Archive for the “Performers” Category

Full disclosure: I co-founded San Diego New Music in 1994, served as its first Executive Director, and have been a board member since 2000. This isn’t a review or a comprehensive report so much as some of my impressions and observations about what’s going on at The Athenaeum in La Jolla, California, this weekend. If you think I overlooked anything, please feel free to contribute more in the comments section below.

After core members of NOISE, the resident ensemble of San Diego New Music, dispersed across the continent (flutist/director Lisa Cella to Baltimore; percussionist Morris Palter to Fairbanks), it became more and more expensive and time-consuming to do an entire season with the ensemble in San Diego. The ingenious solution NOISE came up with was to do an annual festival in June.

This year’s installment is the 5th year of San Diego New Music’s festival, soundON. From the beginning, it’s been impressive for the wide range of musical styles represented on the festival and for the high caliber of their commissions and score submitted through a semi-annual call. Unlike other competitions, there’s no entry fee. The musicians themselves wade through the entries and determine which scores they want to play on the festival.

Last night, the first of the festival, had impressive commissions and nice finds through the calls for scores. Several of the composers in attendance this year have been composers with whom NOISE has developed a relationship over the years: Christopher Adler (who doubles as the Executive Director of San Diego New Music), Stuart Sanders Smith, Matthew Burtner, Madelyn Byrne, and Sidney Marquez Boquiren.

Madelyn Byrne is represented by a video installation by Lily Glass, to which Byrne supplied a soundtrack. I can’t comment on it now, as I spent most of the last night catching up with old friends, but the lovely sounds I did manage to overhear and the colorful still or slow-moving abstractions on the screen invite further exploration tonight and tomorrow. (Update: turns out I heard this two years ago at a new music conference. It’s included on a DVD of works by lesbian composers, Sounding Out. Yes, it is worth experiencing again.).

Time Comes Full Circle, for violin and cello, struck me as completely unique in the output of Stuart Saunders Smith. Framed by an opening and closing spoken dialogue between the instruments the work begins with a mournful modal lament for both instruments, a prismatic minor key duet somewhat reminiscent of Pärt or Schnittke; I’ve never heard anything like this before in Smith’s music. This first section continues exploring this haunting music, only to abandon it for an extensive middle section which is in a vein more typical for Smith: independent, thorny harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint, marked by striking moments where the violin and cello come together in unisons—one, an A 5 spaces above the treble clef. It’s not a perfect unison—at times one instrument drops out and the other takes over, or a heterophonic melody splinters away. The minor-key lament returns in the final section, splintered in new combinations.

Any critic describing Smith’s music is in trouble searching for an easy category in which to pigeonhole him. If he belongs to any school, it’s probably the individualist, intuitive New England branch of experimentalism begun by Ives and Ruggles, later branching off in an intellectually rigorous way by Elliott Carter. Smith’s music, though, strikes me as highly intuitive, seasoned with the acceptance of sounds and free forms of the New York School composers Cage and Brown. Invoking any of these names tells you, only in the vaguest, broadest sense, what his music resembles. He is sui generis. What I can report is that this is an expansive work, a significant contribution to the infrequently explored combination of violin and cello. It was given a wonderful performance by cellist Franklin Cox and violinist Mark Menzies, and Smith seemed genuinely delighted with their interpretation.

A recent solo flute work by Nicolas Tzortzis, Incompatibles III, was dropped from the concert. The program notes are intriguing: “The whole work is based on the idea of ‘going towards something else,’ coming back each time, leaving again, and so on, before reaching the moment of the revelation.” Tzortzis was represented by a frenetic ensemble piece last year which appeared to ring some new changes on the New Complexity style (a distinguishing feature was the amount of repetition and return in the work). I hadn’t encountered his music at all before the Festival last year, and I was looking forward to hearing more. Alas, in its place was Berio’s Sequenza I, given a sharply delineated reading by Lisa Cella. I know it’s a major landmark in flute repertory, and yet taken in the context of all of Berio’s Sequenzas, it is the most dated, the least interesting to 21st century ears. The later Sequenzas developed a modern manner of prolonging dissonant harmonies through a solo instrument; today Sequenza I seems more caught up in the rapid turnover of all 12 tones, as many European composers strove to do in the 1950s.

