Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category
Nick Brooke: Border Towns
To experience Border Towns is to undo the idea of both. The border is metaphorically ubiquitous—as powerful as it is arbitrary. Towns are more immediate—tactile and moving to the pulse of indeterminate social interaction. Together the words form not an oxymoron but a median. Such is the spirit that moves composer Nick Brooke in this quasi-opera of Americana and stardust.
The music’s formula is diaristic, appropriating snippets from songbooks familiar and not so familiar, gunpowder from the popular canon loaded into a rather different cannon and shot across the past century until fleetingly recognizable. Brooke’s intertextual approach lays new coordinates over cartographic mainstays, in which resound the piece’s seven embodied singers—voices treading bullion in a cold electronic stew.
Movements like “Silver City” tickle the synapses of our collective memory, opening in a Judy Garland nightmare with the barest intimations of rainbows. An old radio pays homage to underlying frequencies, flagging the limits of nostalgia in what little we may recognize. What begin as utterly ingrained snippets become new beginnings, radiant and free. The end effect is haunting in the best way possible.
Subsequent movements chew their respective morsels of philosophic disturbance. Whether the overt sampling aesthetic of “Del Rio” (a deft reconstruction of a ubiquitous sound byte) or the distant mountain spirit of “Heart Butte” (a pretty mélange of rodeo, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton balladry), an oddly compelling backstory emerges by virtue of Brooke’s narrative integrity. The grander arc takes shape in a chain of referential vertebrae, disks filled with everything from Whitney Houston to Steve Reich. Other portions glisten with cinematic qualities. In the latter vein, “Jackman” smacks of thunder with its battle cry, its implications of outer space as dense as its decays are short. “Tombstone” is another. Dotted by splashes of Chinese gongs as it rides the tailwinds of stray bullets and Hollywood stereotypes, it traverses landscapes of lock-grooves and shattered DJ remnants. Border Towns recycles even itself, beginning and ending somewhere not over the rainbow, but in a place without space, folded like a paper football and flicked into its own gaping mouth.
Interspersed throughout this exercise in anthemic surgery are various ambient reflections: train whistles, cross lights, pedestrian babble, sound checks, impassioned listeners, crickets, church services, and the like fill the interstices with quotidian fascination. From their manipulations of source text and flame emerges a quilt of hymnody, torn and re-squared until it burns.
The clock ticks only for those who hear it.
~Interview with Nick Brooke~
1. What is your background as a composer and as a listener?
I was classically trained at Oberlin, though in a healthily offbeat way, and grad studies at Princeton happily did nothing dissuade me from mixing anachronistic materials in my current polyglot manner.
I do listen voraciously cross-genre, coming from a deep interest in getting to know people, contexts, and cultures. I tend not to listen to recordings much—solo listening can feel solipsistic and lonely. I prefer live performance. And given experiments with theater and dance over the last decade, I’m much more comfortable in those mediums than I used to be.
2. Talk a little bit about the history of Border Towns: in terms of both its evolution as a piece and the slices of Americana that make their way into the mix.
When I started Border Towns, I saw a lot of theater and musical groups going on these “all-gone-to-look-for-America” trips and it all felt wrong, so wrong. The whole genre of musical Americana is often engaged in portraying and skewing one side of a multiplicity that’s indescribable. Americana often thumbtacks culture to the wall rather than asking questions about it. So I wanted to use Border Towns to unpack musical icons, but also engaging somehow with those de Toqueville-like-trips—literally traveling around the country.
3. Is there an inherent visual or theatrical element in Border Towns? The music almost screams for it.
Completely. Most of the music is created with the choreography already in mind, often in canon or some kind of physical and musical structure. “Tombstone” is literally a calf-roping contest between two people, as well as a fugue between Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. In “Ocean Grove,” people are laid on blankets, while rapturously singing Ray Charles (“I see”). Then, through a laying on of hands, these performers are converted into Bruce Springsteen (“Born! Born!”). It’s a canon in seven parts, the number of singers in the piece. I need to predict the exact number of physical events when I compose the music, and the choreography develops in lockstep with the samples. (There’s a primer on this weird process on my website.)
4. The first word that came to mind when I listened to the album was “plunderphonics,” although your aesthetic seems like a more organic or live iteration of John Oswald’s mission of audio piracy. In this respect, I am inclined to align it more with the live mash-ups of a group like Ground Zero, whose Revolutionary Pekinese Opera seems the closest analogue. How would you situate Border Towns in terms of genre or musical space?
