The pseudo-fact that we are ‘visual creatures’ has been drummed into mass culture for the past several decades. It’s pernicious pieces of propaganda, one of those marketing tools that is so pervasive and in-plain-sight that social critics and paranoids searching for subliminal messages and methods of mass coercion not only overlook it, they embrace it. We see and therefore we buy what we see is the way it goes, from artful design to pornography to fine art, where currently overcompensated rentiers pay immoral sums for works meant that, when hung on the wall of the McMansion, are meant to dazzle and intimidate with their pedigree and cost.
It’s bullshit, of course. Yes we see and are interested in what we see, but our most important sense organ is our ears, we are hearing creatures. Our eyes are promiscuous and fickle, what pleases them changes from year to year and culture to culture. But our ears are connected to our lizard brains and our souls. The thing that goes bump in the night is universal and eternal, the way it sets our hearts racing and sense on edge is as human as it gets, and the effect that sound has on us is exponentially more powerful than that of images. As R. Murray Schafer has pointed out, we can’t close our ears.
On August 9, Christian Wolff’s Changing the System (1973) was performed by the new experimental music group Southland Ensemble, in the heart of historic China Town here in Los Angeles. About 40 people filled Automata, a small space at Chung King Court dedicated to the experimental arts, to hear Wolff’s politically charged and innovative work that utilizes graphical scoring designed to inspire a kind of consensus-driven interpretation from the players. Enlarged reproductions of the score were hung on the walls and the audience was encouraged to walk about and inspect them during the performance.
Christian Wolff is the last surviving member of the New York School of experimental composition that famously included Morton Feldman and John Cage. In fact it was Wolff who gave John Cage a copy of I Ching , stimulating that composers use of random processes in composition. And Wolff himself, according to the program notes, sought “to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity…” allowing the players to work out the realization of the piece within the guidelines of the score. Read the rest of this entry »
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It’s still so unbelievable and so marvelous, that John Cage would be able to perform such a piece on national television, on a game show! It’s the sort of thing that was not supposed to be possible before the Internet, but there it is, and at the time it was shown there was little chance that the federal government knew who was watching it.
“Water Walk” seems to me to be convivial, like a party, with the same aesthetic values as “Living Room Music,” something that friends should enjoy together in an intimate setting. It can be performed by anyone with the time and equipment to prepare and an inclination for quick thinking and good humor. I think Jenny Q. Chai has most of those qualities, but she’s a busy musician with many demands on her time, and in the living room concert venue, Spectrum, on May 7, she was a little flustered and a little rushed as she checked the running time on her iPhone and moved from object to object. Practicing the piano is one thing, setting up and knocking down all the bric-a-brac on tables, and doing it again and again, is a challenge on time that I don’t image Cage expected many musicians to undertake.
But in the context of the concert, and in the Spectrum setting with books lining the walls and easy chairs and couches, it was a convivial encore, a trick at the end of a good party. The party was a collection of old and new pieces, set together into short suites. Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.
She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti — but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. I don’t think all the music she played in Aqua Alta was successful, but I was left feeling that everything she played was offered as it should be.
The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,”, a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. All the older works put the new ones in difficult contrast, their combination of craft and the focussed exploration of controlled ideas set an example that Paranosic’s underdone, programmatic and overlong minimalism couldn’t match, Vigeland’s “I Turisti” sounded great, but the result didn’t match his own description, the composition too clear to encompass the sound of chattering tourists that was somehow supposed to drown out the music.
The large scale piece on the program was a new work from Michael Vincent Waller, “Acqua Santa,” that started modestly but grew into an ambitious and attractive work. Waller’s basic pulse both lengthens and picks up the pace as the music moves along, the structure builds from monophony to homophony, and there’s some of the pleasantly mesmerizing quality of watching waves from the shore. It’s essentially minimal without being minimalist in the repetitive sense, and the appearance of whole-tone scales develops an impressionistic aesthetic that elided nicely with the closing set of pieces: Ravel’s “Une Barque Sur L’océan,” Debussy’s prelude to “La cathédrale engloutie,” and Liszt’s “La lugubre gondola,” finished off with Marco Stroppa’s effective adaptation of a traditional lullaby, “Ninnananna.” This whole stretch of the concert was involving and powerful. While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”
(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.
The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.
On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.
“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”
“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”
Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.
Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”
“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”
“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”
Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”
“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”
“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”
The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.
Houston-based flutist, composer, and improviser Michelle Yom
(Houston, TX) This Sunday, Houston-based flutist, composer, and improviser Michelle Yom presents FALKOR, an interactive music and dance composition featuring Yom on flute and four dancers, Kriten Frankiewicz, Erin Reck, Leslie Scates, and Sophia Torres. FALKOR utilizes video motion tracking and a wireless system triggering audio samples based on the colors of the costumes worn by the dancers as well as their movements. FALKOR takes place at Studio 101 as part of the ongoing electronic music series Brave New Waves.
Fantasy film fans (not to mention fans of 1980s pop music) will no doubt recognize the name Falkor (i.e. Falkor the Luck Dragon) from the film Neverending Story, which tells the story of a young boy who, through reading a magical book, enters into another world called Fantasia, a world sustained by human imagination. Yom uses the names of different characters and creatures from the film, each of whom represent some facet of humanity, as “venture points” to explore “the relationships between emotions, noise, sound, silence, and nothingness.”
Says Yom, “Falkor is luck and joy, Swamps of Sadness is sadness, Engywook is intellect, and Morla is cynicism. I use these characters as general ground to inspire the improvised music and dance. It seems linear, but I hope to show other sides of seemingly one-sided notions of emotion. For example, we treat sadness as a negative feeling, but it actually springs from hope in the first place, and when destroyed, begins something new.”
As a frequent participant in concerts of freely improvised music presented by the Houston organization Nameless Sound, improvisation is a crucial component to Yom’s compositional vision. Each of the four dancers in FALKOR are experienced improvisers as well. The wireless system triggering audio in response to their movement and costume colors will scramble the audience’s perception of what has been composed and what is being improvised, as well as time itself.
“I’ve been exploring silence,” explains Yom. “Different types of silence with factors like physical movement and the inevitably strong role it plays in our perception of time in a concert. I’d like to push the length of silence in a musical piece without losing the audience.”
Sunday, January 27, Brave New Waves presents Michelle Yom’s FALKOR at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Houston, Texas, Houston, Texas 77007. Doors open at 7:45 p.m. the performance begins at 8:05 p.m. $10 cover.
Tune in to KTRU Saturday at 6:00 p.m. CT for an interview with Michelle Yom.
Have you seen the leaden snark about new music that recently passed for a column on Huffington Post? Penned by composer Daniel Asia, it was ostensibly about John Cage’s centenary year celebrations, but was really just a rehash of reactionary vitriol against experimental art.
Aren’t we yet tired of attacking those whose aesthetic viewpoints differ from our own? Can’t we composers all just get along? Apparently not. My reply to Huff Post follows below.
With all due respect to Daniel Asia, it is very easy to write an essay excoriating a dead man and griping about centenary festivals: both are easy targets. It is not so easy to create a body of work that outlives you and continues to provoke thought. John Cage’s music may not suit Professor Asia, but it certainly engaged audiences throughout the world in 2012.
I wrote about several of the events and came away with a very different impression (from that portrayed in the article above) of Cage’s music and the music of those who admired him. Much of it I found invigorating, stimulating, and yes, often entertaining.
(“Composer Talk” co-hosts Chris Becker and Hsin-Jung Tsai with Trio Oriens)
Some of you may remember that a little over two years ago I relocated from New York City to Houston, TX. Since then, I have been enjoying what is truly a lively and diverse music and arts scene (clap, clap, clap, clap) “deep in the heart of Texas!” This past year in particular has been especially stimulating and busy for me as a composer, performer, writer, and DJ.