Christopher Adler
is my favorite San Diego composer after Chinary Ung. Aeneas in the Underworld, Act I: The Caves of Cumae suggests a new direction in his music—a music theatre work for reciting guitarist. Chris has two consistent strains in his music, the ethnomusicological (he’s an expert on Thai music) and the mathematical, and Aeneas appears to lean towards the latter. In four “scenes,” guitarist Colin McAllister recites Virgil’s poetry in Latin, while playing a prepared guitar. Like Cage’s prepared piano music, the guitar is more of a percussion instrument here than a melodic/harmonic device, so the focus in the music is on expanding and contracting rhythmic patterns. Over these regimented rhythms, McAllister orates with what I assume is a more natural spoken delivery.

I heard the premiere a month or two back, and was frustrated by the inability to read the text in the dimly lit hall. The music, in general terms, delineates the broad themes of the poetry. Last night’s performance was far more assured, the rhythms crisper, the declamation more confident, and it was greatly helpful to be able to read a translation of Virgil’s text as McAllister recited.

You may have seen this cartoon going around—it’s pretty much an inside joke by Christopher Adler part describing the work to an incredulous guitarist, although in broader terms the interaction between composer and performer is rather true, if cloaked in humorous exaggeration.

A surprise event had been announced for the festival, and after a brief intermission Frank Cox was plunked down in a chair front and center facing the performance area, and serenaded with seven compositions dedicated to him by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Stuart Saunders Smith, Colin Holter, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, Sidney Corbett, John Fonville, and Brian Ferneyhough. The real surprise was Ferneyhough’s piece, titled Paraphrase on Antonin Artaud’s “Les Cenci,” unusual for being the only purely electronic work by Ferneyhough anyone present could recall. It appeared to be constructed entirely from samples, and yet the densities and microtones distinguished it from the average MIDI composition.

SoundON in the past has done “Chill-Out” concerts, which are what you might expect them to be: performances of more meditative, quiet, and/or serene works. Tension Studies I by Samuel Carl Adams, a West Coast composer still in his 20s generating lots of buzz, was scheduled for a Chill-Out performance, yet was withdrawn. In its place was a lovely electroacoustic composition by Matthew Burtner, whose title I do not now recall, composed for Colin McAllister. McAllister is a mountaineer, and recorded sounds of his ascent up the tallest volcano in Mexico; Burtner used these sounds and slowly-changing diatonic harmonies to supply an acoustic foundation over which McAllister played gently oscillating notes, ringing harmonics, and melodies which sounded quasi-improvised. Many folks commented later on how beautiful this work was, and I agree. I had heard it previously, and hearing it for a second time was a pleasant experience.

David Toub will be known to Sequenza21 readers. He submitted a trio for violin, cello, and vibraphone to the call for scores. Christopher Adler, in a preconcert talk, described how Toub’s score—dharmachakramudra—leapt out from all the others, in its being a more austere form of minimalism, a style Adler did not see at all in any of the other 400+ submissions. It is a quiet piece, featuring chords in the violin and cello rocking back and forth with four-note vibraphone chords. If you can imagine Morton Feldman writing a rhythmically regular and shorter piece, or Steve Reich writing a dissonant, slow work, that might give you an idea of the piece.


The concert ended with the ocean inside by Frances White, another composer new to San Diegans. Her work was composed for Eighth Blackbird, and incorporated a tape part. It was consonant, lyrical, and a lovely way to end the evening.

And the performances? First class, throughout the night. These performers take their commitment to the music of our time extremely seriously. Doing this festival is a labor of love, and the concern and passion is always evident in everything they play.

Comments 1 Comment »

Pianist Marilyn Nonken is performing Triadic Memories on June 4 in Philadelphia as part of “American Sublime,” a festival devoted to the works of Morton Feldman. Marilyn was kind enough to tell us a bit about working on Feldman’s music, as well as some of her other upcoming projects.

-What were your early encounters with Feldman’s music like?

I can’t remember my first live Feldman experience as a listener. One of the first works I remember hearing was FOR SAMUEL BECKETT. My first experience playing Feldman was with Ensemble 21, when we performed VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, which was just a transformative experience for me, as a chamber player. After that experience, I very much wanted to find a solo work of his to perform and possibly record.

