, that’s extremely challenging in it’s own right.. And I could cite multifarious examples of uncharted waters, throughout his 10 quartets.
I was recently speaking to a friend who heard your recording of the Fourth Quartet, loved it, and decided to work on it with a student quartet. He said that he was surprised that something that, audibly and on the surface, seemed so accessible to players was actually quite hard. Do you find that too – that “appearances can be deceiving” in terms of the complexity of these pieces.
Yes and no… he uses a genius-level grasp of musical craft to achieve a music that everyone can relate to in a spiritual/emotional way, if they give it that chance. It’s a music that resonates because, once again, it’s founded upon the natural order of acoustics.
Now that you’ve climbed this Parnassian mountain, what’s next for the Kepler Quartet? Which composers are you interested in performing and recording?
Even though we all play a lot of contemporary music, it might be useful to draw some connections to where this music came from. It’s easy to think of Ben as a maverick composer, a unique innovator, a specialist. He is, but also much more than that. He’s really a great composer in the traditional sense, and his music will only become truly appreciated in that larger context.
Sharan Leventhal, 1st violinist for the Kepler Quartet
How did you go about learning the quartets?
We dealt with them one at a time. There is a certain amount of work that needs to happen before the playing begins. Each pitch must be defined according to its role in the harmony within the just intonation system. Ben’s notation provides a tool for establishing the relationships in every chord, no matter where he has taken the progression. Adding and subtracting his accidentals places a pitch. The ultimate judge is your ear, because every note is determined by its function. Once you understand your role within a given chord, you will hear how to place your notes. Of course, as with any piece, we study the score, to understand its structure and the emotional intention behind the music. Rehearsing is a slow painstaking process of tuning and balancing each chord while gaining an intellectual grasp of the harmonic journey. As the sonic world comes into focus, it informs our choices about the timbre and shape of individual phrases. We worked through every single note of every single chord with the composer, uncovering copy errors, and getting his input on musical decisions.
Why do you think that the Seventh Quartet is so hard?
The 7th quartet is especially daunting because it has a hugely expanded pitch group. Ben travels so far along the spiral of pure harmonic progressions that there are over 1,200 discrete pitches in the octave. Actually, in some ways I didn’t find the 7th quartet the most difficult. For example, the 6th quartet is more musically obscure and difficult to grasp. The 7th quartet makes sense, but you have to be able to work (and hear!) the system.
How would you go about teaching these pieces to the next generation of string quartet players? Moreover, for those who want to learn Johnston’s tuning system, where would you suggest they turn?
I already teach Ben’s music at The Boston Conservatory. Every once in a while an adventurous quartet wants to make the attempt. Invariably, for the students it is a transformative experience. As one cellist said, “nothing will ever be the same.” Learning these works is a matter of learning how to hear—to be wholly immersed in vertical relationships, attuned to the harmonic series, and completely committed to the present moment. At the same time, one must listen forward and backward—anticipating root movement of chords to hear where pitches will belong ahead of time, or relating back to what has just happened. It is incredible ear training, and requires rethinking what pitch is, how it works, and how it can be manipulated.
When teaching these works, I like to start with #9. The first movement is a clearly defined C Major just tuned scale (with a cameo appearance by that interesting anomaly, the syntonic comma). Young players find it rhythmically challenging—the rhythmic complexities are based on the same ratios that define the intervals of the just tuned scale. The third movement is a simple hymn-like melody, with clear almost traditional harmonies. What makes it so fantastic and emotionally potent is the harmonic slide down two syntonic commas (from F Major to F- Major to F – – Major) and back up within the first phrase. This modulation is part of opening the tempered ‘circle of fifths’ to its naturally occurring spiral. Hearing it has a strong, visceral effect.
I have written an article (“An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnson,” American String Teacher, Volume 64, Number 3, 8/2014) that details how to approach these scores—how to tune the instruments’ open strings, how to do the math required by Ben’s accidentals). I think the article will also be made available on Kepler’s website, and that is definitely a good place to start. Without those preparatory steps, the score can’t be realized as the composer intended. Next, the players must tune and balance each chord, working back and forth between harmonies to understand progressions and internalize relationships. All this ultimately supports the interpretation of the music, making a much more powerful, visceral statement.
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Opening Night at Miller Theater
Photo: Jeffrey Herman
On September 15, Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, presented an all-Steve Reich program to open the season at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. There was a sold out crowd, populated both by contemporary music devotees and over 200 Columbia students. Reich turns eighty later this year, and this is one of the many birthday concerts that will fete the composer.
