Archive for the “Twentieth Century Composer” Category

bc40Friday, February 7, 2014 Piano Spheres presented The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II, performed by Gloria Cheng at Boston Court in Pasadena. The concert included an intriguing mixture of early French and Italian Baroque works along with late 20th century pieces. The Marjorie Branson performance space at Boston Court held an enthusiastic crowd and was the perfect venue for an intimate evening of harpsichord music.

Along with Ms. Cheng, the other star of the show was the double-manual harpsichord constructed by Gloria’s husband Lefteris Padavos. The instrument took shape in their garage during 2012 and is based on a model created by the 18th century French master harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793). The tuning was, according to Ms. Cheng something of a compromise given the diversity of the program – the early Baroque and our modern equal temperament being distinctly different. The Vallotti tuning was adopted for this performance and the result was a warm, full sound that did not detract from any of the pieces played. The light amplification and good acoustics of the space also contributed, so that even the more subtle textures and passages with elaborate ornamentation were clearly heard.

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The concert opened with Prélude non-mésuré (c. 1650) by Louis Couperin. This was a quiet, flowing piece with a wistful, nostalgic feeling. The tuning and acoustics complimented the music perfectly. Other early pieces by Frescobaldi and Rossi followed, and these had a more familiar harpsichord sound, with cascades of successively more complex phrases pouring out from the keyboard.  Ms. Cheng explained that the notation of this period is very general, leaving much to the performer in the moment. The playing here was precise and unhurried, even when the passages were in a fast tempo and highly ornamented.

Trio Sonata (1994) by John Harbison followed, consisting of four short movements, all titled Fast. Beginning with a blizzard of notes and variously quiet, syncopated, halting or playful, this piece provided an interesting comparison to the music of the first part of the concert in that, when played on the harpsichord, it did not seem so far removed from the 17th century. Carolyn Yarnell’s Prelude and Fugue (1984) followed and this seemed brighter and more optimistic when compared to the formal Baroque pieces while equaling them in elaborate phrasing. There was, to my ear, at least, a sense of continuity between the centuries that was underscored by hearing these pieces played successively on the harpsichord.

More Baroque music followed, including La Marche des Scythes (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. This piece was very formal – almost pompous – and extremely dense at times. It was written as a musical description of barbarian cavalry and the tempo was often fast and furious as befits the subject matter. The playing was often difficult and taxing – the effort being appreciatively received by the audience at the finish. Les Baricades mysterieuses (1717) by Francois Couperin followed, and provided an excellent contrast to La Marche. Soft and lush, with expressive harmony, Les Baricades mysterieuses has a simple and endearing quality that approaches an almost romantic sensibility.

Three late 20th century works closed the concert. The first of these was Continuum (1968) by György Ligeti. This piece is built on repeated arpeggio phrases, with single notes often floating above, a form that prefigures the later minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. The effect as heard on the harpsichord is now lovely, now distressing, and now rising in tension. The playing soon becomes fast and intense and the harpsichord keys in the higher registers could be heard clicking under the strain. The tension and pitches ratchet higher and higher – the notes now pouring out – until the sudden ending, greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. This was followed by the more introspective Rain Dreaming (1986) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose work is informed by a love of nature and space. Rain Dreaming is quiet, spare, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It is at times solemn, lonely and seems to alternate between shadow and light. A feeling of uncertainty arises in this music that never quite leaves the piece, but it ends on a lovely warm chord at the finish.

The final work on the program was Phrygian Tucket (1994), a piece by Stephen Montague for amplified harpsichord and tape. A tucket is an Elizabethan musical phrase that means a flourish of trumpets and drums. The addition of the tape provided a series of deep chords in the lower registers that act to form a solid foundation for the melody in the harpsichord. The result is a strong, muscular sound as would be expected from a tucket. The bass tones coming from the tape seems to fill in between the more strident tones of the harpsichord and this adds a luminosity to the upper notes that is quite effective. As the piece progressed, certain of the passages in Phrygian Tucket acquired a more introspective feel. Soon , however, an increasing tempo and discord introduce a sense of building tension that is released in a dramatic full-keyboard arpeggio that ends the piece in sudden silence. The addition of the sounds from the tape definitely enhances the harpsichord and makes Phrygian Tucket an interesting blend of old and electronic.

bc30The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II was carefully programmed and impressively performed, combining old and new music as heard through the lens of the harpsichord. The audience responded with an extended ovation in appreciation. An encore followed by Ms. Cheng, a repeat of Les Baricades mysterieuses, the Francois Cuperin piece that nicely summed up the mixture of old and new that was the theme of the program.