Listening to Feldman is special because there is that great luxury of time. It can take, in TRIADIC MEMORIES for example, maybe a half-an-hour or forty-five minutes to get acclimated to the environment of the work, and to become familiar with the kinds of things that happen in that special environment. In each of his pieces, I think, there’s an extended period where the materials introduce themselves, so to say.It’s not dynamic in the sense of something happening right away, or a conflict being presented, or a big question being asked — and so I feel it’s best to not aggressively try and “figure out” what is happening.

– Which pieces by Feldman have you performed?


– What do you think Feldman meant by titling a piece Triadic Memories?

Feldman’s piano music is all about decay, what he would refer to as a kind of receding landscape …. For me, that sense of resonance and the dying of the sound is perhaps the most important part of the piece. His harmonies are gorgeous, very lush and evocative — but as beautiful as they are, more of the piece is spend listening to them fade.

– When did you record Triadic Memories for Mode? Has your performance of the work changed over time?

I believe this is 2004, recorded perhaps summer 2003. I’m sure my performance has changed — although not drastically. In terms of timing and rhythmic precision, I believe it’s very consistent with the recorded version. I’m still convinced by that “magic” (for me) tempo and the specificity of the rhythms, and the way I first conceived of articulating them. But I do feel that I’ve become more sensitive to the harmonic nuances of the work, as I’ve become more familiar with it over the years —  the way I voice things, and the way I anticipate the decay, I think, has become more personal.

– While they’re not often showy, Feldman’s pieces make significant demands of their own on performers. Can you tell us a bit about those, and how you prepare to perform Triadic Memories in concert?

I feel these works are very virtuosic, despite the fact that they’re not fast and full of passagework. There’s a moment-to-moment control that Feldman requires, in terms of dynamic and timbre and attack, which requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental preparation. To be that attuned to the smallest nuances, and physically in total control, for such a significant span w/o any real “recess” requires a special kind of concentration. For me, there is no substitute for playing the work — in real time, w/o interruption, — daily for at least a week or two before the concert. There is always detail-work to be done (specificity of rhythms, defining colors, making certain that the surface of the work is somehow “flawless” and w/o rupture — but doing everything sequentially, in tempo, is always a test.

– After Triadic Memories, what are some of your upcoming projects?

I’m very excited to be working again with the fabulous pianist Sarah Rothenberg on a four-hand Kurtag program, combining (as the composer himself has done) Kurtag’s JATEKOK with his Bach transcriptions, presented as a concert program on an upright piano. Sarah and I had a fantastic time working on Messiaen’s VISIONS DE L’AMEN, touring and recording it, and this is a very different and intimate kind of project —  I’m also preparing for a recording of American spectralist composer Joshua Fineberg’s complete solo piano music, which will appear on CD with Hugues Dufourt’s recent ERLKONIG — a follow-up to my complete Murail disc. It will feature a new work written for me by Joshua, amd I am very much looking forward to touring with that, as a complete program in itself. And just after this Festival, I’m recording Elizabeth Hoffman’s “organum let open,” a beautiful work she wrote for me last year, based on texts of theatre artist George Hunka. It’s wonderful to be doing such recent music, and inspiring to be working with such talented composers.

Comments 4 Comments »

[The latest iteration of the always-stellar Other Minds festival is now done and in the books. We asked our equally-stellar Bay Area musician friend Tom Djll if he’d like to cover a bit of it for us, and he happily sent along his impressions of  the second and third concert evenings.]

Other Minds 16
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011

There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.

The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.

Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympian technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.

All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.

Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)

Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.

Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments 1 Comment »

We’re saddened to learn of James Levine’s cancellation of the rest of his appearances this season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his resignation from the post of BSO Music Director. Levine has been in that position since 2004, but has had to cancel a number of appearances during his tenure due to a variety of health problems. In an interview published today in the New York Times, Levine indicated that he will retain his position as Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently, conversations between Levine and the BSO about a possible future role with the orchestra are ongoing.

The BSO plans to keep its season underway with minimal changes apart from substitute conductors. They’re even going to premiere a new work this week under the baton of Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger. In Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 3,4,5, and 8, and at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 15, the orchestra and soloist Christian Tetzlaff will be giving the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto.