Signal has recorded several albums of Reich’s music, including a 2016 release on Harmonia Mundi that features his Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, recent works that demonstrate the undiminished energy and invention of their creator. The Miller Theatre concert focused on two sets of “variations,” composed in the prior decade: Daniel Variations (2006) and You Are Variations (2004). The amplified ensemble featured a superlative small complement of singers, a string quintet, a quartet of grand pianos, and a bevy of percussion and wind instruments. They were recording the concert, one hopes for subsequent release.
Daniel Variations is, in terms of instrumentation, the slightly smaller of the two. Alongside the aforementioned piano/percussion group, Reich employs a quartet of vocalists (two sopranos and two tenors, singing in a high tessitura for much of the piece), string quartet, and two clarinets. There are two textual sources for the piece. The first are the words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who, while reporting on the conflict in Pakistan in 2002, was captured and killed by Islamic extremists. These are offset by quotations from the Book of Daniel, a text from the Old Testament of the Bible. The texts underscore Pearl’s Judaism and also his love of music (he was an amateur string player). Indeed, the last movement of the piece, “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done,” is a trope on a Stuff Smith song, “I Sure Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” found in Pearl’s record collection after his death.
You Are Variations finds Reich exploring texts from his spiritual roots, including Psalm 16, quotes from the Talmud, the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and Wittgenstein (Reich’s undergraduate thesis subject). Musical quotes are diverse as well, ranging from L’Homme Arme to a song by James Brown. The harmony is prevailingly in D mixolydian but unorthodox bass progressions and layering often give it a polytonal feel. From where I was sitting, the vocals seemed a little recessed in favor of the winds, something that I am confident can be worked out in subsequent mixing of the projected recording. It still worked live, giving the impression that the singers were sometimes supported by the ensemble and sometimes vying in a struggle for discernment of the weighty texts.
Lubman conducts Reich’s work with the authority of someone who has both an intimate knowledge of the scores and of the formidable musicians at his disposal. Reich seemed to approve. Taking the stage with trademark baseball cap firmly planted on his head, he volubly demonstrated his pleasure to everyone from Lubman to the sound designer. The percussionists, in particular, beamed as they accepted his greetings: they had done right by Reich.
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Composer, conductor, and pianist Richard Carrick has been named chair of Berklee’s Composition Department. Carrick is a 2015-2016 Guggenheim Fellow and co-founder and co-artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble Either/Or. He succeeds Arnold Friedman, who had been the department’s chair since 2012. Friedman remains on the faculty.
Carrick recently moved to the Boston area after living in Kigali, Rwanda, on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Musical Composition. In Rwanda, he was commissioned to pen a new official arrangement of the country’s national anthem for the Rwandan Military Band. During this time, he premiered five works in New York, Boston, Tel Aviv, and Kigali. Carrick has taught in South Korea, Japan, the U.K., Rwanda, and Israel through the Very Young Composers program, and returned to South Korea last year as a Gugak Korean Traditional Music Fellow.
“I’m thrilled to be joining the Berklee community and especially the versatile, diverse, and talented Composition Department,” said Carrick. “I look forward to finding more professional and educational opportunities for our students in the ever-changing musical world of concert music.
His latest release, Cycles of Evolution, incorporates pieces commissioned and performed by Musicians of the New York Philharmonic, Either/Or, Sweden’s Ensemble Son, Hotel Elefant, and DZ4. Carrick conducts or performs on all works on the CD, which includes his ‘apocalyptic’ multimedia piece, Prisoner’s Cinema. His recordings also include Flow Cycle for Strings; and Stone Guitars,which garnered acclaim in both the new music and guitar worlds. American Record Guide said, “It may change your perception of electric guitar.”
Either/Or has been called “first rate” and “a trustworthy purveyor of fresh sounds” by the New York Times, and won the 2015 Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Carrick has worked with celebrated composers including Helmut Lachenmann, Chaya Czernowin, Iancu Dumitrescu, Elliott Sharp, George Lewis, Alvin Lucier, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Rebecca Saunders.
“Dr. Carrick brings a perspective and set of experiences that our faculty and students can connect with immediately,” said Larry Simpson, Berklee senior vice president for academic affairs/provost. “He is fluent in the language and ways of the academy and equally accomplished in the world of composing and sustaining creative enterprises that move forward an art form in competitive environments. He also has extensive international experience that will prove valuable to faculty and students.”