Piano Spheres will next present a concert by Mark Robson at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 11.

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Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.

But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.

Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.

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Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.

Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.

Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.

Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.

When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »

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The 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage was celebrated in Pasadena, California at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center with a concert by Gloria Cheng titled Two Sides of Cage’s Coin. The Boston Court venue is comfortably cozy and all but a few of the 100 seats were filled to hear Water Music and the entire sequence of Sonatas and Interludes. Despite the modern industrial construction of the hall – it has corrugated steel walls – and a play going on in the adjacent theater, the acoustics proved more than adequate for the intimate space.

John Cage was born in Los Angeles and has many connections here despite being known primarily as a New York composer. Cage studied with Schoenberg at UCLA – where Gloria Cheng is now a faculty member. He lived for a time in Pacific Palisades and later in Hollywood. Cage was also a colleague of Lou Harrison and taught at Mills College in the Bay area. To mark the centennial here in Los Angeles of the birth of John Cage – one of Americas most influential composers – is entirely fitting and appropriate.

The first piece on the program is known generically as Water Music but as Ms. Cheng explained the official title should be Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 because Cage had intended the title to be taken from wherever it was performed. This piece was first presented as 66 W. 12 at Woodstock, NY August 29, 1952 and so the title is updated on each playing. Water Music is partly music and partly performance – the score calls for a table radio, three kinds of whistles, cups and pitchers of water, a wooden stick and a deck of playing cards, all in addition to the piano. (A similar piece - Water Walk – was once performed by Cage himself on the old I’ve Got A Secret TV program and you can see this here on You Tube.)

Boston Court, Pasadena August 24, 2012 started with the rolling out of a small cart full of items to center stage – the radio plays – and Ms. Cheng began a series of activities such as pouring water from cup to pitcher, blowing various whistles, etc. This was all done by timing the sequence of actions with her iPhone (a nice 21st century touch) and following Cage’s score, which was projected overhead for all to see. No one brings as much dignity to the concert stage as Gloria Cheng, but she could have been a 1950s housewife scurrying about attending to various domestic chores. When the score called for a chord or two on the piano, however, everything changes: it is the virtuoso who – with just a few notes struck – suddenly and decisively shifts the focus to an artistic perspective. It is this overlap between the mundane and the suddenly artistic that makes this piece so intriguing – our ordinary lives are never quite removed from the arts – and art bleeds into our everyday experience.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano was written over two years,1946 to 1948, at a time when John Cage was working with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Ms. Cheng explained that because there was no room in the dance studio for drums, Cage hit upon the idea of adding various pieces of hardware to the piano strings to give it a more percussive sound. He eventually devised explicit instructions on how the piano was to be prepared and he specifies individual types of screws, bolts and plastic pieces for each of 45 different notes on the piano. A complete chart by Cage showing how the piano is to be prepared was included in the program.

To those who have never heard a prepared piano the resulting sound invariably exceeds prior expectations. The lower prepared notes have a wonderful gong-like quality while the middle register can produce beautiful bell tones. The higher notes tend most toward the percussive, at times resembling the notes from a music box. The added texture of the prepared piano is fully explored in Sonatas and Interludes which are, by turns playful, dramatic, solemn, agitated, languid, mysterious and tranquil. The ‘Sonatas’ are played in groups of four followed an ‘Interlude’ for a total of 20 pieces – all played sequentially. This work was written at a time when Cage was studying South Asian music and culture – the various pieces in Sonatas and Interludes evoke a definite exotic and mystical feeling and are intended to portray the eight permanent human emotions as defined by Indian philosophy.

As might be expected, Sonatas and Interludes is a very challenging work for the performer – from the 3 hours of piano preparation time to understanding just how each note will feel and react. And of course you can see that the piece is technically difficult just by looking at the notes on the score – rapid runs of complex arpeggios, soft quiet stretches and dramatically loud passages. Because the hardware tends to shorten the duration of the sound when a prepared note is struck, this music is typically a sequence of single notes and rapid runs with very few long chords – a good test of the performer’s dexterity. Ms. Cheng was up to all of this but what impresses most is her ability to find just the right dynamic and “touch” for each section – even with 45 of the keys prepared. I asked her afterwords if she had much chance to practice on a prepared piano and she responded that at one time she did so but now feels confident given her experience with Cage’s music. In any event the results were well-received by the audience who brought Ms. Cheng back for two curtain calls amid much cheering. Gloria then invited those interested to come on stage to look inside the piano – and help her “de-prepare” it – a gracious gesture from an accomplished performer.