It’s bittersweet that Levine is stepping down during a week when an important commission, one of several during his tenure, is seeing its premiere. I made a number of pilgrimages from New York to Boston (thank goodness for Bolt Bus!) to hear him conduct contemporary music with the BSO,  including pieces by Harbison, Wuorinen, Babbitt, and Carter. He helped a great American orchestra (with a somewhat conservative curatorial direction) to make the leap into 21st century repertoire and was a terrific advocate for living composers.

Many in Boston and elsewhere have complained that by taking on the BSO, while still keeping his job at the Met, Levine overreached and overcommitted himself. Further, when his health deteriorated, some suggest that he should have stepped aside sooner.

I’ll not argue those points. But I will add that, when he was well, Levine helped to create some glorious nights of music-making in Boston that I’ll never forget. And for that, I’m extraordinarily grateful.


I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised to hear that Birtwistle was composing a violin concerto, as it seemed to me an uncharacteristic choice of solo instrument for him. After all, the composer of Panic and Cry of Anubis isn’t a likely candidate for the genre that’s brought us concerti by Brahms and Sibelius (and even Bartok and Schoenberg!).

But then I thought again. Having heard his Pulse Shadows and the recent Tree of Strings for quartet, both extraordinary pieces, I can see why he might want to explore another work that spotlights strings. Perhaps his approach to the violin concerto will bring the sense of theatricality, innovative scoring, and imaginative approach to form that he’s offered in so many other pieces.

I’m hoping to get a chance to hear it when it the orchestra comes to New York. No pilgrimage this time. My next Bolt Bus trip to Boston will likely have to wait ’til next season to hear the BSO in its post-Levine incarnation.

Comments Comments Off on Levine leaving BSO, but show goes on with Birtwistle premiere

(Houston, TX) On February 25th and 26th at 8pm and February 27th at 2:30 pm (the third date added due to popular demand), the Houston Chamber Choir and Da Camera present Music for Rothko, a concert program of contemporary music in one of Houston’s most unique performance spaces. All three performances are sold out.

Presented in the interior of Rothko Chapel, the Music for Rothko program includes piano works by John Cage and Erik Satie, Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord for viola and percussion by Tigran Mansurian, and choral compositions by John Cage including Four. Feldman’s Rothko Chapel for soprano, alto, choir, celesta, and percussion, is the centerpiece of the program. The performers include the Houston Chamber Choir conducted by Robert Simpson, pianist Sarah Rothenberg, percussionist Brian Del Signore, and violist Kim Kashkashian in her first Houston appearance in more than 20 years.

New Yorker Magazine music critic Alex Ross recently tweeted: “It’s Rothko Chapel week” in reference to several performances taking place this week across the country of Feldman’s elegy for his friend painter Mark Rothko. It is exciting to find out via Twitter that this piece is receiving so much well deserved attention. Last Fall on Sequenza 21, I wrote about the Houston Chamber Choir and this upcoming concert. But I didn’t know at the time that several other performances of the piece would take place within a short span of time. And now I’m interested in contemplating what will set the Houston performance of Rothko Chapel apart from those taking place in other cities?

In his wonderful collection of writings Give My Regards to Eighth Street, Feldman describes Rothko’s paintings as “…an experience in depth…not a surface to be seen on a wall.” Music for Rothko will be complimented by the fourteen paintings Rothko painted for Rothko Chapel; and this setting is one that venues in other cities will not be able to approximate. Rothko’s paintings seem to move beyond the edges of the canvases, their surface appearances changing constantly thanks to the light coming through the chapel’s skylight and Houston’s unpredictable weather patterns. A fusion between the paintings, the architecture of the octagonal room, AND the live music is in store for the chapel’s capacity audiences.

Rothko Chapel

Music for Rothko takes place February 25th and 26th at 8pm and February 27th at 2:30pm at Rothko Chapel. All three Music for Rothko concerts are sold out.

A standby list will be created beginning one hour before the performances, and if there are unoccupied seats, ticket will be sold for $35 at the door beginning about 10 minutes before the concert begins.