I enjoy Oswald and Ground Zero, though in terms of mash-ups I tend to take the slow route, with lots of silences, and I often attempt to completely break down then reassemble a specific genre, or even just a song. Plunderphonics and Revolutionary Pekinese Opera have a joyous aesthetics of excess to me, and also revel in effects like tape delay and studio layering. I tend to go for a more “real” sound, which ends up being surreal when you perform it live. A performer sings x song, but the words and phrases are in completely different places, and it still somehow makes sense; at the same time, it plays with memory and meaning. Because I’m using live performers, using the sounds of early tape manipulation or even electronica breaks a surreal plausibility I’m trying to establish. And in Border Towns, the materials are often dealt with more procedurally than these other composers: i.e., “Heart Butte,” which tries to deal in a semi-exhaustive way with slow, classic country.
5. An especially delightful aspect of Border Towns is the way in which it flirts with our nostalgia. Familiar songs are quickly swapped out for others, such that by the end we experience a new folk narrative. Is your intention with the piece to do simply that, or does it have broader, extra-musical aspirations as well?
In making each song, I often tried to go against the grain of the nostalgia, or at least create a new meaning to each song or genre. And of course if I could exactly pinpoint that meaning here, I’d be preaching, and it would become clichéd. The ideas for Border Towns emerged at a time when the “Lomax remix” genre, such as Moby’s Play, was at its height. I resisted the comfortable, warm electronic remix broth given to these samples. Did people realize the issues of Paul Robeson singing “still longing for the old plantation”, or why “cowboy music”—a genre of guys often falsetto yodeling, was anachronous? I was trying to unpack assumptions on a structural level, by the choices of what I remixed and where. I wanted to be omnivorous, and substitute old traditions, even stereotypes, with something else. Each piece take on a different icon—Tex-Mex, border radio, plantation songs, cowboy music—but tries to bend them at moments of expectation.
6. The vocal performances on Border Towns are wonderful. How did you settle on these particular musicians and how did the recording project all come together?
It’s always a challenge. Together with Jenny Rohn, my co-director for the live performances, we’re always looking for that experimental “triple threat”: people who sing, act, move, and also understand the weird, tricky-to-sing music. Some of these singers are uncanny chameleons. Some are hugely gifted in physical theater. It came together as a performance at HERE’s Resident Artist Series first—then I took it to the studio.
7. How do the ambient interludes function in Border Towns?
In a way, the ambient “interludes” are islands of realness. The sounds are actually taken from trips to the border towns on which each song is purportedly “based.” But, outside of these ambient interludes, the songs take on stereotypes of Americana, mass-produced materials that I often found sold, broadcast, or otherwise referenced in the places I visited. Cage once said if you destroy all recordings people will learn to sing again. Likewise, if one stops asking the potentially obsolete question, “What do people from this place listen to?” you just end up listening, and that’s the best part. In recording ambient sounds, I’m vamping off the long tradition of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. In the final song of Border Towns, the ambient recordings swallow up a single performer on stage, maybe in a final moment of immersive, real listening.
On Tuesday, January 21, 2014 several of the lesser-known works of composer Alvin Lucier were performed by the Southland Ensemble at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of central Los Angeles.
About 35 people attended with only a few empty seats in the compact venue that also doubles as a movie and video location. The reclaimed brick and cement interior of Monk Space was ideal for hearing Lucier, whose work is strongly informed by the relationship of sound and space.
The concert began with 947 (2001), a piece for solo flute and tape. A series of pure electronic tones was heard from a speaker system and flutist Christine Tavolacci matched the tone exactly, or played at an interval, or moved up and down around the electronic pitch by a few hertz. Sometimes the flute predominated, other times it was the electronic pitch and sometimes there was the zero-beating of the two – I thought the zero beating was more pronounced and effective in the lower registers. There were times a single electronic tone was heard and other times there was a mixture of electronic pitches, often slowly changing in loudness. When the cool, impersonal electronic tones were displaced by the flute, there was a sense of encountering a distinctly human element. The constantly changing relationship between the flute and the electronic tones propelled the piece forward, producing a haunting and pure feel.
The acoustic space, electronics and flute were all in good balance – and this was essential to bring out the often subtle sonic interplay. Afterward, Ms.Tavolacci explained that the various effects were all carefully scored and she used alternate fingerings and rolled the barrel of the flute slightly in order to bend the pitches when needed. The pitch control by the flute was impressive, considering that it was being continuously compared by the audience to a series of steady electronic tones.
