In a sea of pianists sailing toward contemporary shores, the vessel of Alessandro Stella stands out for its hydrodynamic contours. Stella has performed widely across Europe—more recently, in South America—and was central, among other projects, in reviving Giacinto Scelsi’s early chamber works under auspices of the Isabella Scelsi Foundation.
On Midwinter Spring, his first recital disc for Italy’s KHA Records, he presents works by Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Pēteris Vasks. Even without the program in hand, one can already feel the possibilities for continuity and artful contrast between these composers. All three have gained worldwide notoriety for larger-scale symphonies, concertos, and choral masterpieces. Yet their piano repertoires, given due attention here, have yielded some of the more vital statements of classical expression in recent decades.
To begin, Stella offers 16 selections from Kancheli’s Simple Music for Piano, a collection of melodies written for stage and screen. First published in 2009 and divorced from its visual contexts, Simple Music has taken on a life of its own, not least of all in 2010’s Themes from the Songbook, released on ECM New Series. Yet where that album had a distinctively Piazzolla-esque veneer (due not least of all to the participation of bandoneón virtuoso Dino Saluzzi), here the themes breathe nakedly. Stella plays with an expressivity so holistic that one can practically hear him singing through the keyboard. A dancing quality that recalls the soundtracks of Eleni Karaindrou pervades these vignettes, each born of a nostalgia that, while distant at first, over the course of a listen morphs into something uniquely one’s own. Contrary to what the title would have us believe, there is nothing simple about this music, as evidenced in the way Stella approaches particular pieces. Whether in his evocation of moonlight in No. 23 (“Bear’s Kiss”) or the chromatic inflections of No. 25 (“Hamlet”), Stella’s attention to detail reveals incarnate patience.
Following these, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976) comes across even more cinematically. Images of stardust and other cosmic beauties may be easy go-tos for the reviewer’s metaphorical toolkit, but in this case any such descriptions would be apt. In the expanse of Pärt’s seminal tintinnabulations, the human heart begins to feel like a small satellite indeed. Stella’s treasure-seeking becomes more obvious in his choice of Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka. Pärt’s 1977 composition describes a far more intimate universe. Its transitions from legato to pointillist notecraft indicate a robust inner child in composer and performer alike.
Baltā ainava (White Scenery) by Vasks brings about a logical conclusion. Composed 1981 and played exclusively on the white keys, it is, like the preceding works, as potentially infinite in resonance as it is fundamental in construction. Stella lays down its block chords with extra-musical awareness, giving each cluster room to breathe. Arpeggios in the left hand are contrasted by two-note motifs in the right, like footprints pressed into the album’s cover scenery toward unknown destinations. The uncertainty of it all makes it that much more inviting, and combines elements of Kancheli and Pärt with an indefinable third.
In the interest of gaining insider perspective, I conducted an e-mail interview with Mr. Stella, who was kind enough to elucidate some of the finer points of this project.
What inspired you to put these three composers together on one album?
What is common to these three great composers is a deep spirituality and an extraordinary ability to shape time and its perception.
The program is very cohesive, but I imagine that as the performer you have insights into how each piece is different from the others. Can you talk about compositional, emotional, or structural differences between them?
Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks have many things in common, being from the same generation and geographical area. Nevertheless, each has his own history and, of course, a recognizable style. Kancheli’s miniatures are based on his music for cinema and theater, which he wrote over a period of decades. Many are actual songs, like the first track of the album—the famous “Herio Bichebo” (see video above)—and are written in a tonal style. Some fragments and themes are recurrent in other compositions of Kancheli. The composer himself has said that he can’t always remember where a particular theme first appeared. The two Pärt compositions are the cornerstones of his tintinnabuli style, the result of seven long years of research and creative silence. This is a style in which the rigor of the tintinnabuli voice contrasts with the exceptional freedom of the principal voice. Lastly, the Vasks piece is built upon two fundamental ideas that alternate, vary, and repeat themselves in a hypnotic continuum. However, I must emphasize that what attracted me the most about these three composers, in addition to their distinctive features, is the role silence plays in their music. Each pause and resonance is of crucial importance and represents the music’s very essence.
