Archive for the “Piano” Category
James Combs, composer… Ah, where to start?… I met James years ago, in our formerly-shared hometown of Seattle. Truly a “regular-Joe” in person, giving little hint of the ornate wheels spinning underneath. An anecdote on James’ blog seems a perfect illustration of the man and the work:
A Minimalist Experience
A boring Sunday, really not so much different than any other Sunday. March 16, 2008, I went for a drive to run some miscellaneous errands. My wife informed me that we were in some need of household items which could be purchased at the nearest store. So heading to the store on this boring Sunday, I am ever increasingly slipping slowly, steadily, into a trance state while driving. I am sure it was not unsafe, and I believe there is a name for it. Highway hypnosis. The condition where you arrive at your destination while not recalling much of the way there. I remember arriving at the store that boring Sunday and noticing the parking lot was quite full. This pulled me out of my trance to an irritating degree. Not finding one parking spot, my wife decided to run in and get the couple of items and I would simply drive around the parking lot until she made her way back outside. So I started driving steadily, cautiously through the parking lot which went in a round about. The first loop, I was concerned with looking out for other cars, but I have to say by the time I made it to my second lap I was really feeling the track, memorizing all the angles. By the time I hit the third lap I was steering around vehicles and halting with expert dexterity for crossing traffic through the parking lot, the track. I can’t remember what lap I was on when my cell phone rang and woke me up from my hypnotic state. It was my wife wondering why I kept driving past her, waiting outside the front of the store.
Self-taught, James writes smallish, fairly static, elegant and polished yet absolutely irrational piano pieces. Pieces from another century’s drawing room – though that century could only be invented in the here and now. Maybe if we overlayed glass slides of Chopin, Satie, Stravinsky, Feldman, Glass, Eno, then maybe… Each small piece has the quality of a Mark Ryden painting; antique poise and luminescence recalled in a disturbing dream from just last night. James makes no claims to intrude on Brian Ferneyhough’s turf; yet for all their simplicity these modest piano pieces show the most wonderful intuition for line, sonority, weight and color, all at just the right moment. I suppose we could call the pieces “etudes”, but what they teach would be philosophical rather than technical. There’s also a kind of deadpan humor, a bit of Buster Keaton or even Steven Wright (“I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time’. So I ordered french toast during the Renaissance.”) running through the whole ethos. So what kind of music is this? Again, I’ll let James explain:
“Classical” … The meaning of this word pertaining to music obviously is defined as a musical form. So what is this meaning? Ask any average guy and he would probably say “like what Mozart and Beethoven composed.” Hey, he would be absolutely correct. I mean, there was an age long ago termed the “classical period.” This period was defined not only within the music, but paintings, architecture, poetry, etc.
So if you ask the average “Joe” what contemporary classical is, they might scratch their head and reference ? I mean, most likely. And that’s the problem. Is rock a period? Is jazz a period (I know about the age, but we’re talking music)? The term “classical” is a definite problem. It links the past to the present under false pretenses. Imagine Philip Glass or Steve Reich being asked “what genre of music to you compose for?” They answer “impressionism.” That is if we swap out the word classical in favor of the word impressionism, both a period so would it matter?
Does the use of the word classical as a blanket definition of all eras of this form in turn form a bias within academia and elitists? Meaning, to pick classical as the word might say to some that the era of classical itself is the most relevant to every genre. Here in Seattle our “classical” radio station rarely strays (some might say deviates) from the baroque, classical and romantic eras. I would bet that to be the case for every metropolitan city around the world.
Do you want a solution? Take out “classical” as the definition of all periods in aforementioned music and replace with “amaranth.” An unfading flower.
I compose amaranth music. I compose amaranth music in a contemporary style.
James first self-produced CD release, Charmed Elixers, is available now on both CD Baby and iTunes.