The second piece on the program was Theme (1994) and this was scored for four voices and sonorous vessels, on poems by John Ashbery. Each of the four voices spoke into a wide-mouth glass jar that was fitted with a microphone pickup and connected to a small portable amplifier. The John Ashbery poem – Skin, Meat, Bone - was recited into these jars, sometimes by a single voice and sometimes in various combinations of multiple voices. The words could occasionally be made out, but text was not distinct – and this was intentional. The jars muffled the words but tended instead to amplify the various tones and frequencies present in the speaking voices.
The result was that the cadences of the text and the patterns in the poetry produced a sort of dreamy tone cloud that hovered around the voices, changing in color and duration depending on what was being spoken at that instant. The varying voice combinations and registers created different intensities and textures from moment to moment and the effect was quite remarkable given the simplicity of the concept. This would seem to be an extension of Lucier’s well-known work from 1969, I am sitting in a room, where the spoken text is recorded, played back and the re-recorded many times in the same room. Eventually the words are lost but the characteristic sonorities of the space are distilled into the tape. The amplified jars in Theme seem to doing something similar to text spoken in real time.
Wind Shadows (1994) followed, and this was similar in structure to the opening flute piece. In Wind Shadows a constant electronic pitch was heard from the speakers, varying only slightly in volume. A single trombone matches the pitch, or plays slightly above or slightly below it. Sometimes the electronic pitch dominates, other times the trombone – and as with 747, your ear tends to hear one or the other. The effect is spare, but warms noticeably when the trombone dominates. The lower register of this instrument was particularly powerful when zero-beating occurred – it sounded like a flight of B17 bombers passing overhead. Trombonist Matt Barbier used two slide positions to match the electronic tone – one giving more control for bending the pitch upwards and the other better for slightly lowering to the zero-beat frequency. As with all these pieces, the balance between the electronics, the acoustic space and the players was excellent.
After a short intermission Septet (1985) was heard and this work is also along the lines of 747 and Wind Shadows, but with larger musical forces. A single electronic tone from the speaker system was matched by three winds and four strings: bassoon, clarinet, flute, bass, cello, viola and violin. The instruments entered in various combinations and sequences, rising and falling in intensity, creating a constantly changing spectrum of sounds. The assortment of timbres and the power of the ensemble against the steady electronic tone produced a fine variety; where the tones were dissonant, the effect was ominous, while at other times there was a feeling of tension and suspense or a sad mournfulness. There was even one section that, to my ear, sounded just like a train horn in slow motion.
The electronic tone from the speaker was set to a loudness that would mix well with the larger number of instruments, but when the instruments would lay out for a bit the electronics seemed too intense. No doubt a compromise, but this was the only time during the concert when the electronics sounded out of balance.
The final offering for the evening was Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) and this was a sound installation for microphones, loudspeakers and electronic sounds. An electronic tone was put out through the PA system and two specially positioned auxiliary speakers. These were arranged in such a way as to produce different sound patterns throughout the space. The audience was invited to walk about the space and in so doing altered these wave patterns. The result was that in some areas there was no sound, in others a definite pitch and yet by walking just a few paces it all changed. My smart phone tuning app seemed to think the sound in the speakers was pitched to B (247 Hz) but changing my position by just a foot or two altered this pitch considerably.
There was also a sound scanning feature. A portable microphone and amplifier were carried about to detect the pitch present in a given place and then amplify it outward, thus further altering the local sound patterns. Scanning irregularly-shaped objects – two 55 gallon drums were placed in the space – produced complex patterns and unexpected pitches nearby. Outlines of Persons and Things was a powerful demonstration of the hidden acoustic possibilities that are present in any given space.
This concert by the Southland Ensemble of works by Alvin Lucier, successfully realized at the boundary of music and acoustic science, provides us with a rare glimpse of the many creative possibilities that await us there.
The Southland Ensemble includes: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, April Gutherie, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jon Stehney, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci and Brian Walsh.
House of Solitude at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by Jill Steinberg.
This coming February, composer Paola Prestini and I will present the world premiere of House of Solitude, an installation concerto, at Krannert Center in Champaign-Urbana. We have been working together on the piece since 2010 (Paola as composer and me as performer); this premiere seemed like a good moment to share with the community a short article about how the piece came together.
