On Friday, February 22 the week-long 2013 residency of Tom Johnson in Los Angeles was capped off with a concert of his music at the wulf, an experimental performance space deep in the gritty heart of industrial downtown. Featured was the Los Angeles premiere of ’Clarinet Trio’ and four other works, plus the occasion was also marked by the release of a new CD of Tom’s works titled ‘correct music’ from Populist Records. About 50 people crowded into the reclaimed factory loft to attend the event and what thewulf lacks in amenities was more than compensated by the enthusiasm of the young audience. The concert was free and there was an ice chest full of Tecate beer – what’s not to like?
Tom Johnson’s time in Los Angeles this past week was spent giving lectures on mathematics and music at Cal Arts, hosting an exhibition of his drawings in the Art Share LA gallery and presiding over concerts of new music. Tom has deep minimalist roots and, according to the concert notes, “works with simple forms and limited sonic materials, utilizing logic and mathematical models in both his music and his drawings.”
The concert began with Clarinet Trio, performed by Jim Sullivan, Brian Walsh and Damon Zick. This piece consists of a series of short passages with changing sets of three note chords separated by short pauses. Tom Johnson uses mathematics and sets of drawings to describe his intended sequence of the various permutations of musical sound and these are then translated into the written score and parts. Clarinet Trio was constructed to explore the possible ways of playing seven different three-note chords and this took about 20 minutes to unfold. The different segments varied in rhythm, attack, dynamic and tempo but the ensemble playing here was very tight and each phrase was cleanly played with good intonation. The acoustics of the small space at the wulf were well-matched to the musical forces and those listening were very attentive during the Trio – even the 5 second pauses between phrases became familiar after a few minutes. The occasional horn blast from the nearby freeway made its way inside during the silences, but this was not a distraction. The premiere was well-executed by the performers and well-received by the audience.
The second piece was Eggs and Baskets, a narrated piece that is similar in construction to Tom’s Narayana’s Cows. The idea in Eggs and Baskets was to musically describe all the possible ways to put six eggs in two baskets. The two baskets were represented by a viola, played by Andrew McIntosh and a clarinet played by Brian Walsh – as the narration progressed each player sounded a series of notes representing the number eggs in his ‘basket’. The interplay between the viola and clarinet thus became increasingly varied as the permutations grew, with notes trading rapidly back and forth within the same phrase – but this was cleanly done and very effective. The narration by Douglas Wadle nicely connected the playing to the concept, making for an enjoyable piece.
Trio for Strings followed and this set out to play “all possible 3-note chords adding to 72 where C = 24” – some 280 combinations altogether. This was a smooth legato sound of rapidly changing tone combinations, often dissonant. I found that my ear would follow one or the other string players for a time, the chords that sounded were brief and constantly changing. The pitch discipline of the string players was impressive as each tone typically did not bear any familiar relationship to those around it. Hearing this piece is like listening to a computer roll through the possible permutations of a pitch set and it gives a striking example of just how small a subset our traditional tonalities are of all the possibilities that are available in the equal-tempered scale.
Tilework for Piano followed and this was played by Dante Boon, the Dutch composer and pianist. This was similar to Clarinet Trio in that it consists of a series of short phrases built from a limited number of tones, separated by short pauses. The piano gives this piece a more introspective feel and I found my ear tended to concentrate more on the patterns than the pitches or timbre. A concert presented by Mr. Boon will be given at the wulf on February 28.
The concert concluded with Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments, and the musical forces used for this performance were sax, piano, violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar, flute and oboe. There is a video of this piece on YouTube as played mostly by strings but the use of winds here yielded a brighter, more accessible sound. ‘Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments’ consists of eight short segments of scales and simple chord patterns. This music is as close to the classic minimalist style as was heard during this concert and the eight instruments played tightly together, filling up the space with a well-balanced sound. A sort of warm optimism radiates from this piece that is appealing and, if anything, too short.
This concert was a good illustration of just how fully grounded is the music of Tom Johnson on the mathematics of combinations and permutations. Rarely has a music been so rigorously architected – the drawings that Tom uses to structure his work look very much like a set of drafted plans or a chemical diagram for a complex molecule. Other minimalist composer’s of Tom’s generation incorporated repetition and gradual changes in rhythmic patterns to realize their music. Tom’s music stands out because of his use of an entirely different mathematical space to guide the structure of his works.
Further information about upcoming events at the wulf is available here.
More about the exhibition of Tom Johnson’s drawings at Art Share LA can be found here.
The New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum, Conductor and Artistic Director, will present the third concert of their 25th Anniversary season on Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 3:00 PM at Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th St. (btw Broadway and Amsterdam) in Manhattan. This event, co-sponsored by Merkin Concert Hall, marks NYVS’s return to the venue where they presented their first concert in 1988.
To celebrate their 25th Anniversary, Harold Rosenbaum and the NYVS asked 25 of this country’s most important composers to create new works. The March 3 concert will feature World Premieres of 13 of these commissioned works from Richard Wernick, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, Augusta Read Thomas, Thea Musgrave, Joseph Schwantner, William Bolcom, Roger Davidson, David Felder and Joan Tower.
Tickets for the March 3 concert are $25/$15 students. For tickets or more information, call Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center at 212-501-3330 or visit http://kaufman-center.org/mch/.
The other 12 works commissioned works, by Jennifer Higdon, George Tsontakis, John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, Shulamit Ran, John Harbison, Steven Stucky, Stephen Hartke, Fred Lerdahl, Chen Yi, Bruce Adolphe and Yehudi Wyner were premiered on October 21, 2012 at Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall. All 25 of the commissioned works will be recorded for Soundbrush Records.
Le Train Bleu, conducted by Ransom Wilson, will present Toy Stories, a concert on Wednesday, February 6 – 7:00 PM at DROM, 85 Avenue A (between 5th and 6th) in New York, N.Y.
The evening will feature the World Premiere of Lawrence Dillon’s Seven Stories for soprano and eight instruments. The piece was composed to an original text. The composer writes, “A stuffed animal falls from an apartment window. As it falls, it peers into each passing window, trying to create stories from what it sees.” Read his recent blog post about it at http://www.sequenza21.com/dillon/?p=1962. The new work will be sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie. Visit Lawrence Dillon at http://www.lawrencedillon.com/.
Toy Stories explores mankind’s endless variety of play and playthings. The concert will also include Thomas Ades’ Living Toys, a journey through the fantasies of a child, for 14 instruments, accompanied by a new video by Adam Kendall, Matt Marks’ Sex Objects, a set of three songs about unique characters and their intimate relationships with inanimate objects, with vocal performances by Mary Mackenzie, Matt Marks, and Jeff Gavett, and the World Premiere of Eric Nathan’s Toying, a virtuoso exploration of the full range of possible sounds and techniques produced by the trumpet, played by Le Train Bleu’s Hugo Moreno.
Le Train Bleu is a musical collective formed by conductor and flutist Ransom Wilson. The musicians are among the most exciting young players in New York, and are chosen for their brilliance as well as their expressive qualities. Recently named a resident ensemble of the Galapagos Art Space, the ensemble continues plans to present performances of new and interesting music. The New York Times said of their debut performance: “Under Mr. Wilson’s baton, the Train Bleu ensemble was both incisive and joyous in execution.” In the 2011-12 season, the ensemble presented a 4-concert series at the Galapagos Art Space, as well as collaborating with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in a 2-week season at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. They also participated in a 15-month creative residency at the Park Avenue Armory, along with soprano Lauren Flanigan. Visit them at http://letrainbleu.org/.
The New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum, Conductor and Artistic Director, will present the first concert of their 25th Anniversary season on Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 3:00 PM at Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th St. (btw Broadway and Amsterdam) in Manhattan. This will mark their return to the hall where they presented their first concert in 1988.
To celebrate their 25th Anniversary, Harold Rosenbaum and the NYVS asked 25 of this country’s most important composers to create new works. The October 21 concert will feature World Premieres of 12 of these commissioned works from Jennifer Higdon, George Tsontakis, John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, Shulamit Ran, John Harbison, Steven Stucky, Stephen Hartke, Fred Lerdahl, Chen Yi, Bruce Adolphe and Yehudi Wyner.