Comments 9 Comments »

Houston, TX – There’s no question that Houston’s proponents of contemporary music are enthusiastically embracing creative marketing concepts and alternative venues for performances in an effort to expand and educate a new century of audiences. In an un-zoned city like Houston, I find that musicians and audiences will happily cross so-called genre and cultural boundaries especially if there’s promise of a good time (Texas barbecue can help too, but that’ll be another entry…). Much to my delight, I am seeing familiar faces when I’m out at performances of new music be it in a gallery in the Third Ward, a club in Montrose, or the Hobby Center’s Zilka Hall. Although I’ve only been living in Houston for short time, I feel a sense of connection to what is a pretty broad cross section of the city’s creative community.

Duo Scordatura violinist Nicholas Leh Baker

One of the familiar faces I see around town is Houston composer George Heathco, who hipped me to what will be an exciting concert of contemporary pieces for the violin and viola, including three (!) world premieres, performed by the duo of violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones who call themselves Duo Scordatura. The concert takes place Saturday, January 29th at 6pm at First Presbyterian Church, located at 5300 Main Street. Tickets for concert are $10 for general audiences and $5 for students, children, and seniors.

The concert, titled COMMISSIONED, includes four works commissioned by Duo Scordatura, including works by Alexandra T. Bryant, Luke Dahn, George Heathco, and Dr. Daniel Kramlich. Part of the creative marketing for COMMISSIONED includes the Commissioned Project Interview Series featuring the duo and commissioned composers discussing the collaborative process that takes place between composers and the performing musicians.

Composer George Heathco

Heathco describes his programmed piece Turbine (2010) as “a bitch to play, but…a very entertaining work (or so I hope).” Also on the program are pieces by Jack Benson and Jodran Kuspa.

All of the composers on the bill either currently or have at one point called Houston their home and, according to Nicholas Leh Baker in his video interview, will all be present at the performance. Duo Scordatura is committed to presenting works “in a wide range of venues across the Houston landscape.” I look forward to hearing them next Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, and in the future wherever their mission takes them.

Comments 8 Comments »

[Ed. note – Welcome our newest contributor out in the City of Angels, Paul Bailey. Paul is a composer, trombonist and teacher, leader of the Paul Bailey Ensemble, and a good friend to boot. Paul’s own work draws quite a bit on music and culture outside both the standard university and powdered-wig crowd, has a deep dislike of pretention, and has no problem calling them like he hears them.]

For the last week I have been at a loss for what to say about the music presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at their concert January 10th at the Zipper Hall “Monday Evening Concert Series.” It was obvious that the stage was filled with a plethora of world-class musicians who throughout the evening ably demonstrated that they all had achieved the very pinnacle of technique on their respective instruments. But with all that musical dexterity to go around I was mostly left cold by the music presented and was even more disappointed that for the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have  attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.

The concert opened with Brian Ferneyhough‘s La Chute d’lcare, which featured an Olympic medal–deserving performance by clarinetist Carol McGonnell, whose effort was minimized by the disjointed orchestration and impenetrable form. Although I didn’t find their performance lacking, after a while the virtuosity being displayed seemed to reflect a video game in which the ensemble plays each successive level of complexity to increase their score.

For me, Joanna Chou‘s solo piano performance of Gerard Pesson‘s La Luminiere n’a pas de bras pour nous porter was the standout performance and composition of the evening. Based on an asymmetrical toneless ostinato, which alternated with white note tone clusters, this was the evening’s best example of “less is more.” Pesson’s other two pieces — La Vita e come l’albero di Aantale (piano and violin) and Non sapremo mai di questo mi (piano, flute, and violin)—were well performed, mercifully short explorations of piano ostinatos which contrasted with the extended performance techniques for piano and flute.

Ending the first half of the concert was Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Let Me Die Before I Wake, which again featured Miss McGonnell’s clarinet expertise (mostly through whispered tones). Although the piece was described by the composer as having “mysterious links with darkness: every bit of light is distilled,” the performance became more of duet with the intermittent dulcet buzzing drones of a slowly dying fluorescent light which I eventually preferred this impromptu duet instead of the more organized solo clarinet performance emanating from the stage.

The second half of the concert featured the much-heralded Fausto Romitelli‘s Professor Bad Trip. Other than some vague reference in the score to Henri Michaux’s experiences under mescaline and four pedantic announcements introducing each section (“Lesson 1,” “Lesson 2,” “Lesson 3,” and “Lesson 4”), it was left open what morals we might ascribe from this evening’s performance. The effect of having an announcer speak at the beginning of each lesson seemed to me about as aesthetically pointless as having an usher come out to tell us when the concert was over. (Not that musically there were any clues as to when each section was complete.) Like much of the evening musicians started and stopped without much discernible development of the musical elements. In many ways Professor Bad Trip was like a listening to wind-up box of 12 instruments chattering independently which somehow happened to stop together every 10-15 minutes.

