Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category
On Thursday November 7, Betalevel, that famously obscure underground venue in Chinatown, hosted a concert of microtonal music entitled The Things That Overpower Us. The program featured the music of Kraig Grady, in Los Angeles for the week and who brought his personal greetings from the metaphorical Island of Anaphoria. A standing-room only crowd of about 50 jammed into the small space to hear performances by Tangerine Music Lab and a string quartet consisting of Melinda Rice, Mona Tian, Andrew McIntosh and Ashley Walters.
The concert began with an extended improvisation by Tangerine Music Labs that was loosely based on a series of selected individual words: Fire, Ginger, Lanterns, etc and short phrases such as The Hawk Cries and Return. The piece began with a series of slow, steady chords by Ryan Tanaka on keyboard and this was soon joined by warm sounds from the viola, played by Deanna Lynn. The smooth, languid feel from the flute-like registration of the keyboard was complimented at times by counterpoint in the viola but there were never any sharp edges. The words selected were sung by vocalist Emily Loynachan in simple, declaratory passages of just a few notes, playing off the other two instruments with a fine sense of timing. The blend and balance here were excellent and the piece flowed agreeably to a quiet conclusion.
This was followed by a string quartet composed by Melinda Rice based on familiar American folk songs surrounded by sounds produced by extended string techniques. The piece began with soft, small, airy sounds that were soon in the company of a traditional folk tune played strongly in the violin. The effect was something like coming out from a long walk in the woods into a sudden clearing and seeing a house, with smoke curling from its chimney. The piece proceeded in this fashion – the folk tunes, and then mouse or perhaps bird-like sounds from the extended techniques. Sometimes the folk tune would be carried by a single instrument, other times in full four-part harmony, but these were separated by sounds that evoked nature. This was a very effective structure – the traditional tunes provided an anchor of familiarity while between these were the more imaginative sounds. Given the Scots-Irish flavor of the folk tunes, it conjured a convincing portrait of an early America that was thinly settled and predominantly wilderness.
Kraig Grady’s solo violin piece was next, a tribute to Lou Harrison. This proceeded in a series of strong, marcato passages, often syncopated. A photo of an antique telegrapher’s key was projected on the wall behind the performer and the work included a series of Morse code passages that were embedded in the rhythms. A long time ago I was able to read Morse code but I confess I couldn’t detect anything of the familiar patterns here – but the effect was certainly present.
Mica followed, a string quartet written by Terumi Narushima, who teaches at the University of Wollongong and is also married to Kraig Grady. Ms. Narushima explained that Mica was inspired by the sheen of the granite buildings in a big city, the mineral mica being the constituent of granite that gives off the brightest reflections. The piece begins with a series of slow, gentle chords that build in volume and then subside, reminiscent of an ocean swell on a lazy summer day. The microtonal technique here was nicely done and a feeling of a soft warmth was effectively realized. A Google Earth view of Anaphoria was projected on the wall and its state of seeming serenity was entirely appropriate. As the piece proceeded, a sharpness and intensity emerged that put one more in mind of the hard glint of sunlight reflecting off a granite skyscraper. The effective use of dynamics and skillful selections from the palette of pitches made hearing this piece a delightful experience.
The final piece in the program was Poole’s Lament by Kraig Grady, “a tribute to Grady’s colleague Rod Poole who was working on an arrangement of a set of Irish tunes before his tragic death.” This was performed by the string quartet. Poole’s Lament is based on a setting of an Irish reel and the piece begins with the tune resolutely played in standard tuning. Trills creep in to cover the main theme and the piece gradually unpacks into a series of long tones and quiet chords. Microtonal passages further enhance the sense of an unwinding process. In his comments prior to the playing of this work, Kraig Grady described the piece as following the arc of the natural processes that occur in the repose of death. This was not portrayed as morbid or unseemly in the music, but rather as a gentle disassembly into eternity. Soft tones and quiet pizzicato notes concluded this sweetly elegant commemoration.
By way of encore, the string quartet was asked to improvise – as a group – on a series of placards held up by Kraig Grady. The words on these signs triggered all manner of interesting responses from the musicians, and proved to be very entertaining. This speaks to the high level of musicianship provided by Melinda Rice, Mona Tian, Andrew McIntosh and Ashley Walters. The excellent playing, enthusiastic audience and the company of the composers made The Things That Overpower Us a memorable evening of new music.