Our collaboration began in 2010, when I asked Paola to contribute a piece to my Journaling series (an ongoing series of concerts focusing on contemporary music for violin and electronics). At the time, Paola was finishing up some work at the Sundance Institute Film Music program, and she had assembled a collection of short field recordings that she was calling “the Sundance stems.” These included a recording of a man singing, various sounds of nature, and horses running. Using these samples as a point of departure, Paola created a wonderfully lyrical and expressive piece for violin, pre recorded tracks, and a motion sensing violin bow called the K-Bow. Invented by Keith MacMillan, the K-Bow is a blue-tooth enhanced violin bow that enables the performer to use physical motions to manipulate sounds in real time. It was brand new technology for Paola and me, and we had fun figuring out how we were going to use it in the piece.
That initial segment, which ended up as the last section of the completed piece, was presented at the Stone in August 2010, as part of Journaling. In the audience that evening were to visual artists, both friends of Paola: Carmen Kordas and Erika Harrsch. Both Carmen and Erika expressed interest in creating video to go with Paola’s music. Around this time, Paola had been considering developing it into a larger, two-part piece called Labyrinth, so she decided to ask each of the artists to contribute video : Carmen to the first part, and Erika to the second. She decided to make the first section a concerto for violin and electronics (House of Solitude), and the second section a concerto for cello and electronics (Room No. 35).
The next stage of evolution happened in March of 2011, when we presented 20 minutes of the piece at Cal State Fullerton. In preparation for that show, we went into the recording studio and really fleshed out the backing tracks, syncing the music to the first 20 minutes of Carmen’s gorgeous video. Paola added more field recordings to the sonic environment: the sound of an EKG machine, more nature sounds, my own voice, and some recordings of everyday objects. She began to call the piece an “installation concerto,” branding a new hybrid genre that combined aspects of installation art with aspects of the classical concerto. Over the next two seasons we presented this version of the piece in New York (River to River Festival), Washington, DC (The Atlas Performing Arts Center), Zimbabwe (Harare International Festival of the Arts), and Maine (Bay Chamber Concerts). By the end of this run of performances, Paola and Carmen had added 10 minutes of music and video (making the duration 30 minutes), and I refined my improvisations and honed my use of the K-Bow.
When she first started the piece, Paola had recently read Octavio Paz’s famous work, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Her title for the two concertos, Labyrinth, was a allusion to the existential labyrinth of which Paz writes. Together, Paola and I contemplated how the “labyrinth” of an individual’s inner world manifests itself externally in acts of creativity and ways of relating to others. We were beginning to think of the piece as a concerto for violin and “multiple selves,” a concept that Paola and I agreed was deeply connected to the image of an inner labyrinth. I enjoyed how the idea of multiple selves resonated with the object relations branch of psychoanalytic theory, an area I was beginning to explore. For me, the piece became not only an exploration of the idea of multiple selves, but also a musical depiction of the struggle to bring together disparate internalized figures and fragments of the self into a cohesive whole. The drama became the search for clarity through the realization of personal truth.
This coming performance at Krannert Center on February 1 will be the world premiere of the complete piece. For this show we will be joined by some illustrious new collaborators, including director Michael McQuilken, videographer Brad Peterson, lighting designer Yi Zhao, sound designer Dave Cook, EDREAM, and Michael Winger. The second part of the entire work, Room No. 35, will be presented, featuring Maya Beiser on LED cello (conceived by Erika Harrsch and Maya Beiser, created by Erika Harrsch), and video by Erika Harrsch. Room No. 35 is based on the writing of Anais Nin, and approaches the concept of multiple selves from a different angle.
After the performance of the original 10 minute section at Journaling. From left to right:
Dongmyung Ahn, Amy Kauffman, Jeff Ziegler, Cornelius Dufallo, Paola Prestini, Alanna Maharajh Stone, Corey Dargel.
Labyrinth brings together two “installation concertos,” two different performers who use technology, two technological innovations (the K-Bow and the LED cello), two visual artists, and two different stories that both deal with the concept of the divided self, into one evening length multimedia piece.