[Some video of a 2008 performance by the Fiarì Ensemble:]


On a more positive note I can say that the ensemble (and the sound engineers) expertly handled mixing the acoustic and electronic instruments. From personal experience, it’s very hard to decide how to blend these disparate sound sources. Their decision to play through a PA and to degrade the guitar sound through pedals so it would blend better (which it did) worked pretty well. My only problem was at times hearing the guitar out of the center PA above the stage instead of from where the guitarist was sitting, but not a big deal overall. I also felt that Jay Cambell‘s loquacious electric cello jamming was diminished by his awkward switch back to his Ars Antigua violincello. After rocking out, it works better if you acknowledge the audience when switching instruments.

With that point I should wrap up and get to my main frustration with the whole evening—and many other new music evenings I have witnessed. “Witnessed” is really the point, because with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. A little of this music goes a long way, and I know that if I brought many of my friends to a show like this they would have no frame of reference on which to hang their ears. Maybe the problem still is, as Milton Babbitt said, “Who Cares If You Listen”… but in 2011, I’m still hoping that we can move beyond such ivory tower dogma.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

Comments 16 Comments »

On Monday, January 24, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. at The Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn, violist Wendy Richman of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will present “Viola & “, the first program in her “Vox/Viola” project, in which she presents new and important works for singing violist and/or electronics. The program features works by Arlene Sierra, Lou Bunk, Hillary Zipper, Kevin Ernste, Kaija Saariaho, Giacinto Scelsi and Sequenza21’s own Senior Editor, Christian Carey. I caught up with Ms. Richman via email to speak with her about the project’s origin and her interest in performing “one-woman duos.”

“It’s not entirely fair for me to say all the pieces are one-woman duos,” she says. “There’s a very active partner, sound designer Levy Lorenzo, doing much of the program with me.” The idea for these programs goes back several years, growing in part out of Wendy’s involvement with a number of composer friends who happened to work extensively with electronics, but “also because I liked the idea of having a recital program that was totally self-contained. In my imagination, I could pack my laptop, mic, and a pedal, meet with a sound guy for 10 minutes, and—bam!—the show would go perfectly.”

The reality of doing recitals with live electronics proved more complicated than Richman imagined, however, until she met Lorenzo while performing Kaija Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne at an ICE Saariaho portrait concert in New York’s The Tank, where Lorenzo was the audio engineer. “I really experienced the piece differently during that performance. Levy is a fantastically sensitive musician, in addition to [having] great technological skills. Maybe it was in part the rather cramped quarters of the Tank, so we were essentially onstage together, but I’d never really approached playing this music as a duet. Now, it’s really important to me to approach it that way, so the electronics part is not only ‘live’ but ‘alive’.”

“About five years ago,” she adds,” I began playing Scelsi’s Manto, a three-movement work whose movements can be played separately, all together, or in any pairing. The last movement’s instruction states that it is for ‘altiste/chanteuse (necessarily female),’ and ‘the text is a speech of the Sibyl [a prophetess or seer].’ I was learning the piece during a really hard time in my life, when I was recovering from a bad accident, and I think I was looking for music that really spoke to me. Well, the Scelsi did! I guess I was speaking/chanting to myself, (because) it was the first piece in a long time that I had an extremely visceral response to, and that particular commitment seemed to speak to audiences. I received really positive feedback about it and began to feel that it was my piece.”

While there are a number of violinists who sing and play at once (Courtney Orlando of Alarm Will Sound and Monica Germino, of the Dutch group Elektra come to mind), singing violists remain something of a rarity. “I knew that there were some other string players who had done similar things but hadn’t heard much about viola/voice works aside from the Scelsi, and basically I just thought it would be a fun project for me to do.”