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Renewable Music‘s long-time American-in-Deutschland, Daniel J. Wolf, had the idea of inviting composers to contribute to an album for piano, simply centered around this moment and season. No publishers, no glitzy “call for works”, just a friendly invitation for any interested. The result is the A Winter Album, twelve piano pieces of quite diverse hues, for each and everyone of us to freely peruse in our gray and inclement hours. The composers may not be known to you, but all the better; they’re a stellar bunch in my book: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, Jon Brenner, Steed Cowart, Elaine Fine, Hauke Harder, Ben.Harper, Jeff Harrington, Aaron Hynds, Lloyd Rodgers, Jonathan Segel, Charles Shere, and Daniel James Wolf himself. Pianists, warm yourself over these embers; and thanks, Daniel. (photo by Ian Britton)
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Our regular listen to and look at living, breathing composers and performers that you may not know yet, but I know you should… And can, right here and now, since they’re nice enough to offer so much good listening online:
Stephane Ginsburgh (b. 1969 — Belgium)
I first ran across this fine pianist a few years ago, while searching the web for information about Marcel Duchamp’s prescient, chance-based 1913 “compositions”, Erratum Musical — In 2001, Stephane recorded a number of his own interpretations of Duchamp’s score for the Sub Rosa label. A little of Stephane’s official bio:
Born in Brussels, after graduating from the Royal Music Conservatories of Mons and Liège in piano and chamber music he studied with Paul Badura-Skoda, Vitaly Margulis, Pascal Sigrist and particularly Claude Helffer in Paris for contemporary music and Jerome Lowenthal in New York.
He has premiered many new pieces and been awarded the Pelemans Prize for his activity in promoting music by Belgian contemporary composers. He also plays with the Ictus Ensemble under George-Elie Octors. In 1998 he co-founded with composer Renaud De Putter “le Bureau des Arts”, an active group of artists dedicated to different types of expression and creation including music, dance and literature.
His two recent CD releases, Duchamp’s Erratum Musical and Morton Feldman Last Pieces were warmly reviewed by New York critics. As member of the le Bureau des Pianistes, he recorded three CDs with music by Jean-Luc Fafchamps and Morton Feldman. Upcoming CDs for Sub Rosa include For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman and John Adams’ China Gates and Phrygian Gates.
Ginsburgh studies philosophy at the Free University of Brussels.
Stephane’s website has always featured some generous online listening to some deeply committed performances, of music from everyone from Beethoven to Bartok all the way up through Ligeti and beyond. Browse the CD links and you’ll find that many offer MP3s of selected tracks; browse the “Live” link to find even more sound files.
For the full story on the new aleatoric work seen being performed above on a Bösendorfer at the Two Moors Festival in the UK, take An Overgrown Path. Image credit BBC News
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Our favorite techno-geek pianist Hugh Sung has come up with a really neat new way to integrate live music with dynamic imagery, animations, and synchronized video clips, all of which can be controlled by the performing musician directly a simple foot-switch. Think Arditti Quartet meets the Joshua Light Show. (Perhaps too old a reference for most of you.) Hugh calls his system the Visual Recital which seems as good a name as any.
You can catch Hugh’s next Visual Recital live on Saturday night at the Darlington Arts Center, 977 Shavertown Road, Boothwyn, PA
(610-358-3632) or if you can’t make it you can watch this sample clip from “Vernacular Dance No. 1″ by S21 blogger Charles B. Griffin:
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The brilliant and talented piano and TabletPC genuis Hugh Sung has a terrific post about the Sequenza21 concert where he was a star performer. Hugh is also one of the nicest people alive.
Kyle Gann, who drove two hours down and two hours back to Bard for the concert, has some nice words about the concert here. Kyle turned 37 yesterday.
Our congratulations to regular Darcy James Argue who is one of the 29 recipients of the latest round of the American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program (CAP). The complete list is here.
Altman was one of the best.
Update: Speaking of birthdays, today is Gunther Schuller’s 81st. Richard Buell tells me that when Schuller was 16 and the first horn of the the Cincinnati Symphony, he auditioned for the Ellington band, playing Johnny Hodges’s charts.
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Last night, the third and final concert of the Keys to the Future series featured pianists, Tatjana Rankovich, Joseph Rubenstein, Polly Ferman. Ms. Ferman, a noted tango performer, closed out the concert with a set of Argentine compositions, many of them inspired by the Tango.
Winged (1995) Bruce Stark (b. 1956)
Stark’s work has been featured in every concert of the series and for good reason. He has an unusually rare gift in creating a recognizable voice, combining compelling content with forms that make sense and are full of surprises. Winged, one of his first ‘acknowledged’ compositions did not fail to deliver in all of these regards. Inspired by the notion of flying angels, it began high in the clouds, aloft, shimmering and luminescent. For the full 10 minutes the piece continously explored impressionistic canyons and mountains with often beautifully static moments and without for a moment seeming cloying, minimalist or new-agey. Tatjana Rankovich admirably drove these pianistic ecstasies with aplomb and joy.