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File Under ?’s Best Recordings of 2013 (in no particular order)
Yvar Mikhashoff, Panorama of American Piano Music (Mode)
Robert Levin and Ursula Oppens, Piano Music 1960-2010 – Bernard Rands (Bridge)
New York Polyphony, Time Go By Turns (BIS)
Julia Holter, Loud City Song (Domino)
Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner, Signs, Games, and Messages (Cedille)
Christopher O’Riley, O’Riley’s Liszt (Oxingale)
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven (Warp)
Lewis Spratlan, The Architect (Navona)
Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe (Dead Oceans)
Stile Antico, The Phoenix Rising (Harmonia Mundi)
Gloria Cheng, Calder Quartet, The Edge of Light – Messiaen/Saariaho (Harmonia Mundi)
Pierre Boulez, Complete Works (DG)
Phosphorescent, Muchacho (Dead Oceans)
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual (Rabid)
Ian Pace, The History of Photography in Sound – Michael Finnissy (Métier)
Chris Thile, Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 – J.S. Bach (Nonesuch)
BMOP, Lamia – Jacob Druckman (BMOP Sound)
Joshua Perkins et al., Inuksuit – John Luther Adams (Cantaloupe)
Jeremy Denk, Goldberg Variations – J.S. Bach (Nonesuch)
Ensemble musikFabrik, Tongue of the Invisible – Liza Lim (Wergo)
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Shadow Man (ECM)
Craig Taborn Trio, Chants (ECM)
Carolin Widmann, Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Violin and Orchestra – Morton Feldman (ECM)
Matt Mitchell, Fiction (Pi)
Bryn Roberts, Fables (Nine Eight)
Caroline Chin and Brian Snow, Tre Duetti – Elliott Carter (Centaur)
R. Andrew Lee, November – Dennis Johnson (Irritable Hedgehog)
Spektral Quartet – Chambers (Parlour Tapes)
Kronos Quartet and Bryce Dessner – Aheym (Anti)
New York Virtuoso Singers – 25×25 (Soundbrush)
Above: From the first European recording of the complete Ives Violin Sonatas, by János Négyesy and Cornelius Cardew
Those of us who knew him will miss his personal warmth and humor, and the joy he took in making music. This was originally posted by Rand Steiger on Facebook, and it’s so good I’m sharing here:
It is with deep sadness that I write to inform you that the great violinist János Négyesy passed away today due to complications that arose during cardiac surgery. Professor Négyesy was 75 and had been a member of the UCSD faculty since 1979. He is survived by his wife, Päivikki Nykter.
János Négyesy was born in Budapest, Hungary and studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and later at Detmold in Germany. He left Hungary in 1965 and from 1970-74 was concertmaster of the Berlin Radio Orchestra. He lived and worked in Paris, Vienna and New York before joining the UCSD faculty in 1979. Long an advocate of new music, Mr. Négyesy appeared at major festivals throughout the world. In addition to performing, recording and teaching he wrote a definitive study of contemporary violin techniques, and was an innovative visual artist working with computer graphics.
Some of Négyesy’s landmark recordings included the first European recording of the complete Violin and Piano Sonatas of Charles Ives with pianist Cornelius Cardew and recordings of works specifically dedicated to him by important contemporary composers such as Attila Bozay, Carlos Fariqas, Vinko Globokar, Hans Otte, Isang Yun and his UCSD colleague Roger Reynolds.
Négyesy had a long friendship and collaboration with John Cage, who dedicated his piece One6 to him. Négyesy gave the world premiere of Cage’s Freeman Etudes I-XVI in Torino, Italy in 1984 and XVII-XXXII in Ferrara, Italy in 1991. He then produced a double CD of the complete Etudes in 1995 on Newport Classics Records. The complete Bartôk Duos for two Violins – with Päivikki Nykter – was released by Neuma Records in June 1993. Dedications – with solo works written especially for Mr. Négyesy by current and former UCSD students was released in June ’96 and a CD with solo compositions by Bartôk, Berio and Xenakis was released in Winter 2000, on Aucourant Records and Neuma Records, respectively.
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Ted Byrnes, Nicholas Deyoe and John Wiese joined forces on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 for an evening of improvisational music featuring percussion with guitar and electronics in a concert titled 2 Duos of Varying Volumes But Similar Intensities. About 25 people, a near-capacity crowd for the renovated loft space that is the Wulf, heard three different offerings in two duo configurations that included a wide variety of extended techniques.
Ted Byrnes is a drummer/percussionist living in Los Angeles via the Berklee College of Music in Boston and who is working now primarily in free improvisation, electro-acoustic music and noise. Nicholas Deyoe is a composer and has also conducted the La Jolla Symphony as well as Red Fish Blue Fish. John Wiese is a Los Angeles-based freelance musician and has toured extensively in Europe and Australia.
The first piece – Duo 2 – had Ted Byrnes stationed behind a more-or-less familiar drum kit, but with a number of unusual found objects within arm’s reach. Nicholas Deyoe accompanied on an acoustical guitar and began the piece with a loud shout. This was followed quickly by the application of palm fronds on the tom-tom and this produced a soft, pleasantly organic sound. Guitar chords joined in as well as a variety of slaps, plinks and more exotic sounds that were conjured by an animated Nicholas Deyoe.