How much preparation did you require to make this recording sound the way you wanted it to sound?
For some time I would play this music almost every day for my own pleasure and enrichment, until it was clear to me that I wanted to record it. I played, sang, recorded, and listened to this music for months. It was similar to the work of a sculptor who achieves the ultimate result by removing material until only that which is essential remains.
You once told me how pleased Kancheli was with your performances of his work. Can you expand on your communications with him throughout the recording process, and after?
About two years ago, I wrote to Maestro Kancheli explaining that I wanted to record some of his miniatures. He was enthusiastic about it and gave me his authorization, giving me as much freedom as possible in matters of selection and interpretive choices. About a year later, I sent him the CD as soon as it was finished. I was deeply moved by the words he expressed about my work. Last February (2016), I finally had the opportunity to meet him. The Italian Embassy in Georgia organized a concert in Tbilisi in his honor, so I had the great privilege to give the premiere in Georgia and to play his miniatures for piano in his presence. It was one of the most intense experiences of my entire life.
Alessandro Stella (left) and Giya Kancheli (right) in Tbilisi, 2016
What is the overall message of the album for you, and what do you hope listeners will get from it?
Every new album is the result of deep reflections. The finished album is often different from how I thought it would be and this work of progressive “polishing” is essential to me. The idea, the initial intuition, however, usually does not change. If anything, it guides me in the right direction. It has always been clear to me that Midwinter Spring was supposed to be a journey out of time, insofar as we are used to perceiving it in our everyday life. Through this apparent simplicity, the music of Kancheli, Pärt, and Vasks makes us connect with our deepest life experiences. Everything in this album was conceived to serve this purpose: the drama of the track order, the cover, the pauses, even the title. I hope this album will be an intense emotional experience to those who listen to it; an experience they will be willing to repeat.
Have you performed this exact program in a live setting? If so, what were the audience reactions?
I presented the program for the first time live last December (2015) in Liverpool. After playing this music at home and in the studio for so long, sharing it with an audience was a truly special experience. I was afraid that the ritual of the concert would contrast with the extremely intimate nature of this music. But in the end, its extraordinary evocative power created an atmosphere of “magical suspension” during the concert. And this was confirmed to me by the beautiful words of the people I talked to afterward.
This music might easily be interpreted as melancholy, but there is also something hopeful about it. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you make sure that balance is preserved when you are playing it?
I totally agree with this and this idea is at the center of the entire album, starting from the title, Midwinter Spring. Taken from a verse by T. S. Eliot, this expression evokes the hope for a new life, as expressed by the branches coming out of the snow on the album’s cover, symbolizing hope for rebirth. All of this is inherent to the music. Melancholy is the dominant feeling of the program, but there is much more in this music: in an instant you get carried from a sense of deep desolation to nostalgia for something that no longer exists; from the unreality of a dream to a sense of hope. The music itself evokes all these possibilities. And the artist has to grasp them and follow them, just letting the music talk to him.
Those who discount Charles Bradley as a retro act imitating James Brown are missing out on something very special. The sixty-eight year old singer’s latest full length recording, Changes, reveals a mature artist whose vocal powers are undiminished but whose interpretive skills are ever more sharply refined. His accompanists, the Menahan Street Band and Budos Band, create spot-on charts to support Bradley’s singing, at turns muscular and lyrically soulful.
Most of the tracks are originals, and strong ones at that. “Ain’t it a Sin” rollicks rebukingly. “Nobody But You” is a smoothly delivered ballad that explores Bradley’s sweet mid-register before swooping higher to impassioned cries.
What would seem like an improbable source for a cover for Bradley, Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” is instead an album highlight, re-envisioned with supple rhythm guitar, Hammond organ swells, and long, legato horn lines. Bradley delivers the song passionately and expressively, capturing the emotional content of one of Ozzy Osbourne’s signature songs, but placing an entirely individual stamp on it.
Bradley’s Changes is a memorable and energetic outing; recommended.
