On Friday, February 22 the week-long 2013 residency of Tom Johnson in Los Angeles was capped off with a concert of his music at the wulf, an experimental performance space deep in the gritty heart of industrial downtown. Featured was the Los Angeles premiere of ’Clarinet Trio’ and four other works, plus the occasion was also marked by the release of a new CD of Tom’s works titled ‘correct music’ from Populist Records. About 50 people crowded into the reclaimed factory loft to attend the event and what thewulf lacks in amenities was more than compensated by the enthusiasm of the young audience. The concert was free and there was an ice chest full of Tecate beer – what’s not to like?
Tom Johnson’s time in Los Angeles this past week was spent giving lectures on mathematics and music at Cal Arts, hosting an exhibition of his drawings in the Art Share LA gallery and presiding over concerts of new music. Tom has deep minimalist roots and, according to the concert notes, “works with simple forms and limited sonic materials, utilizing logic and mathematical models in both his music and his drawings.”
The concert began with Clarinet Trio, performed by Jim Sullivan, Brian Walsh and Damon Zick. This piece consists of a series of short passages with changing sets of three note chords separated by short pauses. Tom Johnson uses mathematics and sets of drawings to describe his intended sequence of the various permutations of musical sound and these are then translated into the written score and parts. Clarinet Trio was constructed to explore the possible ways of playing seven different three-note chords and this took about 20 minutes to unfold. The different segments varied in rhythm, attack, dynamic and tempo but the ensemble playing here was very tight and each phrase was cleanly played with good intonation. The acoustics of the small space at the wulf were well-matched to the musical forces and those listening were very attentive during the Trio – even the 5 second pauses between phrases became familiar after a few minutes. The occasional horn blast from the nearby freeway made its way inside during the silences, but this was not a distraction. The premiere was well-executed by the performers and well-received by the audience.
The second piece was Eggs and Baskets, a narrated piece that is similar in construction to Tom’s Narayana’s Cows. The idea in Eggs and Baskets was to musically describe all the possible ways to put six eggs in two baskets. The two baskets were represented by a viola, played by Andrew McIntosh and a clarinet played by Brian Walsh – as the narration progressed each player sounded a series of notes representing the number eggs in his ‘basket’. The interplay between the viola and clarinet thus became increasingly varied as the permutations grew, with notes trading rapidly back and forth within the same phrase – but this was cleanly done and very effective. The narration by Douglas Wadle nicely connected the playing to the concept, making for an enjoyable piece.
Trio for Strings followed and this set out to play “all possible 3-note chords adding to 72 where C = 24” – some 280 combinations altogether. This was a smooth legato sound of rapidly changing tone combinations, often dissonant. I found that my ear would follow one or the other string players for a time, the chords that sounded were brief and constantly changing. The pitch discipline of the string players was impressive as each tone typically did not bear any familiar relationship to those around it. Hearing this piece is like listening to a computer roll through the possible permutations of a pitch set and it gives a striking example of just how small a subset our traditional tonalities are of all the possibilities that are available in the equal-tempered scale.
Tilework for Piano followed and this was played by Dante Boon, the Dutch composer and pianist. This was similar to Clarinet Trio in that it consists of a series of short phrases built from a limited number of tones, separated by short pauses. The piano gives this piece a more introspective feel and I found my ear tended to concentrate more on the patterns than the pitches or timbre. A concert presented by Mr. Boon will be given at the wulf on February 28.
The concert concluded with Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments, and the musical forces used for this performance were sax, piano, violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar, flute and oboe. There is a video of this piece on YouTube as played mostly by strings but the use of winds here yielded a brighter, more accessible sound. ‘Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments’ consists of eight short segments of scales and simple chord patterns. This music is as close to the classic minimalist style as was heard during this concert and the eight instruments played tightly together, filling up the space with a well-balanced sound. A sort of warm optimism radiates from this piece that is appealing and, if anything, too short.
This concert was a good illustration of just how fully grounded is the music of Tom Johnson on the mathematics of combinations and permutations. Rarely has a music been so rigorously architected – the drawings that Tom uses to structure his work look very much like a set of drafted plans or a chemical diagram for a complex molecule. Other minimalist composer’s of Tom’s generation incorporated repetition and gradual changes in rhythmic patterns to realize their music. Tom’s music stands out because of his use of an entirely different mathematical space to guide the structure of his works.
Further information about upcoming events at the wulf is available here.
More about the exhibition of Tom Johnson’s drawings at Art Share LA can be found here.