As the piece progressed Ted worked through a series of objects directly on the drum head – pot lids, sheet metal plates, a hollow metal cymbal stand – these were struck with drum sticks, brushes, and even the performer’s knuckles. A cymbal was removed and placed on the snare drum head and played with brushes, producing a wonderfully complex sound. Dice were heard knocking within cupped hands. Even with all the movement that was required to sustain the sound, you could see the precision with which each object was obtained, incorporated in the percussive mix and then returned, with the flow of energy never lessening. The result of all this was a sort of rolling sea that came in waves of varying dynamics and intensity. Less a rhythm than a wash of percussive sounds, some familiar and some almost industrial in character, but all suffused with great energy even in the quieter moments.
The second piece – Duo 1 – combined Ted Byrnes with John Wiese on electronics. John was equipped with a sound board that allowed him to mix about a dozen different sounds that originated from a laptop computer. An amplifier and a series of speakers completed this set up. The electronic sounds added a solid foundation against which the sharp sounds of the percussion could offer some interesting contrast. Long booming sounds, screeches and squeals provided a continuous electronic texture while the ever-energetic Ted provided a varied mix of rapid percussion. To my ear the drumming seemed just a bit more conventional and offered a point of reference to the sometimes alien sounds coming from the speakers. But overall the balance with the electronics seemed just right and very effective. At times this piece was full of roar and commotion, but never seemed stressed or distorted. Duo 1 concluded nicely with disarmingly warm tones from the electronics that faded to silence.
The third piece of the evening had Nicholas Deyoe on guitar rejoining Ted Byrnes in a final duo. There were some amazingly high sounds produced from a single guitar string combined with the usual activity in the percussion that at times seemed an virtual avalanche of sound. The drumming again sounded a bit more traditional and the dynamics in this piece were more noticeable. Although similar in texture to the first piece, this last duo surged in and out a bit more regularly – like watching the whitecaps on a choppy sea.
The percussion techniques used in this performance are interesting because all the extra found objects could have just as easily been hung separately to be struck individually, but Ted Byrnes has chosen to make them integral to the drum kit and applied them together. This produces many unusual sounds to be sure, but also mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar in a more calculated and artistic way. These pieces pushed the limits of rhythm, texture and density in new directions and invite the listener to rethink previously implicit musical boundaries.
The Wulf will present another concert of duo improvisational music on January 29, 2014 at 8:00 PM that will feature Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann, whose work ” is a rich contradiction of textures and timbres with each artist committed to both defining and expanding the definitions of their music through long-term collaboration.”
Photo: Ryuhei Shindo
A bit of cheering for the “home team,” as ACME played on our last Sequenza 21 concert.
Last Friday, December 13, Symphony Space’s In the Salon Series celebrated Lutoslawski’s centenary with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) – for this concert comprised of Caleb Burhans and Caroline Shaw, violins, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Clarice Jensen – and Lutoslawski scholar and composer Steven Stucky. Symphony Space’s Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky was on hand for an onstage conversation about Lutoslawski with Stucky.
As I mentioned in my Musical America review of In the Salon’s previous installment, a concert featuring piano music by Bernard Rands, these events are my favorite kind of outreach: the programs are well-curated with fine music, and the conversational tone of the interview doesn’t lead to the participants ever talking down to the audience. Instead, they had substantive things to say about the music. Like Rands, Stucky is an excellent talker; the many residencies he’s held have served him in good stead; he knows how to connect well with an audience. It was also impressive to learn from someone such as Stucky, who has the details of seemingly each piece in a composer’s catalog and the biographical details surrounding them at his fingertips. Kaminsky was well-prepped too.
ACME played three pieces by Lutoslawski and two by Stucky. Stucky acknowledged that the works selected, a string quartet titled Nell’ombra, nella luce and Dialoghi, a set of variations for solo cello, owe a debt to Lutoslawski: but not in any sort of overt troping or near-quotation. Instead, both composers are interested in exploring texture, in evolving timbral events, and both have the capacity for great delicacy contrasted with ferocious musical passages.
Dialoghi, in particular, with its myriad effects and considerable technical demands, was an excellent showcase for Jensen.
The cellist was still more impressive in Lutoslawski’s challenging and mercurial Sacher Variations, embodying the work with commitment and impressive authority. Occasionally I found the composer’s earlier, folk-music inspired duo for viola and cello, Bukoliki, to be rendered a bit coolly. ACME’s performance of Lutoslawski’s String Quartet, a punctilious and often craggy high modernist masterpiece, was in contrast a visceral experience; in its best passages, redolent with searing intensity.