Elliott Sharp may sometimes be characterized as a cellular composer, but he is by no means a cellular thinker. Rather, he seems to conceive of things in large swaths of creation, only then removing skins and reconnecting veins until each organism revives by means of unexpected blood flow. The Boreal collects four somewhat recent examples, of which the 2008 title composition, performed here by the JACK Quartet, employs awesome extended techniques, including bows strung with springs and ball-bearing chains, in addition to standard hair.
But through this recording it’s not so much the craft as the art that shines. Like the electric effluvia on the cover photograph, Sharp’s writing emits an attractive aura all its own, leaping from one motif to the next with ionic inevitability. The new bows reveal inner voices in the second movement, which with its sonic forensics swabs the seat of creation for any residue left by whoever last sat there. Whether plying striated territories in the third movement or touching off cyclical measures in the fourth, the musicians are fully present and work their touch to suit the needs of changing topography. It is a piece that would fit comfortably in the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire, but which feels just as much at home in JACK’s hands. Sounding almost electronic yet with such intimacy as to only be renderable in real time, the quieter passages especially highlight the potential of these extensions.
Fearless musicianship is characteristic of the album as a whole and is embodied to its fullest at the fingers of pianist Jenny Lin, who gives Oligosono (2004) more than it ever dreamed of in an interpreted life. Raw technique again pays dividends, forging rhythmic codes through a tactile relationship with the piano strings. Lin handles these messages as if by her very DNA, harmonic overtones reinforcing one another through mechanisms of repetition. Each section is grafted to the ones before and after it (even the first and last carry unheard continuities). The insistence of certain impulses exists not for the sake of minimalism, but to maximize the potential for incidental utterances and hidden voices within the instrument’s architecture. The whole thing feels like a medical test of space-time itself as the depth-soundings of the third and final movement give chase to biological data, savoring the imprints left behind of an entity they cannot ever catch. Here is the piano as machine, the body as instrument.
Proof Of Erdös, written in 2006 and performed by Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon under the direction of David Bloom, is something of a non-portrait. Despite being inspired by the persona of mathematician Pal Erdös, it doesn’t so much illustrate a life as one of its many panels of expression. Here the bowing, while more familiar, sprouts a forest that is less so. Feelings of tension give way to silence and reset. Sharp’s expanse of internality is overrun with genetic details, a mitochondrial frenzy turned inside out, a tuning of the self to the self until there is no self left to tune.
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Rundel, gives the final reading of the program, performing On Corlear’s Hook (2007) with commitment. The piece is cinematic in scope—think 2001: A Space Odyssey—but works its cosmic drive inward rather than outward. It inhales dark matter with the appetite of a black hole. The vaster instrumental forces at work enhance this feeling of inwardness. Every new shift of texture and color is a veritable terabyte of information compressed into a drop of ink on staff paper. It is the nervous system as metropolis, and sensations as traffic running through its streets. Harp, strings, and brass work together toward a unity that feeds on self-fragmentation. Epic, to be sure, but only the beginning of life.
These pieces are translations: of inside to outside, of colors to emptiness, of stillness to vibration and back again. In them are whispers of screams and vice versa. Together, they are a mirror, cloudy but usable, waiting for the polish of an open ear. Like the void within that ear, Sharp’s is a sonic universe devoid of politics, an environment where one can simply listen, be, and listen to being.
(For more information and samples, please click here.)
On October 30, 2015 WasteLAnd presented Study for Eurydice, a concert at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles. A nice Friday night crowd filled the restored industrial performance space for an evening of new music.
The first piece, Relay/Replay by Yiheng Yvonne Wu, featured Rachel Beetz on flute. A computer played recorded flute sounds through speakers mounted above the performance area. Relay/Replay began with a brief high-pitched tone from one of the speakers, answered in kind by the flute. A short silence followed and the sequence repeated. A pattern of call and answer continued and the electronic part gradually changed as the replies by the became more varied as if a conversation were occurring in a different language. A low trill from the flute was mimicked by similar sounds from the speaker, like birds calling back and forth. Towards the end of the piece there were sounds from both speakers that ultimately resolved into a low, pure tone. This was actually a recording of the flute – greatly slowed down – that added a mysterious feel. The flute passages that followed felt more organic and brighter by contrast. The low tone increased in volume, becoming dominant and more assertive as the piece ended. Relay/Replay is an intriguing combination of flute playing and electronic sounds derived from the flute, artfully uncovering both similarities and differences.
Susurrus by Panayiotis Kokoras for violin, cello and piano followed, beginning with a series of sharp rapping sounds from the players on their respective instruments. The result was a sort of unsettled clatter that was soon joined by the amplified strumming of strings inside the piano. There was an active and tense feel to all of this – there were no musical tones heard initially, but rather the rhythmic rattle of various extended percussive techniques. Eventually a sustained cello note was heard that slowly decreased in pitch and some piano strings were plucked to form identifiable notes. At one point the musicians voiced the sounds of rushing air using their breath and this added a remote, windswept feeling to the proceedings. Apart from a few notes heard now and then, there was no conventional melody, beat or regular rhythm and this gave an edgy, feral feel to the ensemble. The coordination between the players here was remarkable given how far this piece stands outside the bounds of conventional music. Susurrus is a journey that takes the listener past the limits of ordinary musical practice and into to new levels of expression.
The Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum (ACF-LA) held its annual meeting and concert over the weekend of September 11-12, 2015 at newly-refurbished Clausen Recital Hall on the campus of Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. Many of the groups in Los Angeles doing new music participated, and the resulting concert was over three hours long, requiring two intermissions. The 200 seat venue was completely filled, mostly by performers and composers. The night before there was another ACF-LA concert by wildUp at REDCAT in Disney Hall, so in just a couple of evenings you could have enjoyed a good cross-section of the local new music scene.
The evening began with greetings from Jack Van Zandt, ACF-LA Chapter President and Dr. Christine Park, Chair of the Music Department at LACC. Each performing group also had a spokesperson give a short introduction about the music and goals of their respective organizations.
The first to present was People Inside Electronics and Brightwork newmusic came on stage to perform like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment, by Benjamin Broening. The electronic re-processing of the acoustic sounds from the Brightwork ensemble gave this a shiny, shimmering feel that contained some lovely tones. Silences between the passages allowed the electronics to deliver ghostly echoes that added to the ethereal feel. There was a beautiful flute solo and some bowing of the vibraphone bars that seemed to cast a spell. Benjamin Broening was present – as were most of the composers – and he acknowledged the applause and the fine reading by Brightwork.
The second piece presented by People Inside Electronics was Sad Trombone, by Isaac Schankler. The group gnarwhallaby was on hand in their trademark black coveralls to reprise this work, having premiered it in March of this year. This is a trombone concerto that includes piano, clarinet and cello in addition to reprocessing electronics. Sad Trombone is a fearsome combination, with dark textures, piano crashes, lively syncopated tempos and primal trombone sounds supplied by Matt Barbier. All of this is taken into the microphones, reprocessed, amplified, and returned to the speakers mounted over the stage. The result was a powerful, complex sound that washed over the audience in great waves. The ensemble playing was excellent given the difficulty of the music and the strong presence coming from the speakers. The energy and power in Sad Trombone and the muscular playing by gnarwhallaby was enthusiastically acknowledged by the audience.
ECM’s New Series has been producing classical releases of highest caliber since 1984. As the German imprint quietly celebrates its 30th anniversary, these words attempt an affectionate survey of its output. Then again, how does one delineate a history of that which is so much a part of it? Jean-Luc Godard addresses this very question in his Histoire(s) du cinéma, of which the soundtrack saw a New Series release in 1999 and from which this essay borrows its title. The parenthetical “s” of Godard’s masterwork serves not merely to hinge the singular and the anural, but to unravel the multiple, simultaneous registers of the filmic medium—moving, as it were, from an “either-or” to a “neither-nor” approach. A film breaks down not only into individual frames, but also into molecular compounds within those frames, until signs of the original become nothing more than the breath expended to describe it. Similarly, the New Series vision, under the watchful ear of producer Manfred Eicher, has for three decades programmed music as if it were a field of signs that live among and within us, each an ephemeral capture that begets infinite others.
The New Series bears no discernibly overarching aesthetic. Just as ECM proper has diversified the pasture of jazz with flowers of stark variation, so has the New Series loosened the borders of the classical landscape through democratic enhancements of technique, instrumentation, and concept. Indeed, the success of the New Series vision has grown in direct proportion to its inclusivity, even as it has refined an idiosyncratic corpus of composers. If one can say that Eicher has brought a classical sense of detailing toward the jazz-oriented records that earned him first renown, one might also say that he brought to classical recording a feeling of jazz, insofar as whatever spirit animates the improviser with unquantifiable purpose also thrums like a shell around every classical recording worthy of the ECM moniker.
Inception of the New Series traces back to 1980, when Eicher first heard Arvo Pärt on the radio. Not knowing what it was, he searched for quite some time before connecting those angelic sounds to a name that would define the label to come. In its role as the first New Series release, Pärt’s Tabula rasa is said to have introduced an ancient world to a new sound. And yet, it would be just as accurate to say that the album introduced an ancient sound to a new world. In other words, it wasn’t the newness of Pärt’s music that turned the album into such a watershed moment. It was, rather, its resonant heart, to which listeners across genres and affiliations found immutable connections, points of relatability, and glimmers of familiarity in its starry sky. Such an interpretation existed already in the name: New Series. As for the “new,” one finds it in the recordings and performances. The word “series,” on the other hand, connotes linkages between past and future tenses in an unbroken chain of influence. Like the single line that underscores the label’s logo, it’s a horizon, either side of which brings innovative possibilities to the old, and old possibilities to the innovative.
A common theme in my reviews is that new music is what and where you make it. ensemble: Périphérie ascribes to the same philosophy. The group, founded in 2010 by composers Luke Dahn and Joseph Dangerfield, contains performers from all over the United States; they get together a few times a year for a week of intense rehearsals and a short tour. Make no mistake, though; while the rehearsal time may be brief, these musicians are skilled and the performances are high-quality.
The group started its Fall 2014 tour at the University of Minnesota Morris, where pianist Ann DuHamel is on the faculty. (Full disclosure: So am I.) The concert opened with Karim Al-Zand‘s work Hollows and Dells (2010) for viola and piano, played by violist Stephen Fine and DuHamel. The work, cast in three movements, is based on the composer’s recollections of attending an English-style boarding school, and features paraphrases and arrangements of stacking songs, hymn tunes, and a reel that can only be described as a moto perpetuo. It is a fun and exciting work, and was performed with a high level of fun by Fine and DuHamel.
The second piece, Tomasz Skweres‘s Direkt (2006), is a setting of Psalm 14 for soprano, flute, and cello. One of the longer pieces on the program, it taxes the skills of all performers, with substantial use of extended techniques for the players. Soprano Michelle Crouch ably negotiated the intense vocal line, which required both control and power, and flutist Rebecca Ashe and cellist Kumhee Lee tackled their difficult parts with aplomb.
Co-founder and co-artistic director Dangerfield was represented by Broken Obelisk (2013). Originally for saxophone and piano, this version was played by clarinetist Yasmin Flores and DuHamel. The work was inspired by Barnett Newman’s sculpture of the same name. This effective piece showcases the sound of the instruments beautifully, and uses modes and little bluesy licks to great effect.
If it’s Minnesota, you’ll find some Libby Larsen. Flores, Fine, and DuHamel presented two movements of Black Birds, Red Hills (1987). This work, which draws inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, provided a solid close to the first half of the program.
After intermission, co-founder and co-artistic director Dahn’s Confessions of St. Augustine (2009, rev. 2014) was performed by Crouch, Flores and DuHamel. Originally for soprano and orchestra, this adaptation for soprano, piano and clarinet used two texts by the 4th-century theologian for a work that was by turns austere, intense, and expansive. Dahl did a fine job condensing the orchestral textures for the reduced forces; the interplay between the players signified a great familiarity with each other.
For any other group, a program this ambitious would have been sufficient for a full evening of exciting and interesting music. In this case, however, the organization also presented George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae (1971), which counts as a venerable war-horse in new music circles. For this performance, flutist Ashe and cellist Lee were joined by Dangerfield on piano. The trio handled the extended techniques with grace and style, and gave the work a solid, powerful interpretation.
For a group that only rehearses and performs in short bursts, ensemble: Périphérie (which draws its name from a quote by Henri Dutilleux) shows a maturity and skill that should serve as an inspiration to other ensembles. The group played Carnegie Hall in October 2013 to outstanding reviews, and their devotion to quality performances of challenging music should resonate with other composers and performers. Here’s hoping they come to your town sometime soon.
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There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.
Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.
Embedded takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.
Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).
As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.
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On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallabypresented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.
The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.
The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone. A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.
d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played. Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.
Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.
This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe.Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet. At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.
This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.
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To experience Border Towns is to undo the idea of both. The border is metaphorically ubiquitous—as powerful as it is arbitrary. Towns are more immediate—tactile and moving to the pulse of indeterminate social interaction. Together the words form not an oxymoron but a median. Such is the spirit that moves composer Nick Brooke in this quasi-opera of Americana and stardust.
The music’s formula is diaristic, appropriating snippets from songbooks familiar and not so familiar, gunpowder from the popular canon loaded into a rather different cannon and shot across the past century until fleetingly recognizable. Brooke’s intertextual approach lays new coordinates over cartographic mainstays, in which resound the piece’s seven embodied singers—voices treading bullion in a cold electronic stew.
Movements like “Silver City” tickle the synapses of our collective memory, opening in a Judy Garland nightmare with the barest intimations of rainbows. An old radio pays homage to underlying frequencies, flagging the limits of nostalgia in what little we may recognize. What begin as utterly ingrained snippets become new beginnings, radiant and free. The end effect is haunting in the best way possible.
Subsequent movements chew their respective morsels of philosophic disturbance. Whether the overt sampling aesthetic of “Del Rio” (a deft reconstruction of a ubiquitous sound byte) or the distant mountain spirit of “Heart Butte” (a pretty mélange of rodeo, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton balladry), an oddly compelling backstory emerges by virtue of Brooke’s narrative integrity. The grander arc takes shape in a chain of referential vertebrae, disks filled with everything from Whitney Houston to Steve Reich. Other portions glisten with cinematic qualities. In the latter vein, “Jackman” smacks of thunder with its battle cry, its implications of outer space as dense as its decays are short. “Tombstone” is another. Dotted by splashes of Chinese gongs as it rides the tailwinds of stray bullets and Hollywood stereotypes, it traverses landscapes of lock-grooves and shattered DJ remnants. Border Towns recycles even itself, beginning and ending somewhere not over the rainbow, but in a place without space, folded like a paper football and flicked into its own gaping mouth.
Interspersed throughout this exercise in anthemic surgery are various ambient reflections: train whistles, cross lights, pedestrian babble, sound checks, impassioned listeners, crickets, church services, and the like fill the interstices with quotidian fascination. From their manipulations of source text and flame emerges a quilt of hymnody, torn and re-squared until it burns.
The clock ticks only for those who hear it.
~Interview with Nick Brooke~
1. What is your background as a composer and as a listener?
I was classically trained at Oberlin, though in a healthily offbeat way, and grad studies at Princeton happily did nothing dissuade me from mixing anachronistic materials in my current polyglot manner.
I do listen voraciously cross-genre, coming from a deep interest in getting to know people, contexts, and cultures. I tend not to listen to recordings much—solo listening can feel solipsistic and lonely. I prefer live performance. And given experiments with theater and dance over the last decade, I’m much more comfortable in those mediums than I used to be.
2. Talk a little bit about the history of Border Towns: in terms of both its evolution as a piece and the slices of Americana that make their way into the mix.
When I started Border Towns, I saw a lot of theater and musical groups going on these “all-gone-to-look-for-America” trips and it all felt wrong, so wrong. The whole genre of musical Americana is often engaged in portraying and skewing one side of a multiplicity that’s indescribable. Americana often thumbtacks culture to the wall rather than asking questions about it. So I wanted to use Border Towns to unpack musical icons, but also engaging somehow with those de Toqueville-like-trips—literally traveling around the country.