Tickets for the October 21 concert are $25/$15 students. For tickets or more information, call Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center at 212-501-3330 or visit http://kaufman-center.org/mch/.
The other 13 works commissioned works, by Richard Wernick, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, Augusta Read Thomas, Thea Musgrave, Joseph Schwantner, William Bolcom, Roger Davidson, David Felder and Joan Tower, will be premiered on Sunday, March 3, 2013, again at Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall.
Poet and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill performs in Holding It Down Photo by Marc Millman Photography
The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the “insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”
Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.
The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.
With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.
Today is the last day you can hear Derive 2 at the BBC’s web site–they stream for one week after the concert. There was a CD released earlier this year that contains this same version (which supersedes the earlier version released by DGG in 2005). I don’t generally think of double reeds in Boulez’s music, but he really gives the oboe and bassoon some wonderful music in Derive 2. It’s conducted by Daniel Barenboim, whose Boulez performances are always colorful and invigorating. You can listen to it here.
Some wonderful recent works heard earlier on the Proms: Canon Fever by Mark-Anthony Turnage (premiere), Laterna Magica by Saariaho (the strongest work of hers that I’ve heard in some time — I’m not a fan of her recent music, preferring her work from the 80s and 90s), and a tight, expressive performance of City Noir, conducted by its composer, John Adams, leading an orchestra featuring students from Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music.
I’m still trying to catch up to this week’s concerts, which include more Boulez, Steve Martland’s Street Songs, and a Kronos Quartet recital. The home page for the 2012 Proms on BBC is here.
Shiurba’s world premiere work for large ensemble, 9:9, is a suite of nine pieces written to be interpreted by nine players with a conductor. (Any reader who is familiar with his work will recall his affinity for numbered concepts, in past works such as Triplicate and 5 x 5.) The score will explore the demise of the print medium through nine different types of notation, all of which are derived from newspapers. The nine players will be called upon to interpret standard music notation along with graphic, textual and pictorial notation, allowing the ensemble some creative input in the interpretation. The form of the suite will be open, allowing the conductor and the players to spontaneously shape the way the music develops in real time. Shiurba will serve as conductor of his own piece next Thursday night. He was also kind enough to take time out to answer some of my questions.
S21: Sequenza21 readers have read about you before in your role as a guitarist in SF Bay Area improvising ensembles. How does your guitar playing inform (or not inform) your compositions?
JS: My experience as an improvising guitarist perhaps affects my compositions mostly by way of contrast. When I seek to interject something composed into an improvising ensemble, I tend toward something that the ensemble wouldn’t otherwise do. So usually I choose pitched tight rhythmic phrases that contrast wildly with the mostly arhythmic timbral material that typifies my improvising. Whether or not my approach to the guitar actually affects the music that I write probably depends largely on what music I’m writing. In the case of one of my more rock oriented projects, where I’m writing actual guitar music, undoubtedly my own guitar language (and my limitations) will factor significantly in what I write. When I’m writing for other instruments, then probably not so much. I’m not much interested in creating ways of notating the things that I (and others) do in an improvised situation– I’m happy to just let that happen as it will, and write something to contrast it.
Musicians on the outskirts of Libbey Park performing Inuksuit (note the percussionist playing water gong in the upper left hand corner)
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words, so consider this photo album a 26,000 word review until I file my story. Inuksuit was one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I’ve heard since–well, John Luther Adams’ orchestra and tape work, Dark Waves. (On Sunday, we’ll hear JLA’s two-piano version of Dark Waves.)
To give you some idea of what the performance was like, here are some crude videos I made on my not-designed-for-filming camera. The mike on the camera did a reasonable job of capturing the changes in sound as you moved from one spot to another, as I did throughout the performance.
If you’re reading this before or around 11 a.m. PST June 9, hop on over to the live stream from Ojai to watch/hear Marc Andre Hamelin, Christianne Stotijn, and Martin Frost perform Alban Berg, as well as an orchestral work by Eivind Buene. Watch it here.