Carrick has taught composition at Columbia and New York Universities and has presented master classes and lectures throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He was a cornerstone of the teaching artist faculty for the New York Philharmonic, through which he has mentored hundreds of young composers internationally.
A U.S. citizen born in Paris of French-Algerian and British descent, Carrick received his B.A. from Columbia University, PhD from the University of California, San Diego, and pursued further studies at IRCAM and the Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague.
Berklee’s Composition Department provides a thorough course of study in all areas of traditional and contemporary musical composition, including writing techniques, orchestration, and score preparation; and advanced training in instrumental, choral, and musical theater conducting. A faculty of 40 active composers and conductors, many with national and international reputations, prepare students for careers as professional writers and conductors. Although sharing similar methods with departments such as Jazz Composition, Songwriting, Film Scoring, and Contemporary Writing and Production, the Composition Department is mostly concerned with concert music. The department also works with creative multimedia, from traditional opera and theater to contemporary electronic and mixed media
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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.
Both pieces use MAX-MSP patches
More on these pieces can be found on my website:
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
Allegro Appassionata (2009)
Quattro per Quattro (2011)
121 Ludlow St. 2nd fl, New York City
September 15th – 18th
TICKETS: 20$/15$ (students and seniors) OR Festival Pass 50$/40$ (students and seniors)
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Mikel Rouse’s Metronome project has been in heavy rotation around these parts. His latest album, Take Down, had a five-year long gestation. Given the varied reference points, one can hear why. Two parts sci-fi electronica, one part postmodern amalgam (including field recordings), topped off with Rouse’s surefire vocals: most worthy of investigation.
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The Prom on August 20, presented by The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, opened with the first UK performance of Dérives by Gérard Grisey. It’s hard to believe that it’s taken 42 years for the piece to have been played in the UK, and that it was only the second work of Grisey’s to be played on the Proms. Dérive is scored for two orchestras, one smaller and amplified; the size of the Albert Hall stage made separation and a very clear distinction between the two groups more or less impossible. The work starts with the conceit that the orchestra is tuning (the program notes by Julian Anderson states that Grissey’s intention was to “effect a subtle bridge between what he terms ‘everyday time’ and ‘musical time.’”), but staging it so that it really works seems as though it would also be impossible, since it coincides, as it did on this concert, with the conductor’s arrival on the stage and the attendant applause. Possibly all of that clumsiness was also part of the conception, although that somewhat lessens the subtlety of it . In any case once things get under way there is a prolongation of the tuning A until a loud tutti chord shifts things to Eb, and onto the main agenda of the piece which is the setting up of the overtones of Eb as a base sonority and the glacial slow drifting of the music away from and back to that referent over the almost half hour of its duration. The mesmerizing quality of the piece was faithfully realized with striking concentration and beauty of sound.
A few days later at the Café Otto, Volkov, as a violinist, joined about a half dozen string players and two percussionist for an evening of improvisation. I heard the second half of the evening, which consisted of two blocks, the shaping and pacing of each of which was compelling and satisfying.
The Prom concert on August 24 was presented by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Marin Alsop. It opened with Kabbalah by Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre. The title, the program note said, “refers to the ancient tradition of Judaic mystical thought and its interpretation through symbols and ciphers, described as a revelation of God’s wisdom to his creations.” The work is a very colorfully orchestrated and rhythmic, with lots and lots of percussion, evocative and, I suppose, mystical, in a way that its title might lead one to expect. The concert also included only the four minute long Prelude of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras No. 4. It was too bad they didn’t play the whole piece, since it left the impression that if was felt that a Brazilian orchestra just had to play a piece by the most famous Brazilian composer, but they’d do as little as possible to get by with satisfying that mandate. In fact the piece was quite attractive and I would have been happy to hear more, maybe the entire piece rather than the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, which ended the concert.
The Prom on August 21 by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, was as much as anything a celebration of and for the orchestra itself. The only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland, it recently survived a near-death financial crisis which almost brought about its dissolution. The assured, alert, and very beautiful playing throughout the concert was a very eloquent demonstration of how much would have been lost in the avoided demise of the orchestra.