The Dutch composer/performer/poet Samuel Vriezen and I go waaay back on the web, to a time when musicians found each other and some musical conversation on the old Usenet newsgroups. In the dozen-plus years since that time, I’ve watched Samuel be pretty darn active on all kinds of fronts: producing concerts, composing a wonderful body of music, writing and translating poetry… He’s even been invited over this way to the U.S. a few times for presentations of his work.
Samuel’s own musical inclinations have evolved since his time in university, but for a long while now what really interests him is how to set up relatively “simple” musical parameters, that become very “unsimple” and rich through both their process of unfolding, and the performers interaction with those processes and each other.
Given that predilection, I suppose it was almost fated for Samuel to be drawn to the music of Tom Johnson. One of the American composers closely associated with New York Minimalism in the heady 70s and 80s (and well-known at the time as music critic for the Village Voice), Johnson left the U.S. to settle in Paris in the mid-80s, where he’s been ever since. Unlike the ever-more-elaborate, eclectic and programmatic direction his then-compatriots Reich and Glass have traveled, Johnson has remained pretty much focused on exploring purely musical processes; simple “germ” ideas that are rigorously followed, yet result in surprisingly rich music. One such piece is Johnson’s very long 1986 piano work The Chord Catalogue. Johnson simply asked “What would it sound like to play all the chords possible in a single octave?” …Of which there turns out to be 8178 of them! needless to say, though the concept is extremely simple the execution by a pianist is tremendously difficult.
Which brings us back to Samuel Vriezen. Samuel some years ago became so intrigued with the work, that he knew he had to learn and present it himself. And learn and present it he has, many times, to very enthusiastic audiences. His involvement with the piece has even led Samuel to compose some excellent new works, that riff on the same kind of idea that Johnson had.
The reason I’ve been telling you all this? because Samuel has decided that the time has come to get this piece and his performance down on CD, and to do that he’s decided to ask all of us new-music-lovers out there to help raise the money to make that CD a reality. Using the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, Samuel has in rather short order already drummed up over half his $8,000 goal; I think there are a lot of people out there who know this will be one great CD. So click those links I just gave you, head to the Indiegogo site, and let Samuel himself tell you about the piece, his passion, and the project. Besides making this wonderful CD a reality, your donation can score you some really nice perks (see the right side bar for a description). To quote Rosie the Riveter, WE CAN DO IT!
Our friends (and the performers on the last Sequenza21 concert) ACME appeared at All Tomorrow’s Parties last week. Quite a coup for the indie classical group, which is enjoying increased crossover success. Below check out video footage of them performing Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” live at ATP.
My interview with Dennis Russell Davies, who is conducting the ACO concert, is up on Musical America’swebsite (subscribers only).
If you’re looking for a terrific way to celebrate PG’s birthday, Brooklyn Rider’s latest CD on Orange Mountain Music includes Glass’s first five string quartets. The earthiness with which they play the music may surprise you at first, but it provides a persuasive foil for some of the more motoric, “high buffed sheen” toned performances of minimalism that are out there. In a 2011 video below, they give a performance of a more recent work, a suite of music from the film Bent.
I heard Kronos Quartet perform Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (2010) earlier this year at Carnegie Hall. For three string quartets (two were overdubbed in this live performance) and recorded voices taken from phone calls by first responders on September 11, 2001, as well as interviews with New Yorkers some years later, it doesn’t serve as a nostalgic remembrance. Rather, it’s a dramatic whirlwind of a piece, at times bracing and overwhelming.
For those who’ve tired of the languid sentimentality and unfortunate jingoism that has too often been attached to 9/11 by those who’ve been witnesses from a distance, Reich’s response is an affecting tribute, both to those lost and to the New Yorkers left behind. I’m glad that its recording will see release near the 10 year anniversary of September 11, 2001.
The release also include So Percussion performing Reich 2009 Mallet Quartet and Reich and Musicians performing Dance Patterns (2002).
Thanks to Nonesuch for letting us debut the CD’s artwork.
Last Saturday night I caught a trio of Philip Glass‘s slightly more obscure music, performed by a well-rehearsed Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (based in Orange County, California) as part of their annual American Composers Festival. Although lesser-known than its Los Angeles counterpart, the symphony is staffed with many fine Southern California-based musicians and performs in the recently built and acoustically impressive Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
The opening piece, “Meetings Along the Edge” from Passages (1990), featured Glass’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar, in which both agreed to each compose a melody for each other and write a new composition around it. Usually I cringe at the results at these attempts at cultural exchange and creative collaboration, but in this rare instance I was very taken with the way Shankar’s Indian melody combined with Glass’s signature contrapuntal and harmonic elements. It created a fascinating juxtaposition, that gave me new insights on how Shankar’s Indian musical elements integrated into his very recognizable compositional language.
The Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) was written to serve dual purposes: first to be performed primarily as a saxophone quartet (here handled by the Prism Quartet), and secondly to be performed with an added orchestral accompaniment. Judging by the many recordings available of the quartet (sans orchestra), it has become a popular addition to the saxophone repertoire, but at Saturday evening’s performance it was hard to forget that much of this music was very similar or even repurposed from Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), Glass’s song cycle collaboration based on Alan Ginsberg’s spoken-word poetry with solo piano. Reusing music has been widely accepted (besides borrowing heavily from Mozart and Purcell, Michael Nyman is a common recycler of his own music) and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing one’s material, but in this case the unintended results were the equivalent of watching James Gandolfini from The Sopranos appear in another TV show. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to see him as anybody but Tony Soprano. Comparing this secondhand saxophone showcase against the powerful combination of Glass’s music with Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t really equate apples to apples, but more like apples to apple butter.
After intermission, just from viewing the assembled 140-member Pacific Chorale and orchestra, it might be easy to assume that Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna would feature a grand spectacle similar to his non-narrative operas like Akhnaten and Satyagraha. But for reasons I can’t fathom the assembled full chorus and orchestra wasn’t used to its full potential, at least in comparison to his similar vocal and operatic works.
The libretto, which recounted the final months and last words of the 19th-century Indian philosopher Ramakrishna, were surprisingly taciturn and the music was pleasant, but as the Passion of Ramakrishna was coming to a close I was struck that I had never been left so cold by a Glass vocal piece: It was basically 50 minutes of recitative with no aria (i.e. mostly all story and very little emotion). After the performance my concerns were confirmed when some of the performers said that Glass had mentioned he’d been hoping to eventually to flesh out the piece further, which was especially curious because the weekend’s performances were being recorded for a possible release on Naxos or Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label.
Whether or not the piece performed Saturday night was the final version, it does leave me to think that in its current version, the Passion of Ramakrishna could use a few changes — namely, more “Passion” to balance out the exposition. As a composer who has learned much from studying and performing Glass’s music over the years the music presented Saturday night shows that even though many already are calling him a “living legend”, sometimes deadlines and professional obligations lead to music that was created by a mere mortal.
In the current economy – particularly in the recording industry – expediency can sometimes trump artistry. All too often, classical artists with a recent CD release can’t afford to worry too much about the curatorial vision of a concert series on which they appear: they’ve got to make their album’s program fit somehow in order to promote the product. Happily, there are times when an artist’s work and a venue’s vision come together seamlessly.
The Rubin Museum’sResonating Light music series continues tonight with a concert by cellist Maya Beiser. Her recording Provenance, released last year on Innova, explored music from disparate faith traditions, reflecting cultures that coexisted during the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula.
Her program tonight takes a similar approach, bringing together music inspired by different religious traditions. But rather than just featuring music from Provenance in a “close enough” curatorial approach, Beiser studied the artworks in a recent exhibit at the Rubin entitled Embodying the Holy.
In response to the pieces on display, Bhe has programmed together works reflective of Orthodox Christianity (Arvo Pärt’s Fratres and John Tavener’s Lament To Phaedra) as well as Tibetan Buddism and other Easter philosophies (Even Ziporyn’s Kabya Maya and Douglas Cuomo’s Only Breath). Beiser’s arrangement of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre represents Judaism. Rounding things out, Beiser is joined by accordionist Guy Klucevsek for Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce, arranged for cello and bajan.
Remixers start your … laptops. Some hot-off-the-presses news about a contest beginning at noon TODAY!
Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Steve Reich,Nonesuch Records, and Indaba Musichave launched a search for collaborators to remix the third movement from Reich’s 2×5. Paired with his Pulitzer prizewinning Double Sextet, the work appears on Reich’s new Nonesuch CD.
For four weeks beginning October 12, 2010 at noon, remixers can visit Indaba’s websiteto create their own version of the movement.
From November 9 to 23, fans and a panel of judges including Reich will review the submissions. Winners will be announced on December 7th. In addition to a grand prize and 2 runners-up selected by the jury, 10 honorable mentions will be selected by the public.
All jury selections will receive prizes, as follows:
Grand Prize (1)
Signed copy of Double Sextet/2×5 CD
Signed copy of Double Sextet score
One-year free Platinum membership to Indabamusic.com
Written for the Bang on a Can All Stars, 2×5 is Reich’s most overt foray into rock instrumentation to date. In my preview of the album, I noted that Reich’s collaboration with BoaC was “An intergenerational summit – minimalist elder statesman meets post-minimal/totalist ace performers – that, in terms of importance, is more or less the Downtown version of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.”
Now, another layer of creators will season the mix – I’m excited to hear the results!