When art promises to be revelatory, it may become something to fear. Such is the case of String Paths, the first conspectus of music by Dobrinka Tabakova. Fear, in this sense, is close to awe, for before hearing a single note one knows its details will seep into places to which few others have traveled. Fear, because the trust and intimacy required of such an act is what the composer’s life is all about: she fills staves with glyphs so that anyone with an open heart might encounter their fleeting interpretations and become part of their accretion. Indeed, many factors go into the creation of a single instrumental line, incalculably magnified by its interaction with others. Fear, then, is closer still to love.
Born in 1980, Tabakova moved at age 11 from her Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv to London, where she went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her career began in earnest after winning an international competition at 14, since which time she has developed a voice that is refreshingly full and melodious. Such a biographical sketch, despite its prodigious overtones, does little to set Tabakova apart from her contemporaries. Recognition is one thing; experience is another. The coloring of imagination sustained in this timely album’s program, the whole of its corporeal sensibilities, can only come across when its water fills a listener’s cup.
Ukrainian violist-conductor Maxim Rysanov, notable proponent of Kancheli and other composers of our time, has become one of Tabakova’s strongest advocates. It was, in fact, his performance of the Suite in Old Style (written 2006 for solo viola, harpsichord and strings) at the prestigious Lockenhaus Festival that first caught ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s ear and led him to propose the present disc. As the album’s seed, it shelters refugees of the surrounding works. In amending a practice established by such visionaries as Górecki, Schnittke, Eller, and others who have mined elder idioms as a means of looking forward, Tabakova might be placed squarely in an ongoing tradition. She, however, prefers to trace the piece’s genealogy back to Rameau by way of Respighi. Given its descriptive edge, we might link it further to the great Baroque mimeticists—Farina, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Vivaldi—who were less interested in imitating each other (although some intertextuality was to be expected) than they were in describing nature and circumstance. In this respect, Tabakova’s triptych interfaces a variety of signatures, from which her own stands boldest.
The first movement is a triptych unto itself. Beginning with a Prelude marked “Fanfare from the balconies,” proceeding to “Back from hunting,” and on to “Through mirrored corridors,” already one can note Tabakova’s special affinity for space and place. A rich and delightful piece of prosody, its syncopations feel like ballet, a joyous dance of fit bodies. The viola leaps while the harpsichord adds tactile diacritics to Rysanov’s slippery alphabet. The transcendent centerpiece, entitled “The rose garden by moonlight,” is a shiver down the spine in slow motion, a season at once born and dying. The harpsichord elicits brief exaltations, pushing its wordless song into snowdrift, even as intimations of spring exchange glances with those of autumn. The quasi-Italian filigree of “Riddle of the barrel-organ player” and the Postlude (“Hunting and Finale”) fosters a nostalgic air of antique tracings, bearing yin and yang with plenty of drama to spare.
Insight (2002) for string trio opens the program with exactly that. Played by its dedicatees (Rysanov, Russian violinist Roman Mints, and Latvian-born Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist of the London Philharmonic), it unfolds in dense streams. For Tabakova the trio breathes as one, as might the moving parts of some singing, bellowed engine. The trio thus becomes something else entirely (a phenomenon achieved via the same configuration perhaps only by Górecki in his Genesis I). Moments of shining vibrato add pulse and skin. Glissandi also play an important role in establishing a smooth, coherent fable. The violin’s harmonics are glassine, somehow vulnerable. Indications of dances hold hands with jagged flames. Hints of a free spirit shine through the cracks. A decorated return to the theme looses a bird from an open palm, watching it fly until its song grows too faint to hear.