The concert included, along with the Haydn C major Cello Concerto, with Narek Hakhnazaryan, soloist, and the Tschaikovsky Fifth Symphony, the first performance of Wild Flow, a BBC commission, from Piers Hellawell, the English composer who has for quite a while taught at Queen’s University Belfast. As a resident who observed the difficulties of what he called in his program note, “the darkest period” of the Ulster Orchestra’s history close hand, he dedicated Wild Flow to the orchestra and its champions. The work consists of five movements, with a central slow movement, a continually expanding and intensifying chorale inlaid with soloistic wind writing, preceded and followed by two fast movements, all of those with a somewhat aphoristic character. Hellawell described the work in his notes, as offering a zigzag progression of mood and events, and that mercurial quality is what lingers strongly in the memory. The music is admirably distinctive and personal, somewhat quirky, brilliantly and colorfully orchestrated, highly rhythmic, and always engaging and appealing. The performance had a liveliness and verve matching that of the music.
Hakhnazaryan played as an encore to his performance of the Haydn, Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima, which combined singing, folky dance music, and high class pyrotechnics, all of it impressive as display and interesting to listen to.
All of the Proms concerts are available online for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0741yk1/episodes/player.
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Thomas Adès is a phenominal musician. The depth of his musical intelligence and power of his insight are impossible to miss. They knocks you down, jumps up and down on your chest, and spit in your eye, and it’s enthralling. The performances of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which began and ended, respectively, the Prom concert on August 15, on which he conducted the Britten Sinfonia, were both dazzling and incredible satisfying as musical experiences. Given all of that, I would very much like to like his music, and I’ve tried, but, to use a phrase in circulation in American politics these days, I’m not there yet. Certainly not with Lieux retrouvés, the work for ‘cello and orchestra, in which he and the orchestra were joined by Steven Isserlis, which received its UK premiere on this concert. Originally written as a ‘cello sonata in 2009, it was orchestrated early in 2016. As one would expect, the musical means brought into play are at the very least impressive, and there’s nothing lacking in its production. But there is a certain sameness to the movements which apparently are meant to be varied, and the profile of the material is a little flat and indistinguishable from one movement to the next, and not terribly distinguished. Even the deliberately ungainly cancan that concludes the work isn’t that much different really from the evocation of mountains (or of mountain climbing, considering the difficulty of it), or even the (visionary?) fields… Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures, for violin and orchestra, with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist, also has technique and polish to spare, as well as color, both orchestral and geographical. It’s faultless, and ultimately not as much fun as it tries to be.
The Prom presented on August 16 by the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, included the first London performance of Berceuse for Dresden by Colin Matthews, in which they were joined by ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. The work, which is a sort of one movement ‘cello concerto, was commissioned to commemorate the rebuilding and reconsecration in 2005 of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which had been destroyed by Allied bombing in February or 1945. Its material, both melodic and harmonic, is based on the sounds of the eight bells in the church. The ‘cello plays, almost continually, an impassioned and soaring line, under and around which swirls an increasing animated and accelerating texture which eventually culminates in a recording of the bells themselves. Especially in the Albert Hall, where there were coming from all directions, this was extremely effective and affecting. The Matthews and the Berlioz Overture to King Lear were the first half of a concert which concluded with Das Lier von der Erde by Mahler (whose first movement was presented in a reorchestration by Matthews–trying to keep the orchestra from covering up the tenor; there is some conjecture that Mahler would have done some tinkering with it had he lived to hear the piece). I found myself wondering how bad a performance would have to be before the piece would not have its overwhelming effect. This was a very very fine performance, so there was no finding out about that question this time. The excellent soloists were Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, and Gregory Kunde, tenor.
That Prom was followed by a late night concert given by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, of music by Bach (three of the motets) and works of Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis, from 2001 and Triodion, written in 1998, the latter getting its first performance at the Proms. Pärt’s music and its particularly personal sound are both well known, and, for many good reasons, admired. The pieces on this Prom offered no new information about that, merely confirming it. One could not wish for better performances, either of the Bach or the Pärt.
The main business on the Prom on August 17, presented by The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Martha Argerich as soloist, was music by Lizst (Piano Concerto No. 1) and Wagner (several orchestra excerpts), all of which received magisterial and moving performances. That was all preceded by Con Brio: Concert Overture by Jörg Widmann, with which there was very little connection, either thematically or in character. Widmann was one of five composers commissioned by Mariss Jansons to write pieces “reflecting on” specific Beethoven symphonies; his particular task was to deal with Symphonies 8 and 7. The connection in fact seemed a little tenuous, but the piece was lively and engaging, elegantly and very effectively orchestrated, and thoroughly professional in every way, with near-quotes and maybe even quotes here and there from the works being reflected on. I was reminded of what Virgil Thomson wrote once about the Egmont Overture: it was the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was harmed by it and nobody missed much by missing it. That seemed to be exactly the spirit in which it was offered here. This was the first performance on the Proms of the revised version; the original version had been played in the 2009 Proms. The playing of it was in every way beyond reproach.
