Archive for the “Review” Category

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.

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If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.

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Ear To Mind
Pianist Jenny Q. Chai in Recital
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, NYC
April 19th, 2012

Jenny Q. Chai walked out onstage for the first half of her Carnegie Hall debut in a red and black dress and performed for the first half of that first half a mix of Debussy‘s and György Ligeti‘s piano etudes (Debussy: #’s 3 & 6; Ligeti: #’s 2 & 1, Book I). Despite the huge generation gap between these two, the intertwined listing of Debussy and Ligeti had the two composers’ styles offsetting one another in such a way that an unassuming listener would have thought this was one cycle of pieces from the same composer. Read the rest of this entry »

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NEXUS in SoCal Review 3-3-12The renowned percussion group NEXUS, consisting of Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger and Gary Kvistad made a Southern California appearance Friday night before a noticeably full Samuelson Chapel at California Lutheran University. A bewildering array of xylophones, marimbas, bells, cymbals and drums of every description crowded the stage for the two hour performance. NEXUS has been making contemporary music since 1971 and has been a presence worldwide.

The entire first half of the concert was devoted to the music of Steve Reich, starting with his Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. This is performed on tuned wooden claves and is an example of Reich’s process of ‘rhythmic construction’. One player keeps a steady pulse while the others come in at intervals with short patterns that are offset from each other by several beats. The process in Music for Pieces of Wood consists of three sections with patterns of six, four and three beats. The acoustics in the chapel tend toward reflection and there was no trouble hearing the claves, even in the balcony where I was sitting – if anything the sharp crack of the lowest register clave became overwhelming at times, blurring the rhythmic patterns of the process. The finer details in the rhythms were best heard at the lower dynamic levels.

The second piece, Mallet Quartet, is more recent Reich dating from 2009. This was played on two marimbas and two vibraphones. The program notes quote Steve Reich: “The marimbas interlock in canon, also a procedure I have used in many other works. The vibes present the melodic material, first solo then in canon.” A good groove was, in fact, established by the marimbas but at times the sound coming from the vibes overwhelmed the pulse. The slow middle section sounded more coherent and had better definition. The precise playing of NEXUS was almost enough to counterbalance the hall acoustics in the fast outer movements, but dialing back the volume might have produced better results.

The first half of the concert closed with Drumming, a 1971 piece by Reich that was played on a set of carefully tuned bongos. A single steady beat is established by two players and this is built up in complexity as players are added. The precision of NEXUS quickly became evident as the tempo increased and as phasing was introduced into the more complex rhythmic patterns. The higher pitch in the bongo set used here was less affected by the acoustics and the results were gratifying. It was intriguing to watch the players – their arms barely moved below the elbow and the rapid drumming was done almost effortlessly by wrist and hand. This piece has a very African feel and reflects the influences that Reich had absorbed during his 5 week study of drumming in Ghana just prior to composing this piece.

After intermission the second half began with Fra Fra, a piece inspired by the folk rhythms of the FraFra people of West Africa as arranged by NEXUS. A ‘talking drum’ was featured whose pitch could be varied by squeezing the flexible frame surrounding the hour-glass shaped body. Other drums, shakers and panpipes were part of the ensemble – all of which created a strong groove. The panpipes added a melodic touch and sometimes a whistle-like sound that, combined with the strong beat, brought rap music to mind.

Tongues followed, another African-inspired piece arranged by NEXUS, this time from Zimbabwe. Tongues was played on the mbira, an African instrument known better here as a ‘thumb piano’. The mbira produces a soft metallic sound similar to a music box and the peaceful melodies in this piece were a quiet contrast to all the intense drumming that had been heard up to this point. In fact two mbiras were used – the higher Shona mbira and a bass mbira from the Caribbean. These were accompanied by a softly-struck wooden block and a gentle rattle. The overall effect was subtle and serene, a melody that seemed content with its simplicity.