The 2008 Concerto for Cello and Strings, written for and featuring Blaumane as soloist, moves in three phases, the names of which recall the designations of John Adams. The music, too, may remind one of the American humanist, singing as it does with a likeminded breadth of inflection. The first movement (“Turbulent, tense”) unfolds in pulsing energy. Like a spirit coursing through the sky, it searches the heavens, lantern in hand, for earthly connection. The spirit casts a longing gaze across the oceans, leaping from continent to continent, harming not a single blade of grass by her step. The cello thus takes up the opening theme like a haul from the deep, letting all creatures slip through its fingers to hold the one treasure it seeks by their tips. In that box: a beating heart, one that seeks its own undoing by virtue of its discovery. It is a story revived in countless historical tragedies. The orchestra flowers around the soloist, carrying equilibrium as might a parent cradle a sickly child, laying her down on the altar where the opening motif may reach. The slow movement, marked “Longing,” thus revives that body, spinning from the treasure’s contents a trail she might follow back toward breath. With her resurrection come also the fears that killed her: the conflicts of a warring state, the ideals of a corrupt ruler, the confusion of a hopeless citizenry. The kingdom no longer smiles beneath the sun but weeps by moonlight. Chromatic lilts keep those tears in check, holding them true to form: as vast internal calligraphies whose tails find purchase only on composition paper. Echoes appear and remain. Blaumane’s rich, singing tone conveys all of this and more, never letting go of its full-bodied emotion. The softness of the final stretch turns charcoal into pastel, cloud into dusk, star into supernova. It is therefore tempting to read resolution into the final movement (“Radiant”). From its icy opening harmonics, it seems to beg for the cello’s appearance, which in spite of its jaggedness never bleeds into forceful suggestion. For whenever it verges on puncture, it reconnects to the surrounding orchestral flow, from which it was born and to which it always returns for recharge. Its blasting high sends a message: I am fallen that I might rise again.
Frozen River Flows (2005) is scored for violin, accordion and double bass. Intended to evoke water beneath ice, it expresses two states of the same substance yet so much more. It encompasses the snowy banks, the laden trees, the footprints left beneath them. It imparts glimpses of those who wandered through here not long ago, whose warmth still lingers like a puff of exhaled breath. The violin takes on a vocal lilt, the accordion a windy rasp, the double bass a gestural vocabulary—all of which ends as if beginning.
Such different paths (2008) for string septet ends the program. Dedicated to Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, it ushers in a fulsome, chromatic sound. There is a feeling of constant movement here that is duly organic: in one sense as flow, in another as melodic variety. There is, again, a rocking quality, as if the music always rests on some sort of fulcrum. A quiet passage that deals with the barbs lifted to our eyes. It ends in transcendent wash, a bleed of dye in cloth.
The performances on this finely produced disc are as gorgeous as they come, even more so under the purview of such attentive engineering. This is not music we simply listen to, but music that also listens to us.
It is in precisely this spirit of mutual listening that I participated in an e-mail interview with Ms. Tabakova, who kindly answered the following questions from this enamored soul…
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On Friday night, November 1st the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a program by three outstanding improvisational musicians: Tim Feeney on percussion, Ken Ueno, vocals and Matt Ingalls, clarinet. A little over an hour of improvisational music was offered in the reclaimed second-story industrial loft that is the Wulf, and a small but dedicated group of listeners gathered comfortably in the informal space. On this occasion there were no overhead lights – just a single back light behind the performers – and this added to the unusual atmosphere.
The three performers all have long experience playing experimental music using extended techniques. Tim Feeney came equipped with a table full of items for percussion: files, steel bars, a variety of mallets, a wooden stick, scrapers, copper plates and several bows. Tim has played extensively in Boston’s improvising community and has appeared at experimental spaces such as the Red Room in Baltimore, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ken Ueno is a composer and vocalist who is accomplished in Heavy Metal sub-tone singing , Tuvan throat singing and other extended vocal techniques. He includes attending West Point and winning a Rome Prize in his extensive resume and has appeared at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Musik Triennale Köln Festival among many others.
According to his website, Matt Ingalls is “ a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area Improv Scene, and is known for his ‘composerly’ solo improvisations that explore extended techniques on his instrument that interact with the acoustic space, often as combination tones.” Matt is also founder and co-director of sfSound a new music ensemble, and is active in computer music programming.
