Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)
(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.
Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?
Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.
There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).
Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1” deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.
Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!
The critically-acclaimed Palisades Virtuosi presents a very special 10th Anniversary Concert – the first concert of their 2012-2013 season on Friday, November 9 – 8:00 PM at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, 113 Cottage Place in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The evening will also include a pre-concert composer and performer talk at 7:15.
Flutist Margaret Swinchoski, clarinetist Donald Mokrynski and pianist Ron Levy began their series of concerts in Ridgewood, New Jersey in 2003, when there were relatively few works composed for their instrumentation. So, their “Mission to Commission” was born. 10 seasons later, there are an additional 60 works of concert repertoire for their ensemble as a direct result of their mission. They include a commissioned work in each of their concerts.
November 9 concert repertoire will include the World Premiere of composer Jeff Scott’s Poem for a Lost King, commissioned by The Palisades Virtuosi.
Composer Jeff Scott
The composer writes, “Lost King is a musical poem that has been written as a metaphorical homage to the countless African kings, chiefs and village elders expelled and abducted from their homeland during the middle passage.” Visit Jeff Scott at http://www.imaniwinds.com/artist.php?view=bio&bid=1941.
Repertoire will also include Franz Danzi’s Sinfonia Concertante, Maurice Emmanuel’s Sonate and PV’s first commissioned work Lep-i-dop-ter-o-lo-gy  by Aaron Grad.
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!
Long a fixture here at S21 until just a few years ago, composer David Salvage has been busy teaching at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Back in 2010 he conceived the idea of keeping his compositional chops up by starting an open-ended series of piano pieces, called Albumleaves. At the same time David started a blog as an integral part to showcase them, in which each new piece features not only the score but a recorded performance as well. The series is now pushing 90 pieces (!), and some of them have just come out on a recording on the Navona label. It’s an elegant, smartly realized project, and I asked David to give a little recap and backgroud on how it came to be, and what it’s meant to him:
I wanted to write a lot of music; I wanted to play the piano more. And I wanted to write a blog. I figured out how to put these desires together in January 2010, when the idea occurred to me to start a blog that would consist of posts that would be musical instead of verbal, and that would nonetheless reflect the offhand, freewheeling, and autobiographical character of conventional blogs. And now that I had a piano in my home for the first time in twelve years, I was especially fired up to get the project going. The next month, I came up with the title Albumleaves, and, in late March, I began composing the “leaves,” as I thought I’d nickname the posts.
I thought that in order to maintain the blog-like nature of the site the posts would have to be written quickly and manifest a high degree of musical variety. Initially, my goal was to write three leaves every two weeks. While I was only able to maintain this rate for a month or two, the pace of composition remains rapid: in the 139 weeks since beginning Albumleaves, I have completed 89 leaves, which is more than one leaf every two weeks (and there is both an 81a and 81b). As for musical variety, click here, here, and here to hear for yourself. By maintaining variety, the blog remains casual, surprising, and attractive to listeners—and full of fresh challenges for me.
The original vision for the site always went beyond original composition. Since 2010, I’ve been posting recordings of music by other composers—like Federico Mompou—and quotations about music by authors like E.M. Cioran. More recently, I’ve started excerpting from free improvisations that I record and posting them as improvisation fragments.
Over time, I’ve grown more confident about the project’s integrity. Since I listen to such a wide variety of classical music (from Notre Dame organum to twentieth-century atonality with few gaps in between), I’m not concerned by my reluctance to develop a personal style of composition. Writing good pieces is challenge enough for me at the moment; if they do not synthesize their disparate influences into a unique musical voice, I’m not going to worry about it. Nor do I worry anymore about inconsistency of quality: even the greatest composers (and authors and painters and everyone else) produced works of varying quality. And I don’t see how writing quickly or slowly has anything to do with consistency: some of the strongest leaves were written in two hours; some of the weakest took weeks. (And even though it took him much less time to write, Brahms’s second symphony is just as good as his first.) For now, the quality of my playing troubles me more than the quality of my composing: I admit to posting a few sloppy recordings. (Here’s one.) But hopefully the music always comes through anyway.
I am proud of the nine lucky leaves that made it to market on the new CD Lock and Key; they are representative of the site, and I thank Navona Records for their enthusiasm and interest. I also would like to thank the 2,404 unique visitors from 75 countries who have visited the site to listen—though surely it’s not for purely musical reasons that the most popular leaf remains “Manatee.” Happy listening, everyone, and see you at Albumleaf 100!
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The 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage was celebrated in Pasadena, California at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center with a concert by Gloria Cheng titled Two Sides of Cage’s Coin. The Boston Court venue is comfortably cozy and all but a few of the 100 seats were filled to hear Water Music and the entire sequence of Sonatas and Interludes. Despite the modern industrial construction of the hall – it has corrugated steel walls – and a play going on in the adjacent theater, the acoustics proved more than adequate for the intimate space.
John Cage was born in Los Angeles and has many connections here despite being known primarily as a New York composer. Cage studied with Schoenberg at UCLA – where Gloria Cheng is now a faculty member. He lived for a time in Pacific Palisades and later in Hollywood. Cage was also a colleague of Lou Harrison and taught at Mills College in the Bay area. To mark the centennial here in Los Angeles of the birth of John Cage – one of Americas most influential composers – is entirely fitting and appropriate.
The first piece on the program is known generically as Water Music but as Ms. Cheng explained the official title should be Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 because Cage had intended the title to be taken from wherever it was performed. This piece was first presented as 66 W. 12 at Woodstock, NY August 29, 1952 and so the title is updated on each playing. Water Music is partly music and partly performance – the score calls for a table radio, three kinds of whistles, cups and pitchers of water, a wooden stick and a deck of playing cards, all in addition to the piano. (A similar piece – Water Walk – was once performed by Cage himself on the old I’ve Got A Secret TV program and you can see this here on You Tube.)
Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 started with the rolling out of a small cart full of items to center stage – the radio plays – and Ms. Cheng began a series of activities such as pouring water from cup to pitcher, blowing various whistles, etc. This was all done by timing the sequence of actions with her iPhone (a nice 21st century touch) and following Cage’s score, which was projected overhead for all to see. No one brings as much dignity to the concert stage as Gloria Cheng, but she could have been a 1950s housewife scurrying about attending to various domestic chores. When the score called for a chord or two on the piano, however, everything changes: it is the virtuoso who – with just a few notes struck – suddenly and decisively shifts the focus to an artistic perspective. It is this overlap between the mundane and the suddenly artistic that makes this piece so intriguing – our ordinary lives are never quite removed from the arts – and art bleeds into our everyday experience.
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano was written over two years,1946 to 1948, at a time when John Cage was working with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Ms. Cheng explained that because there was no room in the dance studio for drums, Cage hit upon the idea of adding various pieces of hardware to the piano strings to give it a more percussive sound. He eventually devised explicit instructions on how the piano was to be prepared and he specifies individual types of screws, bolts and plastic pieces for each of 45 different notes on the piano. A complete chart by Cage showing how the piano is to be prepared was included in the program.
To those who have never heard a prepared piano the resulting sound invariably exceeds prior expectations. The lower prepared notes have a wonderful gong-like quality while the middle register can produce beautiful bell tones. The higher notes tend most toward the percussive, at times resembling the notes from a music box. The added texture of the prepared piano is fully explored in Sonatas and Interludes which are, by turns playful, dramatic, solemn, agitated, languid, mysterious and tranquil. The ‘Sonatas’ are played in groups of four followed an ‘Interlude’ for a total of 20 pieces – all played sequentially. This work was written at a time when Cage was studying South Asian music and culture – the various pieces in Sonatas and Interludes evoke a definite exotic and mystical feeling and are intended to portray the eight permanent human emotions as defined by Indian philosophy.
As might be expected, Sonatas and Interludes is a very challenging work for the performer – from the 3 hours of piano preparation time to understanding just how each note will feel and react. And of course you can see that the piece is technically difficult just by looking at the notes on the score – rapid runs of complex arpeggios, soft quiet stretches and dramatically loud passages. Because the hardware tends to shorten the duration of the sound when a prepared note is struck, this music is typically a sequence of single notes and rapid runs with very few long chords – a good test of the performer’s dexterity. Ms. Cheng was up to all of this but what impresses most is her ability to find just the right dynamic and “touch” for each section – even with 45 of the keys prepared. I asked her afterwords if she had much chance to practice on a prepared piano and she responded that at one time she did so but now feels confident given her experience with Cage’s music. In any event the results were well-received by the audience who brought Ms. Cheng back for two curtain calls amid much cheering. Gloria then invited those interested to come on stage to look inside the piano – and help her “de-prepare” it – a gracious gesture from an accomplished performer.
This concert was sponsored by Piano Spheres and information on their upcoming concert season can be found here.
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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.
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On May 15th, pianist Shai Wosner will be performing a brand new Piano Concerto by Michael Hersch. Titled along the ravines, the piece will be making its first ever concert appearance with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, Tuesday May 15th at 7:30 PM.
Shai explains how he came upon his interest for the new work. “When I was looking to commission a new work, thanks to the Borletti-Buitoni Trust of London, I was listening to all kinds of music from composers from different generations and I came across a couple of CDs with piano and chamber works by Michael Hersch. It was clear that he was pursuing his own path with a very strong, personal voice. Those pieces seemed to contain an explosive mix of wildness and melancholy”.
Wosner is another performer that likes to mix the classics with newer, contemporary works. “Programming is really one of the fun parts of being a musician, in my opinion. It’s always nice to fantasize about potential programming ideas, even if, like with any new idea, you may find yourself rejecting it wholeheartedly the next morning. When it comes to recital programs, I try to somehow look for a common thread among the pieces, which sometimes is obvious and sometimes is not. The goal is not so much to include pieces that are similar to each other, but rather a collection of works that are on one hand very different, but that may also resonate, shed light on each other and interact in the context of the program”.
I asked Shai if he would be bringing the new piece into the studio, and he had this to offer: “We hope to be able to record the concerto in the next couple of years. There are also plans for another solo CD and potentially a concerto CD as well that are being discussed. As far as programming is concerned, I am trying to find ‘organic’ ways to fit free improvisation into recital programs. There is nothing new in the concept, of course, and it used to be in fact part of tradition. But I am currently looking for a way to combine it with other repertoire in a meaningful way.”.
Music/Words, an interdisciplinary series founded and curated by NYC-based pianist Inna Faliks, continues its fourth season on Sunday, April 22, 2012, at 6 PM with a performance at New York’s Cornelia Street Cafe featuring Faliks and guest pianist Clarice Assad at the piano along with soprano Samantha Malk and poet Irina Mashinski. The program will explore the sensuousness of early Schoenberg (with the Stefan Georgy poetry used in the songs), along with the passion of Mashinski’s poetry and Assad’s Brazilian music. The program includes Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstucke, opus 11, his songs from Book of Hanging Gardens, and various improvisations by Ms. Assad based on Brazilian piano music. Read the rest of this entry »
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New music pianist Jenny Q. Chai is making a special appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on April 19th at 7:30 PM playing some great pieces by
Ligeti, Marco Stroppa, György Kurtág, Messiaen, and even Schumann (guess they’re trying to make him sound young again) as well as two world-premiere pieces by composers Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang and Inhyun Kim.
She had some time to talk with me about that upcoming show and her musical path. Read the rest of this entry »
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Congratulations to pianist Peter Poston for winning the David Lang 2011 Competition.
Below is his award-winning entry, a performance of Wed, submitted via YouTube:
Poston will get to perform as part of an all Lang program at le poisson rouge in New York City on May 6, 2012 at 5pm. The concert at LPR includes Andrew Zolinsky performing selections from the CD, a new 4-hand piano work premiered by Zolinsky and Poston, a new 6-hand piano piece for the 3 runners-up – Catarina Domenici, Katherine Dowling, and Denise Fillion – and performances by guitar legend Derek Johnson and other special guests.
This Was Written by Hand
Piano Music by David Lang
Andrew Zolinsky, piano
Cantaloupe Music CD
Wed, the audition piece for the David Lang 2011 Competition, is featured on This Was Written By Hand, David Lang’s latest CD, a recital disc recorded for Cantaloupe by pianist Andrew Zolinksy. It isone of eight “Memory Pieces” included on the disc. This group serves as postminimal “Characterstucke,” an attractive and mercurial group of contrasting miniatures.
Then there is the touching title work. One of Lang’s most organically constructed pieces, it was, indeed, written by hand and intuitively constructed. A meditation on the ephemeral nature of life, it captures a similar poignancy to Lang’s recent vocal work “Little Matchgirl Passion,” but writ smaller, more intimately. To both this and the Memory Pieces, Zolinsky brings a fluid grace and subtlety that abets the spontaneous, almost improvisatory, character of the material.