Ballade (2000) Sarah K. Snider (b. 1973)
Snider’s Ballade was a composition inspired by the 4th Chopin Ballade often employing polyrhythms (such as Chopin used in the last set of three etudes) and romantic musical devices while maintaining a contemporary harmonic palette. The piece would have been more sucessful if the material had more salient characteristics. The form was interesting and compelling throughout.
Toccata (2001) Pierre Jalbert (b. 1968)
Rankovich continued her blistering performances with Jalbert’s ragged and intense Toccata. An American composer from Vermont, the piece combined scalar motifs with powerful clusters in a thrilling manner. The violence however, never seemed formless and without intent, and often surprised with its variety of textures and discontinuities of motion.
Waltz (1997) Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956)
Gordon’s Waltz was intensely sentimental and beautiful, reminding one of Satie throughout its length, which was perhaps a little much. Rubenstein performed with varieties of pianissimo piano playing which were delightful.
Elegiac Cycle (3 selections) (1999) Brad Mehldau (b. 1970)
Jazz composer Brad Mehldau’s cycle was melodic without seeming overtly jazz-inspired but could have had a bit more variety in its accompaniment figures and textures.
Romance No. 1 (2006) Joseph Rubenstein (b. 1969)
Rubenstein performing Rubenstein was a delight in this world premiere, subtitled ‘river of night’. It is rare that one hears a pianist composer so technically accomplished. The piece was filled with intimate colors and varieties of quiet textures that charmed throughout.
Adios Nonino (1959, arr. 1975) Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Uruguayan pianist Polly Ferman began her survey of recent Latin-American piano literature with tango innovator Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino a piece written directly after his father had died and full of deep sentiment. The varieties of textures always employed by Piazzolla did not disappoint, however there was a sense of the piece being a medley which was at times distracting. Ferman’s sensitivity to the genre was evinced throughout with her subtle rhythmic variations and emotional voicings.
Milonga Sureña (1979) Juan José Ramos (1930-1995)
Ferman began the next part of the concert with a brief talk about the Milonga, a faster and rural tango form. In Ramos’ Milonga, Polly Ferman’s dramatic and natural phrasing created a saucy and ferocious authenticity.
Milonga (from Aquel Buenos Aires) (1971) Pedro Saenz (1915-1995)
Saenz’s contribution to the genre was full of seconds and percussive effects that intensely demonstrated this tense and obsessive form.
Paris Desde Aqui (2001) Daniel Binelli (b. 1946)
Bandoneon master Daniel Binelli’s waltz was a musical depiction of the city of lights that suceeded admirably in creating a living cityscape.
Levante (2004) Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)
Golijov’s Levante closed the show with a vaguely deconstructed suite of Cuban rhythms morphing into a tango. While admirably interpreted, it demonstrated to this listener, the dangers of deconstruction. A composer cannot merely take apart – the important step is the reconstruction, the innovative way that the living material once decoded, is put back together into convincing newness. And as in Kline’s composition the night before, at the edges of complex rhythmic layering, the listener is often left with moments of metrical confusion produced by rote formulae.
All in all, a wonderful survey of recent and lesser known piano compositions, admirably performed throughout with attention and intense emotion.
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In the second concert of the Keys to the Future series, Tatjana Rankovich, organizer Joseph Rubenstein, and Lora Tchekoratova performed in a program rich in compelling melodic and textural content.
Music for Piano (1997) Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947)
Tatjana Rankovich began the program on a piano with a beaded necklace inside. Middle Eastern vocal melodies caused this necklace to resonate in a pleasant (if ultimately obsessive) almost insectoidal buzzing. Occasional outbursts in the lower ranges contrasted with these exquisite Eastern melodies ultimately climaxing in a storm of bass scales. Ms. Rankovich notably performed with precision and a finely atuned sense of the vocal quality of the melodies in Music for Piano.
Éphémères (4 selections) (2003) Philippe Hersant (b. 1948)
Philippe Hersant is practically unkown in the U.S. and apparently (thanks to not being a Boulezian) not quite as well known as he should be in France. Ms. Rankovich performed 4 pieces from his 24 piece cycle, Éphémères inspired by haiku by Basho. Of particular interest was the tempestuous ‘Ouragan’. Scalar motives in the bass exploded into often brilliant gales of color and rhythmic excitement. Rankovich evocatively drove the hurricane like a savage god. ‘Vallee du sud’ called forth memories of the bell-like sonorities of Debussy but with a personal and extended melodic touch that did not feel to be foreign to the style. Hersant is definitely a composer that should be much more widely known outside of France.