So at the urging of the composer Ken Ueno, Ms. Richman embarked on blazing a trail as a singing violist commissioning a number of composers to write pieces for her. The commissioning process, she says, was refreshingly informal and casual. “I talked to composer friends and told them that I don’t have any money (yet!) but that I’m fairly confident I can get a decent number of performances. Their responses varied, of course, but for the most part they were all interested and it was just a matter of time (many had paying commissions that would obviously take priority). I currently have eight finished pieces (three of which are being premiered on the 24th), and a total of about twenty composers who have committed to writing things over the next few years.”

The group of composers on the “Viola & “ program represents a highly eclectic and diverse group. This may seem unusual, but it stems from Ms. Richman’s refreshingly open and friendly approach to commissioning new works. “After hearing (a composer’s) music and liking it, the most important thing for me is that I like the composer (himself) and want to work with (him). In some ways, that’s more important to me, because they might find themselves making stylistic adjustments anyway given the relative newness of the genre to them. I needed to feel like we connected as friends so I could be really comfortable in the collaborative aspect of the project.”

Viola &
Violist/vocalist Wendy Richman and Engineer Levy Lorenzo
Part of The Forge’s Forgefestival
Monday, January 24, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.
Admission: $10
The Bushwick Starr
207 Starr Street
Brooklyn, NY 11237
Info Line: 201.875.8573

Comments 2 Comments »


This Friday and Saturday October 22 and 23, Andrea Liberovici’s multimedia work Mephisto’s Songs premieres a part of the Apollo Theater’s Salon Series. I’m not familiar with Liberovici, but I am familiar with Mephisto’s featured performer singer Helga Davis. In addition to Ms. Davis’ amazing vocals, the piece includes recorded narration by Robert Wilson and cello improvisations by The Kronos Quartet’s awesome Jeffrey Zeigler. Live musicians for this performance include Clarice Jenson (cello), Fred Cash Jr. (bass), and Abe Fogle (drums).

Some of you may be familiar with Helga Davis as a host of WQXR’s Overnight Music. She works frequently with composers Paola Prestini and Bernice Johnson Reagon who, in collaboration with Robert Wilson, created the critically acclaimed opera The Temptation of Saint Anthony with Davis singing the role of Hilarion. And some of you truly hip folks may know that she sings on two scores I composed for dance, Like Dirt for Racoco Productions and La Spectra for Movement Pants Dance. Davis is also a distinctive and powerful composer. Her solo shows combining song, spoken word, theater, and video at venues that include New York City’s Whitney Museum or Galapagos are not to be missed.

Check out the Apollo Theater website for ticket information for their Salon Series. An article about another one of Liberovici’s recent projects can be found here.

Comments 3 Comments »

Pyramid and Michelle Yom at Labotanica (Houston, TX)

This Friday, October 1st at 7pm, Michelle Yom will present her sound performance installation Back To Imagined Spaces at Houston’s alternative arts and music venue Labotanica located at 2316 Elgin Street. This is a part of Labotanica’s ongoing Hear/Her/Ear series spotlighting women in experimental music.

I got a chance to hear Michelle last month in a solo vocal set at Avant-Garden where she recorded and looped her singing in real time to additively build a series of haunting chorales. Michelle is perhaps best known as a flautist with a strong classical technique and the skills and imagination of a great improviser. Her flute and drums duo Doggebi features Michelle with drummer Spike The Percussionist – a musician I name checked in my Houston Mixtape #3: The Epicenter Of Noise – freely and (almost) breathlessly improvising music that is somehow stark yet filled with a minutiae of details.

Back To Imagined Spaces imagines the human body as a collection of cells that sing and are heard in a “self-imposed timeless space” contained within the pyramid Michelle has constructed inside Labotanica. Regarding the music she will perform, Michelle writes: “The first set is a series of staccato vocalizations with syllables from the mantra, Asato Ma Sad Gamaya, processed through seven delays. The second set will be a live performance of tonal pieces titled Heart, Ears, Kidney, and Stomach, also using vocal sounds. The pieces are intended to capture a version of imaginary but prudent sounds, much like taking a microscope and focusing the lens into singing, living cells.”

Also on Friday’s program are performances by artist, vocalist and electronic composer Melanie Jamison and Labotanica’s tireless curator, visual and sound artist Ayanna Jolivet McCloud.

There is a $5 cover charge for the show. All proceeds go to the musicians. Michelle Yom’s installation will be up October 1st through October 9th, 2010.

Comments 2 Comments »