One hopes that Kaminsky will continue to organize In the Salon events; they are a bright spot on the Upper West Side’s musical landscape.
On Tuesday December 3, 2013 the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presented LA Now: Four New Angeleno Composers, the latest in the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts. Curated by no less an eminence than John Adams, works by Sean Friar, Julia Holter, Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Norman were performed for a mostly young and enthusiastic audience that filled three quarters of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In the pre-concert panel discussion we learned that over 100 compositions were considered during the selection process and that Mr. Adams sought music that “speaks of Los Angeles” and displayed a sense of provincialism – in the best sense of that word. The composers were each asked to identify what makes new music in Los Angeles unique, and comments such as “freedom to try things”, “dispersed”, “experimental” and “entrepreneurial” were heard. Noting that the musical forces specified in these four pieces were generally on the small side, moderator Chad Smith – LA Phil Vice President of Artistic Planning – asked “Is the orchestra still relevant? Do you write music for a full orchestra?” To which Julia Holter quipped “Only if you need to write such a piece to graduate…” and this provoked a knowing laugh from the many music students present. But the mood was upbeat – there is a lively new music scene in and around downtown Los Angeles, and Disney Hall is situated at the center of it.
The first piece on the program was Little Green Pop by Sean Friar and the instrumentation consisted of piano, trombone, soprano and tenor saxes, electric guitar and percussion. This seemingly small assemblage produced an unexpectedly large sound, beginning with a run of light staccato tones that evolved into a series of louder chords. The quick tempo and syncopated rhythms were guided nicely by the precise and clear conducting of John Adams. The tones seem to pop out of the instruments, the harmonies and textures changing with almost every beat and this created a kind of pointillist construction of sound that was very effective. At other times, separate lines would pile together combining into a wonderful mash. Cymbals added an element of majesty and motion that eventually culminated in a great blast from the horns. Sustained and quiet tones followed, producing a moment of calm reflection before building again in tempo and volume and leading to a rousing finish. This was a work whose architecture delivered impressive constructions of sound from relatively small musical forces and Little Green Pop was received with enthusiastic applause.
Memory Drew Her Portrait by Julia Holter followed and this was a world premiere commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This piece featured a more conventionally arrayed chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone and keyboard, with a string section consisting of four violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass – all presided over by John Adams conducting. The composer sang the solo vocals whose text was based on an extended original poem that forms the focus of this work. The opening mournful horn solo immediately sets the tone for this piece – a story of lovers parted. Ms. Holter was mentioned as being in the same league with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the pre-concert discussion and the comparison is apt, less because of the purity of her voice but more in the way that the music, text and voice are joined seamlessly to propel the serious emotional trajectory of the piece. The voice is an equal partner here and the smooth passages in the orchestra serve to effectively reinforce the mood of the text. The accompaniment is direct and accessible, yet adds the requisite atmosphere to the poignant lyrics. The combination of powerful poetry, insightful orchestration and the strong emotional component in the vocals fully connected with the audience, who responded with sustained applause.
After the intermission, Etude IV by Andrew McIntosh was performed by James Sullivan and Brian Walsh playing clarinet with Mark Menzies on violin. This is a quiet piece consisting of a series of scales that repeat in various combinations of intervals and pitches. This piece employs just intonation – a type of microtonal music that employs tuning based on the natural harmonic ratios of pitches and not the conventional 12 equal divisions of the octave. Etude IV is one of a series exercises that Andrew wrote to help the players practice in these different tunings. In the program notes Andrew states that “…present in the pieces is my fascination with some of the more orderly facets of the natural world so the forms and harmonic constructs of the pieces are often very geometric or symmetrical in some way… In Etude IV (my personal favorite) the symmetry is reflected in time as each phrase goes out of phase with itself…” The sound of this occasionally had an Asian feel and often produced interesting harmonies and timbres as the instruments ascended each of the scale patterns. The hearing was good – even in the higher elevations of Disney Hall where I was sitting – but some of the subtleties of the harmonic interplay were undoubtedly lost given the sizable space; this music is most often performed in a much more intimate setting. On the whole, it was a generally restful and almost meditative experience, a fine contrast to much of what was heard in the first part of the concert. Etude IV is very representative of the work being done with alternate tunings in the Los Angeles new music scene and the structure of this piece also owes something to process, another historical West Coast influence.