3. Is there an inherent visual or theatrical element in Border Towns? The music almost screams for it.
Completely. Most of the music is created with the choreography already in mind, often in canon or some kind of physical and musical structure. “Tombstone” is literally a calf-roping contest between two people, as well as a fugue between Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. In “Ocean Grove,” people are laid on blankets, while rapturously singing Ray Charles (“I see”). Then, through a laying on of hands, these performers are converted into Bruce Springsteen (“Born! Born!”). It’s a canon in seven parts, the number of singers in the piece. I need to predict the exact number of physical events when I compose the music, and the choreography develops in lockstep with the samples. (There’s a primer on this weird process on my website.)
4. The first word that came to mind when I listened to the album was “plunderphonics,” although your aesthetic seems like a more organic or live iteration of John Oswald’s mission of audio piracy. In this respect, I am inclined to align it more with the live mash-ups of a group like Ground Zero, whose Revolutionary Pekinese Opera seems the closest analogue. How would you situate Border Towns in terms of genre or musical space?
I enjoy Oswald and Ground Zero, though in terms of mash-ups I tend to take the slow route, with lots of silences, and I often attempt to completely break down then reassemble a specific genre, or even just a song. Plunderphonics and Revolutionary Pekinese Opera have a joyous aesthetics of excess to me, and also revel in effects like tape delay and studio layering. I tend to go for a more “real” sound, which ends up being surreal when you perform it live. A performer sings x song, but the words and phrases are in completely different places, and it still somehow makes sense; at the same time, it plays with memory and meaning. Because I’m using live performers, using the sounds of early tape manipulation or even electronica breaks a surreal plausibility I’m trying to establish. And in Border Towns, the materials are often dealt with more procedurally than these other composers: i.e., “Heart Butte,” which tries to deal in a semi-exhaustive way with slow, classic country.
5. An especially delightful aspect of Border Towns is the way in which it flirts with our nostalgia. Familiar songs are quickly swapped out for others, such that by the end we experience a new folk narrative. Is your intention with the piece to do simply that, or does it have broader, extra-musical aspirations as well?
In making each song, I often tried to go against the grain of the nostalgia, or at least create a new meaning to each song or genre. And of course if I could exactly pinpoint that meaning here, I’d be preaching, and it would become clichéd. The ideas for Border Towns emerged at a time when the “Lomax remix” genre, such as Moby’s Play, was at its height. I resisted the comfortable, warm electronic remix broth given to these samples. Did people realize the issues of Paul Robeson singing “still longing for the old plantation”, or why “cowboy music”—a genre of guys often falsetto yodeling, was anachronous? I was trying to unpack assumptions on a structural level, by the choices of what I remixed and where. I wanted to be omnivorous, and substitute old traditions, even stereotypes, with something else. Each piece take on a different icon—Tex-Mex, border radio, plantation songs, cowboy music—but tries to bend them at moments of expectation.
6. The vocal performances on Border Towns are wonderful. How did you settle on these particular musicians and how did the recording project all come together?
It’s always a challenge. Together with Jenny Rohn, my co-director for the live performances, we’re always looking for that experimental “triple threat”: people who sing, act, move, and also understand the weird, tricky-to-sing music. Some of these singers are uncanny chameleons. Some are hugely gifted in physical theater. It came together as a performance at HERE’s Resident Artist Series first—then I took it to the studio.
7. How do the ambient interludes function in Border Towns?
In a way, the ambient “interludes” are islands of realness. The sounds are actually taken from trips to the border towns on which each song is purportedly “based.” But, outside of these ambient interludes, the songs take on stereotypes of Americana, mass-produced materials that I often found sold, broadcast, or otherwise referenced in the places I visited. Cage once said if you destroy all recordings people will learn to sing again. Likewise, if one stops asking the potentially obsolete question, “What do people from this place listen to?” you just end up listening, and that’s the best part. In recording ambient sounds, I’m vamping off the long tradition of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. In the final song of Border Towns, the ambient recordings swallow up a single performer on stage, maybe in a final moment of immersive, real listening.