The first piece began with a series of quiet gestures : a breath of air through the clarinet, the soft rubbing of the drum head and a low vocal whooshing sound that combined to evoke a dark, windswept plain at night. A lonely sort of howl sounded in the distance, adding to the wilderness atmosphere. As the early part of the piece progressed the sounds grew louder and more distinct – a heavier scraping on the drum, a distinct huffing sound from the vocals and regular squeaks from the clarinet. A solo voice drone with vocalise accompanied by bowing on the drum produced an interesting sonic combination. Other combinations of voice, clarinet and percussion took their turn – with one player resting – as the piece continued, building in intensity. As the clarinet reached a full screeching cry the effect was palpably primal in its impact.
At this point, as the intensity subsided somewhat, Matt Ingalls switched over to an apparatus consisting of a garden hose fitted with a bass clarinet reed and what seemed to be an extendable tube that might have been a vacuum cleaner attachment. This produced a low reedy sound whose pitch and volume was modified by the position of the extendable tube and by a plate held to its end, used in the manner of a horn player stopping the bell. This produced a low, mournful sound that combined nicely with the bowed drum and the overall effect as the piece concluded was that we were in the presence of something alien, but nevertheless sympathetic.
The second piece opened with a series of long, low clarinet tones. In time this was joined by a light tapping of the drum and soft vocals. The clarinet broke into a series of scales and arpeggios that gave the texture a bright, active feel that increased in dynamic as the piece progressed. Eventually the clarinet – amplified – produced an almost painful series of shrieks and screeches accompanied by a rapid tapping in the percussion and a forceful drone in the voice. A series of trills by the clarinet quickly broke into powerful sheets of sound that poured out – reminiscent of Coltrane or a Rahsaan Roland Kirk – in a fluid and intense expression. The familiar sonic territory exerted a strong pull on this listener – you could feel the old dynamism welling up and it was the perfect compliment to what had gone before. The piece slowly wound down from this high point and the voice, percussion and clarinet recombined effectively to produce a calming sense of the sacred as the piece concluded.
This performance was an impressive display of what can be created with extended techniques in the hands of experienced and capable improvising musicians. The varied sounds that were produced by all three players during the course of this performance was a real marvel and gives us a fine example of what is possible beyond the limits of conventional playing.
The next offering at the Wulf will be on November 17, 2013 with James Klopfleisch presenting.
Posted by George Grella in Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Experimental Music, Recordings, Review, tags: Andy Kozar, Caroline Shaw, Gregory Brown, Kevin Puts, Le Poème Harmonique, Marco Marazzoli, Monteverdi, New York Polyphony
Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.
Monday at the DiMenna Center, New York New Music Ensemble presents a program of works by Lukas Foss (1922-2009). Lukas (with whom I studied in the 90s when I was at BU) was a man of many musical talents with a near-omnivorous interest in a host of musical styles. Rather than try to present a comprehensive portrait of them all (a tall order in a single evening!), NYNME will focus on pieces from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, the period during which he was in his most experimental phase. In Echoi (1963), Foss made use of vast swaths of serial-inspired charts – there are pictures of them taking up whole walls of his studio. However, his performance directions add a measure of postmodern theatricality and there’s more than a bit of aleatory at work too. These seemingly disparate elements come together in a piece that is a masterful melange. Paradigm (1968), is more ebulliently chaotic still. Incorporating clangorous percussion and vociferous shouts alongside quasi-rock riffs from electric guitar, it channels more than a bit of the cultural and political revolutions afoot in the year of its composition.
Solo Observed (1982), began its life as a virtuosic solo piano piece, Solo, which found Foss experimenting with minimalism and maximalism at the same time. Solo Observed (1982, in versions for both orchestra and chamber ensemble), adds additional instruments, who observe, comment on, and sometimes even obstruct the pianist’s solo. The last work on the program, Tashi (1986), written for the star-studded chamber ensemble of the same name, is one of my favorite of Foss’s chamber works. Abundantly virtuosic and sumptuously harmonically varied, it is one of the best syntheses of the various styles and varied materials that fascinated Foss. Hunt down Rendezvous, the group’s 1989 recording on which it appears. Better yet, catch it live tonight.
Posted by Chris Becker in Chamber Music, Classical Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Flute, Houston, Improv, Interviews, jazz, Performers, tags: Houston Friends of Chamber Music, Imani Winds, improvisation, Jeff Scott, maqam, maqamat, Simon Shaheen, Wayne Shorter, wind quintet
Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.