Brin (1990) Luciano Berio (1925-2003)
Brin is a wonderful miniature and utilized Berio’s signature rapid scalar figurations to interrupt a static and jewel-like sound world. Rankovich performed Brin with marvelous microscopic abandon.
Fifth Romance (1984) Joseph Fennimore (b. 1940)
Fennimore’s Fifth Romance attempted to combine jazz, show tune pianisms and Scriabinesque harmonies to mixed effect. The romance was never confusing and often surprising, but I was left feeling that parts of this feast of romantic moods were undigested. Nonetheless it was a remarkably executed composition and its exposed origins evinced an immense technical imagination. Tatjana Rankovich performed with intelligent pizzazz this stylistically exposed composition.
Nocturne No. 5 (1996) (Tchekoratova) Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961)
Bulgarian pianist, Lora Tchekoratova continued the program with Nocturne No. 5, a piece obviously influenced by Chopin and Scriabin although updated to varying degrees harmonically and melodically. It was voiced with marvelous delicacy and precision by Tchekoratova. Some of the harmonic shifts were not always convincing, but the clarity of the upper lines propelled the piece to good effect.
Mambo No. 1 (2006) Phil Kline (b. 1953)
Phil Kline’s piece was an exciting post-minimalist/totalist extravaganza of sections, each one exploding into the next. Often, as the section climaxed, complex rhythmic indulgences seemed to interfere with the emotional crescendi underway. I was left feeling that the piece was a bit self-indulgent although interesting in its compellingly brilliant material.
Rain Tree Sketch II (1992) Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
Takemitsu’s brilliant extensions of the pianistic language of Debussy and Messiaen is under-recognized. Rain Tree Sketch was performed to scintillating and fluidic effect by Tchekoratova. Chords interrupted by dark octaves formed the primary textural motivations behind this wonderful compositiion.
Für Alina (1976) Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Concert organizer Joseph Rubenstein next performed Arvo Pärt’s uniquely fractured plainsongs to marvellously spiritual effect. In a lesser composer’s hands such repetition of texture and register would fall flat. It is only with Pärt’s singular mindset and commitment that the meditation unfolds so convincingly.
Exit Music for a Film (1998) Radiohead/Christopher O’Riley
The second of O’Riley’s Radiohead ‘transciptions’ could more accurately be qualified as a ‘paraphrase’. It was intensely compelling and performed with accurate and decadent flair by Joseph Rubenstein. A real testament to the group’s compositional talents is how, through these arrangements, the philosophical intensities are maintained.
Five Preludes (2003) Bruce Stark (b. 1956)
Bruce Stark’s music was performed to wonderful effect again in tonight’s program. His 5 short pieces further explored how jazz stylings and American folk music influences can be used without merely evoking the achievements of the ’50′s. The explosive 5th prelude was fascinating in how it simultaneously and without feelings of pastiche evoked both Bartok and Gershwin.
Tonight is the third and final night of the series featuring a mini-survey of recent Latin-American piano music, an angelic invocation by Stark, and one of Joseph Rubenstein’s own compositions. It looks to be a doozy!
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The opening concert for the Keys to the Future featured organizer Joseph Rubenstein, BOAC regular keyboardist Lisa Moore and Blair McMillen in a program practically devoid of common modernist influence.
8 short works (1980s) Howard Skempton (b. 1947)
Howard Skempton, a miniaturist of some reknown in Europe, but little recognized here, was featured in 8 short works selected and arranged by Rubenstein. While evoking a mastery of emotional poignancy, each of the pieces demonstrated a poverty of texture that was vaguely puritanical. The performance by Rubenstein was masterful. Notable among the eight pieces was The Keel Row, which began the concert. It was precious, still, and fragmented into a tiny gem of delight. The ‘Toccata in Memory of Morton Feldman’ was wonderfully conceived as a meditation with a returning Feldmanesque bass note.
Solitude (1978) Leo Ornstein (1892-2002)
Lisa Moore performed a neo-romantic masterpiece which we should be hearing more often. An odd synthesis of Russian romanticism, notably Scriabin’s later sonatas and etudes and Debussy. It was performed exquisitely with immaculate pedal and detailing.
Le jeu des contraires (1989) Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916)
Ms. Moore’s performance of ‘Le jeu des contraires’ by the living French composer Dutilleux was a delight. It was a sprawling, unpredictable combination of atonal scales, parallelisms and bell-like moments. It was miraculously controlled with a gusto often missing from peformances of recent French piano music.