On August 19 the BBC Symphony Orchestra, along with the BBC Singers, and a cast featuring soprano Karita Mattila, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, present a concert performance of The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. An opera about the effects and costs of excellence and the diva who goes through three hundred years and innumerable lovers and admirers while obtaining it, the opera is captivating and full of wonderful music, and, over the course of its three acts builds a dramatic and music trajectory that is increasingly intense and ultimately overwhelming. Presumably the unique texture and particular rhythmic quality of Janáček’s music is related to that of the Czech language, but they’re noticeable here, especially for the role they play in driving the span of the piece. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid and compelling performance of the opera, even staged, than this one. Matilla, who was at the center of it all, was spell binding.
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On August 21, 2016 the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College was the venue for a much-anticipated appearance by the distinguished composer Harold Budd. A fine Sunday crowd filled the auditorium, with many coming from a considerable distance to be part of this rare event. Mr. Budd was joined by Bradford Ellis and Veda Hille and the concert consisted of a single piece, Aurora Teardrops, that extended for 75 minutes. Prior to the beginning of the concert, a video of some California desert scenes by Jane Maru was projected on a large screen above the stage.
Harold Budd and Bradford Ellis arrived on stage and seated themselves behind separate keyboard/synthesizers while Ms. Hille took her place seated in front of a music stand and a boom microphone. The opening video complimented the music perfectly, which began with pure electronic sine tone, soon joined by a another in harmony. A series of cool, sustained pitches followed, creating a thin, ethereal feel – like looking at the stars in the clear desert night. There was no beat to the music and only a very slow-moving melody, but it cast a precise sense of distance and isolation, yet was absent of any trace of melancholy. After some minutes of this Veda Hille began the poetic narration with the words “Sundown, dark and dreamy…” capturing the mood exactly. The words were distinct and clearly heard above the soft background, like distant mountains in the desert etched against a gauzy blue sky.
The specific and concrete nature of the spoken verse added a sense of balance and structure to the free-form flow of the music. The poetry, written by Mr. Budd, continued in sections of a few minutes each, followed by an interlude where only the music was heard. Each segment of poetry sketched out a short vignette of a reminiscence – of living and loving in an earlier time – as if the composer was looking back on his life in a dream. The music was constant in character, though never tiresome, and framed the spoken memories with a warm glow. All of this was in accord with the insightful description of Budd’s music given in the program notes: “Like a number of Californian composers of his generation he has an interest in the more meditative forms of music, in the idea of a controlled musical environment, and in a sense of non-doctrinaire spirituality.” Ms. Hille occasionally sang a few words or hummed along with the music, adding an intimacy to the spoken verse.
The most touching poetry dealt with the relationship between Budd and his significant other. These sections are filled with a longing for a deeper connection – perhaps like the relationship a composer has with his art – but a relationship that is unattainable with another human. There is no sense of resentment in this, but rather a sadness in the realization that even the closest human relationships can only be conducted at a certain distance. In “So many centuries and I still think of you…” the feeling becomes even more poignant, reflecting loss, and deep bass tones are heard at intervals giving a darker and more profound color to the music. Towards the end of the piece “In tears and tatters” seemed to cry out with emptiness and longing, cementing the strongly empathetic connection with the audience, who remained completely engaged throughout. At the quiet conclusion of the work there was a prolonged silence, followed by a standing ovation.
As the performers returned for a well-deserved curtain call, Shane Cadman, manager of the Shannon Center described the complicated series of events that brought this concert to the stage. Mr. Budd had withdrawn from performing and composing, but was prevailed upon by his son to complete the poetry and music of Aurora Teardrops. With Cadman’s help this was realized in Southern California at Whittier College, despite a number of setbacks and postponements. Aurora Teardrops touches a common emotional chord in all of us, from a perspective that only a man of Harold Budd’s age and experience can provide. We are indeed fortunate that he has made the effort to bring this extraordinary work to us.
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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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