On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’s composition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.
I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.
Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?
Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”
CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?
CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?
JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.
In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)
What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.
Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.
CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?
JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.
CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.
JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!
CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.
The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.
So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”
CB: That’s so great.
JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)
So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”
And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.
Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.
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The Society for Minimalist Music is holding their biennial conference this year on the campus of Cal State Long Beach from October 3d through the 6th. Opening day included a concert of piano music by primarily west coast-influenced composers who have appeared on the Cold Blue Music label, and two of whom – Michael Jon Fink and Kyle Gann – were in attendance. The venue was the Daniel Recital Hall which comfortably held the audience, consisting mostly of conference attendees. The pianist was Bryan Pezzone.
The wide variety of expression in this concert – even within the context of piano music – illustrates the extent to which minimalist music has evolved past its stereotypical image of repetition and stasis. Nine pieces by six composers were listed on the program; here are some impressions and reactions.
The concert opened with Five Pieces for Piano Solo (1997) by Michael Jon Fink, whose spare, soft style is very engaging. Part 1, Passing, starts off with single tones and then a series of interesting chords that build into a slight tension. This continues in part 2, Mode, now with some dissonance, producing a somewhat more strident sound. Fragment, for Lou Harrison, the third part, provides a welcome contrast with a series of soothing low arpeggios that are then repeated in a higher register. The tension reappears in part 4, Echo with the same repeating figure and is resolved in the last part, Epitaph‘ with a slow, calming bell-like finish – the final chord seems to hang in the air, evaporating into silence. The long pauses between parts and the simple elegance of the sequences add to the introspective nature of this quiet music.
Hermetic Bird, a section from Peter Garland’s Bright Angel (1996) followed with a driving, bright sound incorporating powerful chords and echoes. It is as if a light has been switched on or you are facing the sun just above the horizon. This piece was written in memory of Kuniharu Akiyama and according to the program notes, Garland states that “Bright Angel refers to a view point on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, where one gets a spectacular view of canyons and depths. I was there at sunset, thinking of Kuniharu and of this piece, thinking about life and death.” As the work progresses it becomes softer with overtones floating above thick chords and sounding almost church-like. The piece concludes with louder section supported by a prominent bass line and is as satisfying in its strength as the ending of Five Pieces for Piano Solo was in its softness.
A second Garland piece was heard, The View from Vulture Peak (1987) and this was followed by Ponkapoag Bog (2008-09) by Daniel Lentz. This has a warm, soft feel – as reflective and nostalgic as Garland’s music is dynamic. Ponkapoag Bog is filled with lovely chords that become bouncy and playful as the piece progresses – a full sound that is bubbly and almost dance-like at times. Daniel Lentz is based in Santa Barbara, California but interestingly this piece was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Ponkapoag Bog is an actual historic New England Native American site nearby. Ponkapoag Bog is a sunny piece, full of optimism, and in its denser sections reminded me a bit of a Prokofiev piano concerto.
Sad from Kyle Gann’s Private Dances (2000) suite was next. According to the program notes, Kyle “…had to excise some of the original 11-against-13 rhythms, but the piece is still tricky. The idea was to have a clear harmonic rhythm while thoroughly obscuring the meter…” Byran Pezzone carried this off nicely and to my ears the ornamented moving line in the melody and the solemn – but never somber – feel of this piece sounded almost conventional. Private Dances was commissioned by Sarah Cahill and was premiered by her on a New Albion CD.
as she sleeps (2000) by Michael Byron followed, a piece consisting of soft chords, pauses and a spare, economical style as befits a work dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The other pieces listed on the program were La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (1980) by David Mahler, and Requium (1976), another Daniel Lentz piece. The program concluded with Celesta Solo (1981) by Michael Jon Fink.
Bryan Pezzone, known for his film and studio work, did a masterful job on the keyboards, readily adapting to the different styles and requirements of each piece. Afterwords, Cold Blue Music hosted a reception in the lobby, and Jim Fox could be seen moving among the guests with his usual gregariousness. It was a fine evening for hearing minimalist music and for reconnecting with acquaintances.