The final piece of the concert was Try by Andrew Norman and for this John Adams resumed his role as conductor of a group identical to that of Memory Drew Her Portrait, save the addition of a trumpet. But the sound could not have been more different – Try is a furious, high energy stringendo-on-steroids wall of sound that jumped off the stage and seemed barely contained by even the spacious Disney Hall. Swirling, always moving ,yet able to turn on a dime, this piece most reminded me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon music – and this, of course, is a compliment. The playing was precise and deadly accurate despite the frenetic pace and the ensemble managed to keep a keen edge on the river of sound that was sent flowing from the stage. Percussion and brass added an almost explosive element to the ever-building torrent and just when you were sure it couldn’t get any wilder – it went quiet. Piano and flute traded soft phrases and eventually the piano alone was left to repeat a theme of just a few notes. A slight acceleration in the final phrase, then some quiet quiet chords… and an audience sitting in stunned silence. This piece was an emotional roller coaster ride and received a loud ovation in response. It is hard to believe that the music of Andrew Norman won’t find its way to a movie screen or a TV series sometime soon.
LA Now: New Angeleno Composers was an exciting event much appreciated by the sizable audience. Credit goes to John Adams for what must have been no small effort to curate and produce such a concert. Congratulations to all the composers whose work was performed, it was a night to remember.
Concert notes, composer links and more information about this performance are here.
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Before JACK Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ “In iij. Noct,” String Quartet No. 3 Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival, the stage crew turned the lights off in the Clark Studio Theater for a test run, so that everyone in the audience could gauge whether they could withstand the extended period of essentially total darknes. The lights were down for one minute, and once the last light went out I counted to myself, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand.” By the time I hit twenty, the lights were on their way back up.
That is the profound power that darkness has, it drastically slows our personal sensation of time. It’s in that time-altered environment that we hear the musicians, one each in the four corners of the room, playing Haas’s piece (it’s duration can be flexible but JACK played it for about 70 minutes). The darkness is purportedly no gimmick, it’s at the core of the piece, as Haas described in post-concert remarks led by John Schaeffer. But the problem with the compostion, and it is a serious problem, is that it spends so much thought on darkness and none on time.
As a composition, the String Quartet takes the form of a series of structured cues — it’s fair to consider them improvisatory, but that’s a distinction that can easily shift responsibility away from the composer and onto the players. The musicians have different kinds of musical material to work with, things like sequences of effects, instructions to form chords from a tonic pitch using the overtone series, a notable and glaring quotation from one of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria . Playing in the dark, away from each other, they have to come to consensus on each section.
JACKS’ unanimity in this concert was impressive. They’ve played this work almost three dozen times, in Ari Streisfeld’s telling, and although there have been performances in their account where they had to fight over events and direction, this was smooth and assured. But the net effect is that the piece has no form, that it’s a disjointed series of effects — none of them particularly compelling — interrupted by involving tonal material. It’s discontinuous, but there’s no intent to that, no shape, no argument for that structure.
The effects — tricks with the bow, quiet tapping on the fingerboard — evaporate in the dark, though there’s the benefit that the piece doesn’t come off as simplistic horrow music. They don’t linger in the mind, and don’t effectively mark moments in time. When the quartet builds their chords, or when they move via glissandi up and down through pitches, the piece is remarkable. That’s when it builds structure through time, and since it’s working with such a proufoundly altered sensation of the dimension, it starts to open up extraordinary worlds of aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual possibilities.
I get the impression Haas doesn’t hear this, because his instructions let go of all the power in the music. It’s easy, but lazy, to hear his work as avant-garde. He is avant-garde in a bourgeois sense, titillating with sensation. But he’s not in the meaningful sense of an obsessive focus on one single, simple idea, it’s permutations and possibilities. One hour of chord building in pitch darkness, the musicians at the edge of their senses to hit the exact intonation, the audience in constant anticipation of where the music will go and what will happen next, that might be extraordinary. One hour of scrapes and squiggles and some notes — with an entirely superfluous bit of Gesualdo throw in — in the dark, is a gimmick, and ultimatley disappointing.
Hey Jerry. We would love your help getting the word out on the balance of our reading opportunities this year. What’s new is that we are now accepting them by email and also offering the ability to apply for both the Underwood New Music Readings and the New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings that will result in three of the six chosen having their works performed June 5-7 by the Phil either under Alan Gilbert or Matthias Pintscher. I’ll go ahead and say that I think this is pretty cool.
Also, if you can post this opportunity on your site somewhere in addition to blasting the attached pdf, I’ve pasted the link to the page on our site concerning these opportunities.
Many thanks for all your help in getting the word out on these composer opportunities!