The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres. For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work. Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.
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’scomposition 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.
On September 3rd Kinan Azmeh CityBand returned to Joe’s Pub for the official release of their new album, Elastic City. The disc, a collection of passionate and virtuosic pieces in the genre of Arab World Jazz, features Azmeh (clarinet), Kyle Sanna (guitar), Josh Myers (bass), and John Hadfield (drums and percussion). Formed in 2006, the ensemble has received critical acclaim in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Judging from the large and wildly enthusiastic audience at Joe’s Pub, they are clearly developing a big following here in New York.
Born and raised in Damascus, Azmeh finished his training at New York’s Juilliard School and has since gained international recognition as a clarinettist, composer, and musical innovator. He’s currently recognized as one of Syria’s leading classical musicians and composers, and also has a well deserved reputation as one of New York’s most engaging composer-performers. In addition to his work with CityBand, Azmeh performs regularly with the Syrian ensemble HEWAR, the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble (of which he is the artistic director), and also as a solo artist.
CityBand has a captivating stage presence and an interpersonal attunement that comes from years of performing together. They respond intuitively to each other, grooving effortlessly in complex meters, and never getting in each other’s way. Their improvisations are sophisticated and emotionally powerful, each member contributing a distinct individual voice to a seamlessly blended whole. At times Azmeh brings the dynamics of the group down to an almost inaudible level, building it slowly to ecstatic heights.
Azmeh started the evening with a deeply moving solo entitled A Sad Morning, Every Morning, a composition that he wrote in memory of the thousands who have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict. Other memorable moments included Woods, a haunting and transportive work by Kyle Sanna, and Wedding, a raucous piece written by Azmeh that featured the group’s dazzling virtuosity.
Kinan Azmeh: A Sad Morning, Every Morning (art by Kevork Mourad)
(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.
Poet and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill performs in Holding It Down Photo by Marc Millman Photography
The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the “insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”
Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.
The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.
With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s underground music scene will come together this coming July in an annual celebration of its tremendous range of styles, its love of improvisation, and its collective obsession with new and unusual timbres and techniques. It’s the 11th Annual Outsound New Music Summit! All events will take place at the San Francisco Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street near 20th Street in the Mission District, and tickets can be ordered online from Brown Paper Tickets or purchased at the door.
The ever-popular Touch the Gear Expo kicks off the Summit on Sunday July 15, 7-10 pm. It’s designed especially for anyone who’s longed for a closer look at an experimental musician’s gear on stage, and for the opportunity to mess with it. 25-30 sound artists will be there to demonstrate everything from oscillators to planks of wood with strings attached and answer questions. Visitors of all ages have free rein to make sound and experience how these set-ups work, and best of all, it’s free.
The second Summit night is also free, and this time the composers take over. In the Tuesday night Composers’ Symposium (July 17, 7-10 pm),John Shiurba,Christina Stanley,Benjamin Ethan Tinker,and Matthew Goodheartwill all discuss how they navigate modern compositional techniques, while combining them with improvisation and their own individual forms of experimentation. The public is invited to talk freely with the composers and ask them questions.
Performances begin at 8:00 pm on Wednesday, July 18th with the first of four themed concerts – Sonic Poetry. This night is curated by Outsound Board members Amar Chaudhary and Robert Anbian, who’ve recruited three leading poets to collaborate with Bay Area improvising musicians to create new word and sound compositions. Words are by Ronald Sauer, rAmu Aki, and Carla Harryman, with music by Jacob Felix Heule,Jordan Glenn,Karl Evangelista, Jon Raskin, and Gino Robair.
The Tuesday night Composers’ Symposium prepares everyone for the second performance evening on Thursday, July 19th – The Composer’s Muse.Christina Stanley, Matthew Goodheart, and John Shiurba will all premiere new works running the gamut from graphic scores for string quartet, to prepared piano with sonified metal percussion, to a major work for large ensemble celebrating the newspaper.
Thwack, Bome, Chime on Friday night, July 20th, curated by Outsound Board member Pete Martin, will feature the world of percussion in all its coloristic and dynamic glory. David Douglas will combine percussion instruments with custom-built delays, loopers, samplers, and other effects to create The Walls Are White With Flame, a series of highly spatialized sound sculptures. In Seems An Eternity,Benjamin Ethan Tinker will assemble three percussion trios of metal and skin percussion to explore the same musical material in canon. And finally the San Francisco percussion ensemble Falkortet will show off its versatility combining traditional percussion, hand drums, and electronics with influences from Indonesian music, Brazilian music, Jazz, minimalism, and rock.
The final day of the Outsound Summit, July 21st, will be a big one starting with a 2-4 pm Harmolodics workshop led by Dave Bryant. Dave will share material from his years of Harmolodic Theory performance and study with Ornette Coleman, plus his own compositional and improvisational techniques developed on his own and with his ensembles. The 8 pm final concert, Fire and Energy, curated by Outsound founder Rent Romus, will feature Dave Bryant with his Trio, along with Jack Wright, the Vinny Golia Sextet, and Tony Passarell’s Thin Air Orchestra.
ETHEL will soon be reunited with our dear friend and collaborator Ayelet Rose Gottlieb at the 2012 Winter Jazz Fest (January 7th @ Zinc Bar). Ayelet has composed a deeply heartfelt piece for ETHEL and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi entitled Shiv’a . We’ve been developing Shiv’a for over a year now, and recently recorded it. This January’s concert marks the beginning of a series of live performances of the piece.
Ayelet’s style combines tuneful folk influences with moments of abstract improvisation. Her tone color choices are unusual and interesting. In this interview she discusses her music, her projects, and the fascinating relationship between her music and her dreams.
Dufallo: Can you discuss Shiv’a – your inspiration for the piece, and how it came together?
Rose Gottlieb: Shiv’a is a meditation on the process of mourning. It referneces Jewish and Buddhist mourning rituals. I composed it following several deaths, including that of my good friend, drummer and percussionist Take Toriyama. It took a while to piece together the seven movements of Shiv’a, and to find the right “language” for it (the movements vary from graphic scores to traditional scores, with improvisation sections). It’s a very special piece for me, as it’s my first long instrumental composition.
Being a vocalist, I’m used to working with text, and in this case the composition process was very different from anything I had done before. Since there were no words, the way in for me was visual. Each movement in the piece is like a sketch that draws an image with sounds and textures. The titles of the seven movements reflect upon a quotation from the book of Kings:
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks [...] but the Great Spirit was not in the wind. After the wind — earthquake. But the Great Spirit was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire. But the Great Spirit was not in the fire. And after the fire — a voice of thin silence.
The movement titles also reflect the four elements of nature, being slightly jolted and out of place — Geshem (rain), Ra’ash (earthquake), and Esh (fire). Air is referenced through the use of a unique instrument that was made specifically for Shiv’a by installation artist Michelle Jaffe: the “Blanket with 49 Bells (BW49B).” My dream life is at least as “real” to me as my waking reality… When I started composing Shiv’a I had an incredible, powerful dream of a blanket with bells on it, that was moved by the wind. Michelle took on the task of bringing this sound-sculpture into physical reality, and the BW49B is now an integral part of Shiv’a. The bells signify a soul that keeps ringing in the world after the body has passed…
Dufallo: Can you tell a little bit about your musical history?
Rose Gottlieb: From childhood through the end of high school I studied to be a classical flautist. When I was about 14 I started “flirting” with improvisation — first as a flautist, then as a vocalist. Saxophonist Arnie Lawrence moved to Israel in the 1990′s, and performing with him solidified my direction into the realm of vocal jazz and improvised music… About a year before I started singing I started having a recurring dream of swirling colors — a large, intricate orchestral piece would be playing, causing the colors to move. Every time I awoke from that dream I experienced a great frustration about not having the skill to “transcribe” this sub-concious composition… I decided to start writing music, in order to be able one day to write that piece that was asking to be born… Of course, once I started composing, the dream stopped. I’m still hopeful this piece will come to visit me again some day…
Dufallo: What are some exciting upcoming projects?
Rose Gottlieb: With Shiv’a – I’m very much hoping it will now have life as a performed piece. I feel that the combination of ETHEL, Satoshi Takeishi, and Michelle’s BW49B will be a real treat to see on stage. We’re starting this journey on the night between the 7th and 8th of January at Winter Jazz Fest (Zinc Bar, 12:15 AM). The album is in the mixing stages, and will be released toward the end of 2012/early 2013.
Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, ETHEL, and Satoshi Takeishi rehearse Shiv'a
Aside from Shiv’a I have a few exciting projects in the works. On March 28th my composition for trombone and piano, Carry On — Check In, will be premiered at Carnegie Hall by pianist Vered Reznik and trombonist Haim Avitzur.
In Israel I recently recorded Betzidei Drachim / On the Roadside — a project that features my settings of Israeli and Palestinian poetry. The music is a cross-over of jazz, prog-rock, and middle-eastern music… This project features my long standing collaborator, pianist Anat Fort, as well as Ihad Nimer on oud and violin, and several other leading Israeli musicians.
With Mycale — John Zorn’s a capella vocal quartet — we’re touring the US and Europe, and working on new materials. We’re also gearing up for an exciting 2013 — Zorn’s 60th birthday year!
Outside my musical life — I recently shifted my base (once again) to London, where my husband works as an animator. I am grateful every day that music is my life and I have such incredible people to share it with…
The newly revived Roulette(on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn) is the site for a premiere this coming Friday (details here). Guitarist-composer Joel Harrison’s Still Point – Turning World (a veiled reference to a line in “Burnt Norton,” one T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets) is a polyglot work for diverse forces. In addition to Harrison’s jazz quartet, it also features the Talujon Percussion Quartet, and Anupam Shobhakar, who plays the sarode, an Indian stringed instrument.
Still Point… requires its performers to be in a flexible collaboration, reveling in polystylism. “Crossover” is a term that’s overused and sometimes misused these days. All too often the results of less cohesive collaborations find the musicians from multiple styles working at crossed purposes or, worse, musicians from different traditions uneasily try on each others’ chops for size.
One doesn’t get this sense from Harrison’s creative activities. Instead he seeks likeminded musicians who are interested in creating a sophisticated synthesis of different genres, based on mutual support, respect, and plenty of listening to one another.
He says, “I’m willing to bet that in ten years time, many more musicians will be comfortable playing both jazz and classical, and performing music from many traditions.”
Harrison’s ensembles aim to be pathfinders in this regard. Come to Roulette on Friday and witness these musical frontiersmen!
Take a seductive voiced art-pop singer and a post-jazz/alt-classical trumpeter. Add fragments of nineteenth century classical melodies, electronics elicited by a “mutantrumpet” controller. Then add influences ranging from ancient Greek mythology to the Hudson River Valley. What you have are the intricate yet intimate sounds on an evocatively beautiful new CD: Songs for Persephone.
The Persephone legend is one of the oldest in Greek mythology, with many variants that provide twists and turns to the narrative and subtext of the story. In the myth, Persephone, daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. During her absence, vegetation is unable to grow in the world; fields fall fallow and crops cannot be harvested.
To break this horrible time of famine, the gods come to an understanding with Hades. Persephone is eventually freed, but on the condition that, if she has eaten anything while in Hades’ realm, she must return to his kingdom for a certain length of time. Thus, each year she must remain in the underworld one month for each pomegranate seed that she has consumed. This serves to rationalize, in mythic terms, the change of seasons, times of decay and renewal, shifts in light and weather; even the autumn foliage and the falling of the leaves.
Vocalist Mimi Goese and trumpeter Ben Neill have updated the Persephone story, while retaining its iconic essence, on their new recording Songs for Persephone (out now on Ramseur Records). As one can see from the pomegranate on the cover, (a visual designed by Goese), the duo is mindful of the legendary Persephone’s history; but they are not hung up on providing a linear narrative.
In a recent phone conversation, Goese, who wrote the album’s lyrics, said, “The artwork that I did for the cover, featuring the pomegranate, is one acknowledgement of the myth of Persephone. And there are other images that I found in the lyrics. But we were interested in using what was evocative about Persephone to create our own story. That’s sort of how the myth evolved too – one storyteller picks up the thread from another down through the years.”
They started work on this music some five years ago, but originally presented it as part of a theatrical production by the multimedia company Ridge Theater, starring Julia Stiles. In 2010, it was produced at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.
The theatrical presentation and the mythological story behind it are only two strands in a disparate web of influences that resonate with Songs for Persephone. Both Goese and Neill make their home in the Hudson River Valley. Both for its stunning natural surroundings and its history as a home for artists of all sorts, the valley is rich with reference points. Neill feels that these are subtly imparted to the music.
In a recent phone conversation, he said, “I found myself particularly interested in the Hudson River School of painters. These Nineteenth Century artists depicted the local landscape and the changing of season with a dimensionality and symbolism that seemed to have an affinity with what Mimi and I were after in Songs for Persephone.”
For Neill and Goese, these extra-musical influences – artwork, nature, and theater – are an important part of the music’s genesis. But the polystylistic nature of their music making adds still another layer to the proceedings.