The demise of the New York City Opera is a tragedy for American composers, singers and fans of new opera. With rare exceptions, it has been, since its founding in 1943, the only game in town for large-scale productions of major works by composers who were still breathing at the time. From now established oldies like Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land to newer masterpieces like Mark Adano’s Little Women, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, the NYCO has been an invaluable platform for American-style grand opera.
The NYCO was instrumental in launching the careers of many great singers like the people’s diva, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Maralin Niska, Carol Vaness,José Carreras, Shirley Verrett, Tatiana Troyanos, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, Lauren Flanigan and Elizabeth Futral.
Many of the happiest nights of my life I have spent sitting quietly in the dark were spent in the upper reaches of what will always be called by me the New York State Theater. I feel like I’ve lost an old friend.
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This article points up a very serious and potentially catastrophic, it seems to me, situation which everybody should know about. There is a very possibility that the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which is clearly one of the preeminent summer music programs for pre-college students (and a very important program for pre-college composers) in the United States, may not exist NEXT YEAR. Tell all your friends….
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Posted by Chris Becker in Ambient, Composers, Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Experimental Music, File Under?, Houston, Improv, Sound Art, tags: Houston Fringe Festival, Paul Connolly, Super Happy Fun Land
(Houston, TX) If Houston is becoming, as one young Houston-based composer puts it, a “hub for contemporary music,” credit must be given to more than a few local ensembles, organizations, and venues that operate without institutional support and on shoestring budgets. Contemporary music ensembles made up of university professors and their students performing contemporary music in universities for other professors and students are nothing new. But composers who not only write, perform, and creatively program contemporary music and present it outside of academia in venues typically dedicated to performance art, experimental rock and underground noise? That’s a little more interesting, and certainly more conducive to expanding audiences for 21st century composition.
Composer Paul Connolly (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Houston-based composer Paul Connolly understands this. As the curator and producer of Brave New Waves, which was born out of electronic and video artist Jonathan Jindra’s Binarium Sound Series and is currently Houston’s only concert series dedicated solely to electronic music, Connolly has worked hard to bring seemingly disparate artists and audiences together to share and experience new sounds. On October 2,3, and 5, as part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival, Connolly shifts roles from producer to composer to premier The Quiet Persistence Of Memory, an original electro-acoustic composition that, not surprisingly, will be performed by a wildly diverse collection of Houston musicians and improvisers.
The Quiet Persistence Of Memory is scored for bass, tenor, and soprano voices, viola, harp, contrabass, percussion, and analog modular sound tools. The ensemble Connolly has gathered to perform this work includes Aaron Bielish (viola), Kathy Fay (harp), Thomas Helton (double bass), Luke Hubley (percussion), John Pitale (percussion), Ben Lind (narration), Misha Penton (soprano), Matthew Robinson (tenor), and SPIKE the percussionist (percussion, electronics). Each of the three scheduled performances of The Quiet Persistence Of Memory will feature a slightly different configuration of the performers. The score, which Connolly describes as “a time-based grid that allows the performers to both see their part as well as existing parts of others that have been prerecorded,” is augmented by live improvisation and accompanying visuals.
“When I first began conceptualizing the piece,” says Connolly, “it probably had an equal balance between acoustic instruments and electronic material. However, the piece has evolved to where it has become very much a totally acoustic instrument work, with live electronics that are used almost like Foley in film. Very subtle, and simply providing a background that’s not necessarily noticeable.”
The title of the piece, aside from its nod to the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, refers to “the process by which information (i.e. memory) is encoded, stored and retrieved.” Connolly’s compositional process, which included recording studio performances by many of the participating musicians and incorporating those recordings into the piece for the same musicians to “remember” and react to in the live performances, speaks to the subject of how memory is utilized, disrupted, and (de)valued “in a hyper-information rich society.”
No two of the three performances of the piece will be alike, and kudos must go to the folks behind the Houston Fringe Festival for scheduling multiple opportunities for audiences to hear and experience Connolly’s music.
Paul Connolly presents The Quiet Persistence Of Memory October 2, 5, 9:30 PM and October 3, 8:00 PM at Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk Street, Houston, TX. Part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival.