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.
Vicky Chow performing with Ekmeles at the Avant Festival about a year ago; 2/12/11 (Photo courtesy of Avant Media)
Celebrating John Cage at 100
Avant Music Festival
The Wild Project, NYC
February 11th, 2012
The Wild Project (a tiny venue that is kind of like The Stone with bleachers) is where the Avant Music Festival is going on from now (it started on Fri, Feb 10) until Saturday the 18th. This is the third annual festival, and on this particular night, I witnessed a program that I never dreamed I would have been able to sit through when I was younger and still shunning the works of modern composers like David Del Tredici. An entire program of John Cage in person seems like a lot to swallow, but it seemed to have something for everyone. Read the rest of this entry »
Think the emphasis should be placed on the first word of toy piano? If so, you’re behind the times! The repertoire and the number of toy piano performers are both steadily growing. And manufacturers like Schoenhut are custom designing and upgrading their toy pianos to make them viable for a plethora of special effects (check out David Smooke’s recent blog post over at NMB to learn more about various extended techniques the instrument is capable of enduring).
Phyllis Chen. Photo: Kimono Photography
A commissioning project organized by Phyllis Chen and run since 2007, the Uncaged Toy Piano composition competition has worked on expanding the repertoire for toy piano. On November 29, December 1, and December 3, listeners will get to hear the fruits of the contestants’ labors. The Uncaged Toy Piano Festival showcases new pieces and several imaginative approaches to the baby grand’s spunky smaller cousin. In addition to Chen (and Smooke), the festival will feature toy piano diva Margaret Leng Tan, toy instrumentalist Angelica Negron, improvisorMiguel Frasconi, avant-folkies Cuddle Magic, and Rusty Banks’Babbling Tower-to-Tower for toy piano and cell phones(!).
I’m excited to share a piece of music that is very close to my heart: Marc Chan’s My Wounded Head cycle, the third installment of which will be performed this Sunday at The Stone.
The title comes from a set of five chorales from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). These chorales have become an obsession for Marc, and each station of his cycle forges a new “road trip” through the notes, patiently spinning them out into strange and beautiful patterns. Number 3, for solo piano, pushes this patience into sublime territory — each bar is repeated ad libitum, with the premiere clocking in around 1:20 — but the rhythms mesmerize, and you may even feel it not long enough.
Pianist Rob Haskins, to whom the piece is dedicated, has deep roots in both Cage and, through the harpsichord, Bach, which goes a long way to explain the — I can only say understanding — that pervades his performance of this music.
Also on the program: Chan’s arrangement of Cage’s In A Landscape for piano, guitar and saxophone.
Sunday, September 25 8pm: Margaret Leng Tan plays John Cage: Four Walls 10pm: In a Landscape, My Wounded Head 3 The Stone
San Francisco Bay Area composer/performer Kanoko Nishi wraps up our series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd. The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition,starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door. Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.
Kanoko is classically trained on piano and received a BA in music performance from Mills College in 2006. Her recent interest has primarily been in performing 20th century and contemporary music on piano and koto, and free improvisation in a variety of contexts. SF Bay Area contrabassist Tony Dryer and guitarist IOIOI, visiting from Italy, will perform Kanoko’s graphic scores as a duo.
S21: How has your classical piano training prepared you – or not prepared you – for improvisation and composition?
I think that one very important element that is particular to musical improvisation as opposed to improvisation in other fields is the role of the musical instruments one performs and interacts with, and classical training for me was just a very deep way of building a relationship with my instruments. What has been helpful is not so much the technique, vocabulary or repertoire, but the time, energy and thoughts spent in the process of acquiring these more concrete skills and knowledge. For me, every improvisation I do is like a battle with the instrument I’m playing, in my case, either the piano or koto, and though I cannot really practice improvising by its definition, it’s only by practicing regularly that I feel I can enrich myself as a person, build my stamina and confidence enough to be a suitable match for my instrument to bring out its full potential. Read the rest of this entry »