Goese says, “I started in dance and theater and later moved to performance art. Singing came along later. But I don’t have the musical background or training that Ben has – I’m self taught.”
She doth protest too much. Goese’s voice provided the steely, dramatic center to the work of late eighties band Hugo Largo. One part art rock and another dream pop, the group incorporated bold theatricality and ethereal experimentation, releasing two memorable full lengths, Arms Akimbo and Mettle, and the Drums EP, an alt-pop connoisseur’s delight. She’s also collaborated on several occasions with Moby and, under the moniker Mimi (no last name) released Soak, a solo album on David Bryne’s Luaka Bop label.
Goese is a powerful singer, but Songs of Persephone brings out the lyricism her voice also possesses. Cooing high notes and supple overdubbed harmonies are juxtaposed with the more muscular turns of phrase. Experience plays a role in Goese’s tremendous performances on the disc. But she also credits the musical creations of her collaborator Neill with spurring on her inspiration.
“Ben has been a terrific person with whom to work,” Goese says. “He’s inventive and willing to try new things. From the moment we first performed together, at a concert nearly a decade ago, I’ve felt an artistic kinship with him.”
One can readily hear why Neill’s music would be an engaging foil for Goese. His background as a producer, and his years of work designing the mutantrumpet, have encouraged Neill’s ear toward imaginative soundscapes. His 2009 album Night Science (Thirsty Ear) is an example of Neill’s nu-jazz arrangements and soloing at their very best.
On the current CD, Neill’s playing remains impressive; but his arranging and collaborative skills come to the fore. There are intricate textures to found, on which Neill’s trumpet and electronics are abetted by strings, bass, and drums, but it’s the melodies, floating memorably past, one after the other, that are most impressive here. Some of the melodic lines he crafts are imitative of the voice in their own right: it’s no accident that some of the most inspired music-making on Songs for Persephone are when Goese and Neill create duets out of intricately intertwined single lines.
Neill says, “The classical materials that I used as the basis of the compositions on Songs for Persephone were melodies from the Nineteenth century: from opera and symphonic music. Many of them were from relatively the same era in which the Hudson Valley painters worked. I found it fascinating to juxtapose these two genres that were in operation more or less at the same time.”
He continues, “I’d describe the material as fragments of melodies: small excerpts rather than recognizable themes. None of them are treated in such a way that most listeners will be able to say, ‘Hey that’s Berlioz,’ or ‘That sounds like Schumann.’ They were meant to be a starting point from which I would develop the music: it’s not a pastiche.”
At 7:30 PM on September 27th, Goese and Neill will be having an album release party at the Cooper Square Hotel, part of Joe’s Pub’s Summer Salon series. Goese says, “It’s an interesting space – we’ll have glass windows behind us, which is unusual as compared with a more conventional stage. But it’s fun performing in non-standard venues. It allows you to try different things and to bring different elements into the mix in terms of theatricality, lighting, and the way that you play off of each other. I’m excited to see how Persephone changes as we take it into various performing spaces.”
-Composer Christian Carey is Senior Editor at Sequenza 21 and a regular contributor to Signal to Noise and Musical America. He teaches music in the Department of Fine Arts at Rider University (Lawrenceville, New Jersey).
Last year, saxophonist Trygve Seim and pianist Andreas Utnem collaborated on Purcor,a recording for the ECM imprint (Seim’s sixth as leader). Drawing on material from a wide range of sources, including settings of the Mass, folk music, and Seim’s own compositions, it was among the recordings in frequent rotation when I got home from the hospital this past November. Needing a calm environment in which to regenerate and reflect, I found Purcor to be the perfect listening to accompany a healing respite.
Meditative yet soulful, earnest yet elegant, gently articulated yet substantively thoughtful, Seim and Utnem craft a series of duets that are spellbinding. Consistently succor supplying and diverse in mood and musical approach, the compositions on Purcor inhabit both jazz and an ecumenical kind of musical liturgy.
Given what they’ve crafted on the recording, I have no doubt that Seim and Utnem will provide an affecting evening of music this Sunday. Those seeking solace in artistic expression during this weekend’s commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks have many options from which to choose, including a marathon we’ve also mentioned as an excellent option. Seim and Utnem will doubtless provide calm in the midst of storms of media frenzy, terror alerts, and turbulent memories. Recommended.
Trygve Seim / Andreas Utnem
September 11th, 7pm
Norwegian Seamen’s Church
317 East 52nd Street
New York, NY 10022-6302
Free of charge
Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones
Andreas Utnem: piano, harmonium