Ode to “Ode to Joy” (1997) Bruce Stark (b. 1956)
Bruce Starks’ ‘Ode to “Ode to Joy”‘ was absolutely the audience favorite of the concert. An odd mixture of variation form and hilarious commentary on the tune combining unexpected mashups of jazz-rock stylings with serious and ecstatic cascades of sound. Lisa Moore thrilled with her precision and phenomenal dramatic buildup to an incredible climax. The humor at times, didn’t quite resonate with the emotional baggage of the tune, however. Chalk it up to it being performed on such a critical election day, perhaps.
Let Down (1997) Radiohead/Christopher O’Riley
After the intermission, Rubenstein returned to the keys to perform Christopher O’Riley’s transcriptions of Radiohead, notably ‘Let Down’ from the OK Computer album. The idea of transcribing such delicate rock for solo piano is fascinating, although frought with the dangers of the impossiblity of recreating the textural varieties and the inharmonicities inherent in the instrumentation and most importantly, Thom Yorkes’ voice. The frailties of the simple guitar part were recreated poignantly, but it was notable how very bald the melody became in the climax of the song without the cymbals and multiple guitars. The performance by Joseph Rubenstein was illuminating, full of detail and wonderful pedal effects.
24 Variations on a Bach Chorale (2002) Fred Hersch (b. 1955)
Blair McMillen closed the concert with jazz pianist Fred Hersh’s colossal 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale. A poly-stylistic and ambitious tour de force, it traced 200 years of textural and harmonic stylings while notably skipping the 20th century, except for jazz. The composition was technically and spiritually impressive yet ultimately a disappointment for failing to create a dramatic arch, suggested by the evocations of the music of Beethoven and Schumann. My favorite moments were the chromatic jazz stylings which maintained the propulsive quality felt throughout the piece. McMillen struggled at times to maintain the requisite energy, sweat pouring off his face, nevertheless he managed to bring the piece to a welcome and energetic climax.
Tonight’s concert promises to be equally enthralling with another Radiohead transcription and the music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Takemitsu, Pärt et al.
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Season two of Keys to the Future, a festival of contemporary music for solo piano, takes place next week, November 7-9 (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) at Greenwich House’s Renee Weiler Concert Hall. The six participating pianists are Lisa Moore, Blair McMillen, Tatjana Rankovich, Lora Tchekoratova, Polly Ferman, and myself.
On the first night (Tuesday, 11/7), the brilliant pianist Blair McMillen will perform Fred Hersch’s gigantic piece called 24 Variations on a Bach Chorale. Here are some notes by the composer:
The original chorale melody is by Hans Leo Hassler (1562-1612), but was borrowed several times by J.S. Bach, mostly famously as “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunder” in his St. Matthew’s Passion. But I first became familiar with this melody as a teenager in a secular English version known as “Because All Men Are Brothers” with lyrics by Tom Glazer; it was recorded by both The Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary. After the events of September 11th, 2001, the powerful, timeless melody and those words inspired these variations.” (Fred Hersch)
On the second evening (Wednesday, 11/8), I will perform Christopher O’Riley’s arrangement of Radiohead’s song Exit Music, which was written specifically for the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo and Juliet. The song appears on Radiohead’s highly acclaimed third album, OK Computer (1997). In 2003, Christopher O’Riley released True Love Waits (Sony) the first of two CDs of songs by Radiohead arranged for solo piano. Radiohead’s dense, multi-layered music leans heavily on electronic processing for its moody sonic atmospherics; O’Riley evokes those complex textures with abundant but judicious use of the sustain and soft pedals, a deft use of dissonance and a rhythmically anxious left hand.
On the third evening (Thursday, 11/9), virtuoso Tatjana Rankovich will play Pierre Jalbert’s Toccata. Here are some notes by the composer:
Having grown up as a pianist and being familiar with the toccatas of Schumann, Prokofiev, Rorem, and the like, I had always wanted to write a short, virtuosic work for the piano. I completed Toccata in the spring of 2001, while living in Rome at the American Academy on a Rome Prize fellowship for the year. Set in rondo-like form, the central feature of the piece is a rapid repeated-note figure, which appears in different guises throughout the work. (Pierre Jalbert)
It’s going to be great fun. I hope you come to one or more of the evenings. For further details, go here.