Yes, DJ. As in radio DJ. As in, “Tune in Saturday, December 29th, 2012, 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 PM central time for Composer Talk at 90.1 HD2 KPFT and streaming live on the web at ktru.org!”
“Composer Talk” is a spin-off of KTRU’s contemporary music program Scordatura which airs Saturdays from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM CT. The current Scordatura hosts include composer Paul Connolly, bassist and composer Thomas Helton, and pianist and composer Hsin-Jung Tsai. Awhile back, Hsin-Jung interviewed me for an edition of Scordatura, and she and I had so much fun talking about music that we decided to make it a regular thing. Hence, “Composer Talk,” a monthly radio show that features the two of us playing recordings of and talking about contemporary music. Just music and talk, you know, no big whoop.
For each edition of “Composer Talk,” Hsin-Jung and I bring in whatever music we think needs to be shared with the world that month (we always bring more music than we have time to play) and just let it roll. There’s no script. We play raw recordings of premier performances, unreleased recordings by friends far and wide, deep vinyl cuts, and CDs that come to us from great independent labels including Innova, New Amsterdam Records, American Modern Recordings, Cantaloupe Music, and many others.
We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing guest artists in the studio for “Composer Talk,” including Houston’s own Trio Oriens, marimba player Wei-Chen Lin, composer Joseph Phillips, and pianist Robert Boston.
Some of our listeners enjoy just checking in for a few minutes at a time, while others let the show play in its entirety. Unfortunately, the show isn’t archived, so any unplanned alchemy that happens only happens once, kind of like music: ephemeral and (we hope) fun.
“Composer Talk” airs this Saturday, December 29th, 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Central Time) in high definition at 90.1 HD2 KPFT and streaming live on the web at www.ktru.org.
I talked to Sarah about Friday’s concert, her career, working in Europe and other topics related to contemporary music on my web-based music show/podcast, We Are Not Beethoven on Washington Public Radio. You can stream/download our conversation here.
Once again, violinist Sarah Plum is giving a recital at the Firehouse Space in Brooklyn this coming Friday at 8 PM. Tickets are $10, and the Firehouse Space is located at 246 Frost Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. More information about the event can be found here.
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Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.
Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.
Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.
Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.
When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »
Shiurba’s world premiere work for large ensemble, 9:9, is a suite of nine pieces written to be interpreted by nine players with a conductor. (Any reader who is familiar with his work will recall his affinity for numbered concepts, in past works such as Triplicate and 5 x 5.) The score will explore the demise of the print medium through nine different types of notation, all of which are derived from newspapers. The nine players will be called upon to interpret standard music notation along with graphic, textual and pictorial notation, allowing the ensemble some creative input in the interpretation. The form of the suite will be open, allowing the conductor and the players to spontaneously shape the way the music develops in real time. Shiurba will serve as conductor of his own piece next Thursday night. He was also kind enough to take time out to answer some of my questions.
S21: Sequenza21 readers have read about you before in your role as a guitarist in SF Bay Area improvising ensembles. How does your guitar playing inform (or not inform) your compositions?
JS: My experience as an improvising guitarist perhaps affects my compositions mostly by way of contrast. When I seek to interject something composed into an improvising ensemble, I tend toward something that the ensemble wouldn’t otherwise do. So usually I choose pitched tight rhythmic phrases that contrast wildly with the mostly arhythmic timbral material that typifies my improvising. Whether or not my approach to the guitar actually affects the music that I write probably depends largely on what music I’m writing. In the case of one of my more rock oriented projects, where I’m writing actual guitar music, undoubtedly my own guitar language (and my limitations) will factor significantly in what I write. When I’m writing for other instruments, then probably not so much. I’m not much interested in creating ways of notating the things that I (and others) do in an improvised situation– I’m happy to just let that happen as it will, and write something to contrast it.