A time of improvisation followed and the only rule was that any player could play anything on any instrument at any time. This seemed a recipe for ear-splitting chaos but improvisation has been a feature of NEXUS concerts for 41 years and the results were impressive. The piece started quietly with various bells, bowls and blocks and developed a sort of zen feel. This morphed into a kind of urban street-scape complete with car alarm. All sorts of items were used: a bunt cake mold was struck and a chair was dragged across the wooden floor of the stage. There was a breath-operated organ that held a long drone, various bird calls and the slow scraping of cymbals. The result was agreeably alien and not strictly percussive – a sort of sonic journey that reminded me of what JC Combs creates. Most interestingly, this piece was greeted by sustained applause from the audience who had clearly connected with the concept.

The concert concluded with a series of ragtime pieces featuring mostly the music of George Hamilton Green, an early 20th century composer for the xylophone. These were expertly played and varied from formal, almost classical-sounding pieces to popular music of that time. A standing ovation followed and an encore of virtuosic xylophone music finished a full evening. That so many people came out to see a contemporary music group and listen to an hour of music by Steve Reich is an encouraging sign for all of us here in SoCal.

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Cory Smythe and Amy X Neuburg; Photos courtesy of Glenn Cornett

Amy X Neuburg/Cory Smythe
Brooklyn, NY
Dec. 13, 2011

It’s East Meets West…coast, that is.

On the stage of the old-school charming Roulette in Brooklyn was yet another creatively edgy program, put on this time by the pairing of West-coast avant-cabaret artist Amy X Neuburg and New York’s own pianist-composer, ICE’s Cory Smythe. Presented without an intermission, the show was almost entirely electronic or electro-acoustic in nature (with the exception of a refreshing burst of Fats Waller’s “Handful of Keys” from Mr. Smythe), and most of the pieces were composed and/or arranged by both of them. Read the rest of this entry »

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Barriers between various musical genres continue to be gleefully destroyed by insightful musicians and collectives.  One such divide that has been crumbling over the last few years has been any distinction between “bands” and “chamber groups.”  Beyond the ensembles made up of visually traditional combinations (“string quartets” such as Kronos and Ethel) are more unusual outfits like Clogs, a bassoon-viola-guitar-percussion quartet.

The final, June 10th concert of the 2011 Tribeca New Music Festival featured SWARMIUS, a band from San Diego with an intriguing quartet configuration of violin, saxophone, percussion and laptop/electronics.  Led by composer Joseph Waters (whose nom de band is Jozefius V. Rattus), SWARMIUS succeeds in producing some of the most dynamic, original, and compellingly infectious new music today.  This is testament not only to Waters’ brilliant compositions, but to the formidable prowess of the three instrumentalists: violinist Fiddlus el Gato (aka Felix Olschofka), Saximus (saxophonist Todd Rewoldt) and percussionist Crotalius Redfoot (Joel Bluestone).

Taking place in the intimate confines of The Cell Theatre in Chelsea, the concert opened with Cali Karsimala, which took the rhythms and scales of a Gypsy couple’s dance as a departure point for an extended virtuoso expedition. The piece is highly evocative of its Eastern European and Persian models, but also moves beyond them to suggest energetic dance music of some new, imagined culture.  Olschokfa and Rewoldt managed Waters’ sinewy and rhythmically tricky lines with verve and aplomb, and the timbral aspects of the piece (managed by Waters’ in real time from his laptop) were highly distinctive and memorable.

Drum Ride was another ultra-rhythmic traversal exploiting diverse exotic scales, this time over an almost omnipresent quintuplet ostinato.   Despite its similar stylistic ingredients to Cali Karsimala, it more than managed to distinguish itself as being quite different, with melodic, harmonic and timbral material not at all reminiscent of the previous work.   The only general similarity was that it again suggested ingrained folk music from a culture that doesn’t exist.

The title of the next piece removes the responsibility of the reviewer for providing any descriptive prose. Moonlight Beach Chaconne (The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder Take A Trip To Nigeria, Where They Encounter The Ghost Of Richard Wagner, Impersonating A Shaman) delivers exactly what is promised by the title.  Brilliantly, the result is not a pastiche at all, but an exuberant, multi-layered and at times very affecting synthesis of the idioms referenced in the title.   Chromatic baroque harmony is always in the mix throughout the piece.  What the title doesn’t tell you is that the work is basically a violin concerto, played with both virtuoso mastery and moving lyrical expression by Olschofka.

Dragon was a paean to Japanese video game music.  With many recognizable themes swirling in high-spirited counterpoint, the piece exhibited bounteous imagination and sly humor, bringing the audience to audible laughter at various junctures.  Lucas, the Bringer of Light was a completely different venture—a long and highly variegated tone poem inspired by Waters’ 7 month-old grandson.  Using samples of his grandson’s vocalizations, Waters produced not only a deeply affecting portrait exploring the perceptions and temporality of an infant’s world, but an exploration of the machine-like aspects of human beings.  The timbral universe of Waters’ sounds in this composition were vast but still unified; the structure appropriately and compellingly organic.


The concert’s finale was Grand Larceny, an enthralling toccata inspired by the fast tempi, timbres and ultra-precision of speed metal.  For this number, the audience was asked to blow police whistles which had been distributed at the beginning of the concert at a climactic juncture, an effect that was both cathartic and hilarious.

In sum, the compositions of Joseph Waters and the musicians SWARMIUS produced a vibrant, highly memorable, gripping and deeply persuasive musical evening at The Cell.  Here’s hoping that they will return to New York with their unique sonic presence very soon.

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Jochen Kowalski (center) and the Long Beach Opera Chorus in Akhnaten by Philip Glass

If you have the slightest interest in contemporary opera or modern drama, you must see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, scheduled for one more performance by Long Beach Opera on Sunday, March 27. It is a brilliant update of Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which Glass’s music, staging by Andreas Mitisek, choreography by Nanette Brodie, and video projections by Frieder Weiss all combine into one amazing whole.

At the heart of the work is Glass’s monolithic score and libretto. The story itself is a series of tableaux depicting the rise (Act 1) and fall (Act 3) of Akhnaten and his dangerous idea—there is only one God, Aten, the Sun. (Act 2 is devoted to Akhnaten’s implementation of monotheism). Glass’s repetitive music, with its Brucknerian phrase lengths and static textures, creates a deep sense of ritual underlying each scene.

The modern operas favored by most American companies strike me as unsatisfactory hybrids in which a recent contemporary musical vocabulary is poured into a 19th-century dramatic form. With the typical American opera libretto adapted from a novel, film, or conventional play, the narrative is linear, the presentation of material straightforward, rarely employing any 20th-century dramatic innovations. What Glass did with his Einstein/Gandhi/Akhnaten operatic trilogy was to bring opera up to date with contemporary dramatic thought. Even though Akhnaten is almost 30 years old, it seems fresh and novel compared to the retooled verismo of so much recent American opera.

Another problem for me in contemporary opera (although it’s a problem over 100 years old) is that of vocal parts consisting of continuous recitative or through-composed arias or whatever you want to call them. In the Baroque through Romantic periods, an aria sung by a character operated according to clear structural principals—the da capo aria or classical number aria. What has replaced that organizing device in modern operas? Complete formal freedom—in many contemporary operas, the characters sing in a continuous recitative. Berg solved the problem by shaping the scenes in Wozzeck according to the principals of multi-movement instrumental music.

Glass came up with a somewhat similar solution in his operas—the sung vocal lines are an integral part of the musical process. The vocal parts in Akhnaten are like instrumental lines, an essential part of Glass’s overall musical fabric. The intellectual rigor of his writing allows orchestral instruments to be substituted for the voices in the Akhnaten excerpt of Jerome Robbins’s ballet, Glass Pieces, (Act 1, Scene 1) without any loss of musical sense or drama.

This vocal writing flies in the face of the American operagoer’s expectations. What, no high C for the soprano? No cadenza for the tenor? (The lack of big stage moments for singers is probably one of the reasons Akhnaten and similar operas are rarely produced in the U.S.).

This is not to say that there aren’t highly dramatic moments in Glass’s vocal parts. The first note sung by Akhnaten is one of the most startling entrances in all of opera. We see Akhnaten for an entire scene during his coronation, but it is not until the last scene of Act I that we finally hear Akhnaten sing; what comes out of his mouth is not the heroic tenor or deep bass we expect from an operatic king, but rather a hooty A above middle C sung by a countertenor. Yes, we knew Akhnaten was a countertenor when we first took our seat, but that does not mitigate the unnerving violation of our expectations when this figure of grandeur opens his mouth and issues forth a sound which would be more appropriate for a giant boy soprano.

Jochen Kowalski sang the title role with a vibrato so wobbly that he could be an honorary member of the International Workers of the World. Paul Esswood, who created the role of Akhnaten for the Stuttgart premiere and the subsequent recording, sang with little vibrato in a style more typical for an early music concert than an American opera stage. Akhnaten was a physically deformed man, yet Kowalski looked like, and played him, as an imposing authority figure. Kowalski’s attitude was firm, his blocking well-defined, his postures exact; it was too bad that his sense of pitch did not share these characteristics. Let’s hope his singing is more disciplined on Sunday afternoon.

The other two prominent roles were ably sung by alto Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti and tenor Tyler Thompson as the Amon High Priest (not “Amon” as the program identified him—Amon was the god). A recent graduate, Southwell already possesses a solid tone and a confident stage presence, and one suspects audiences will see even more of her as her voice matures. Read the rest of this entry »

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Photo: David Andrako/Courtesy of Kaufman Center

Before any of the musical gadgetry could be used on night three of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin concert hall, the audience rang the evening’s first notes by singing “Happy Birthday” to So Percussion member Jason Treuting, joyfully absent due to the birth of his child earlier in the day. In jeans and t-shirts, the present members (plus Jason’s skillful stand-in) then gathered around a large bass drum stage right and began the evening with a wonderful introduction to their music: chimes mixed with frenetic drumming rhythms I dare not describe.

The young men were then joined onstage by guitarist Grey McMurray and performed pieces from their Where We Live project. Simply put, various friends and family of the band submit short videos in the intimate format of YouTube, to which the group scores an appropriate number. First, a fellow brushing his teeth was projected onto the large screen behind the stage. The quartet wrote a harmonic and buzzing piece, turning the awkward video of a frothy mouth into a pretty drone of varying proportions. Next was the cutesy video of a baby playing with a bright orange balloon. Fittingly, orange balloons sat idle until they were tossed into the audience, adding the sound of our batting the air-stretched plastic to the beautiful sing-song inspired by an infant.

Two more pieces followed, the first a showcase of Grey McMurray’s guitar as it warbled and synthesized from the stomping of various pedals, the rumble accompanied by birdsong sourced from a computer file. Martin Schmidt of Matmos appeared in the night’s final video projection as the interesting denizen of an audiophile’s basement, his egg-shaking antics appropriated by the five players in a medley of electronic-acoustic wanderings a la the Boredoms. But these musicians come from a background of Bach, Ives, and worldly rhythm, surely a sign that prior giants still influence our present and future networked moment.

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[Ed. note – Welcome our newest contributor out in the City of Angels, Paul Bailey. Paul is a composer, trombonist and teacher, leader of the Paul Bailey Ensemble, and a good friend to boot. Paul’s own work draws quite a bit on music and culture outside both the standard university and powdered-wig crowd, has a deep dislike of pretention, and has no problem calling them like he hears them.]

For the last week I have been at a loss for what to say about the music presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at their concert January 10th at the Zipper Hall “Monday Evening Concert Series.” It was obvious that the stage was filled with a plethora of world-class musicians who throughout the evening ably demonstrated that they all had achieved the very pinnacle of technique on their respective instruments. But with all that musical dexterity to go around I was mostly left cold by the music presented and was even more disappointed that for the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have  attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.

The concert opened with Brian Ferneyhough‘s La Chute d’lcare, which featured an Olympic medal–deserving performance by clarinetist Carol McGonnell, whose effort was minimized by the disjointed orchestration and impenetrable form. Although I didn’t find their performance lacking, after a while the virtuosity being displayed seemed to reflect a video game in which the ensemble plays each successive level of complexity to increase their score.

For me, Joanna Chou‘s solo piano performance of Gerard Pesson‘s La Luminiere n’a pas de bras pour nous porter was the standout performance and composition of the evening. Based on an asymmetrical toneless ostinato, which alternated with white note tone clusters, this was the evening’s best example of “less is more.” Pesson’s other two pieces — La Vita e come l’albero di Aantale (piano and violin) and Non sapremo mai di questo mi (piano, flute, and violin)—were well performed, mercifully short explorations of piano ostinatos which contrasted with the extended performance techniques for piano and flute.

Ending the first half of the concert was Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Let Me Die Before I Wake, which again featured Miss McGonnell’s clarinet expertise (mostly through whispered tones). Although the piece was described by the composer as having “mysterious links with darkness: every bit of light is distilled,” the performance became more of duet with the intermittent dulcet buzzing drones of a slowly dying fluorescent light which I eventually preferred this impromptu duet instead of the more organized solo clarinet performance emanating from the stage.

The second half of the concert featured the much-heralded Fausto Romitelli‘s Professor Bad Trip. Other than some vague reference in the score to Henri Michaux’s experiences under mescaline and four pedantic announcements introducing each section (“Lesson 1,” “Lesson 2,” “Lesson 3,” and “Lesson 4″), it was left open what morals we might ascribe from this evening’s performance. The effect of having an announcer speak at the beginning of each lesson seemed to me about as aesthetically pointless as having an usher come out to tell us when the concert was over. (Not that musically there were any clues as to when each section was complete.) Like much of the evening musicians started and stopped without much discernible development of the musical elements. In many ways Professor Bad Trip was like a listening to wind-up box of 12 instruments chattering independently which somehow happened to stop together every 10-15 minutes.

[Some video of a 2008 performance by the Fiarì Ensemble:]


On a more positive note I can say that the ensemble (and the sound engineers) expertly handled mixing the acoustic and electronic instruments. From personal experience, it’s very hard to decide how to blend these disparate sound sources. Their decision to play through a PA and to degrade the guitar sound through pedals so it would blend better (which it did) worked pretty well. My only problem was at times hearing the guitar out of the center PA above the stage instead of from where the guitarist was sitting, but not a big deal overall. I also felt that Jay Cambell‘s loquacious electric cello jamming was diminished by his awkward switch back to his Ars Antigua violincello. After rocking out, it works better if you acknowledge the audience when switching instruments.

With that point I should wrap up and get to my main frustration with the whole evening—and many other new music evenings I have witnessed. “Witnessed” is really the point, because with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. A little of this music goes a long way, and I know that if I brought many of my friends to a show like this they would have no frame of reference on which to hang their ears. Maybe the problem still is, as Milton Babbitt said, “Who Cares If You Listen”… but in 2011, I’m still hoping that we can move beyond such ivory tower dogma.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

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Older readers may recall with fondness Edgar Bergen, a very popular American entertainer who poured his comic routines through ventriloquist dummies named Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Edgar so loved the performing arts, that he created an annual celebration to showcase classical music, dance, opera, and theater, which continues and thrives to this very day: the Bergen Festival.

Okay, that’s not really what the Bergen Festival is, but after hearing a modern composer with a strong Chinese musical identity—Bright Sheng—prop up Scandinavian folk tunes on his knee, and manipulate them to entertain the public, the spirit of Charlie McCarthy—a bourgeois puppet in top hat and tails, monocle in place, spouting low vaudeville patois—was in the air…

More about the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Northern Lights and the world premiere of Anthony Newman’s Sonata Populare here.

I am very interested in reading your views on stylistic appropriation. Does it only creep out older dudes like me, or is it an affront to all contemporary composers? Why or why not?

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