This concert was sponsored by Piano Spheres and information on their upcoming concert season can be found here.

 

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Way back in September, Charles Ives scholar Jan Swafford reported in Slate that the Ives home in Redding, Connecticut, built by the composer and for many years maintained by his family, was up for sale.

As Norman Lebrecht wrote on Monday for his Slipped Disc column on Arts Journal, the house is being eyed by developers and will likely be demolished.

That is, unless someone intervenes and declares it a national landmark; a part of our cultural heritage worth preserving. Getting the attention of a person with clout would help; someone like Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes (119 Cannon House Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515), who represents Redding as part of his congressional district. Or President Obama.

Below we’ve included an embed of Bernard Lin’s petition on Change.org. It needs more than 900 additional signatures. We’re asking Sequenza 21 readers to consider signing and helping get out the word about the petition via social media, email, etc. in hopes that we can in some small way help in the effort to preserve the Ives house in Redding. If you live in Mr. Himes’s district, please consider sending him a letter too!

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On July 22nd via his PostClassic blog, Kyle Gann published a post titled “One Less Critic,” more or less announcing his retirement from music criticism. Writing for nearly thirty years in a number of publications, notably the Village Voice and Chamber Music Magazine, Gann has been a thoughtful, often provoking, and even, occasionally, a polarizing figure in discourse about contemporary classical music. He’s also been active in a number of other activities, first and foremost as an imaginative composer, a professor at Bard College, and a musicologist who’s published articles and books on a wide range of composers, including minimalists, microtonalists, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage. His book on Robert Ashley will be published this fall.

In his blog post, Gann writes, “Criticism is a noble profession, or could be if we took it seriously enough and applied rigorous standards to it, but you get pigeonholed as a bystander, someone valued for your perspective on others rather than for your own potential contributions.”

He’s not the first composer/critic to voice these concerns. It’s fair to say that those who write about others’ music potentially imperil their own. One’s advancement in a career as a creative and/or performing artist often involves blunting their candor and, upon occasion, judiciously withholding their opinions, delicacies which a writer (at least, an honest writer) can ill afford.

Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with Gann’s assessment of the musical landscape. In 1997, I first read his essay on 12-tone composers in academia, in which he likened those in grad programs studying with Wuorinen and Carter to be a wasted generation of composers, like lemmings leaping to their (artistic) deaths. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers: studying with Wuorinen and writing a dissertation on Carter! I didn’t transfer or change my topic.

That said, I respect Gann’s formidable intellect and, even when it stings a little, his candor.  I hope that during his “retirement” from criticism, he will find many new opportunities provided to him as a  composer. In the spirit of bygones being bygones, maybe some of them will be in collaboration with ensembles that, back in the day, got a rough review from him!

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Picture courtesy of Q2 Music

Sometimes, classical music gets a bad rap. To be perfectly honest, there is a chunk of the population that finds it to be synonymous with any number of derogatory terms: boring, annoying, or pompous.  Some classical music lovers and advocates will counter this popular belief with arguments that only go to further the opinion of the other side: “Some people want to listen to mindless music”, “Some people simply don’t have patience”, etc. These ridiculous arguments only go to further the stereotype that classical music lovers are all pompous windbags who believe themselves to be uniquely educated and informed.

How, then, do we get people to forget their misconception, and believe that EVERYONE can enjoy or even love classical music, regardless of education, socioeconomic standing, or profession?

It all comes down to how classical music is presented; and now, for a limited time,  you could join one organization that does it right.

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Sixty Postwar Pieces to Study

Recently, a couple of the undergraduate composers in the program at Westminster Choir College asked me for lists of postwar pieces to study. Given the vocal and choral emphasis in our program, I’ve compiled the list below to provide a different vantage point. Hence the emphasis on instrumental music and a preponderance of post-tonal composers that they might not encounter when learning their own recital repertoire. Given a different student population, composers like Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis, and Donnacha Dennehy could just as likely appear on a listening list such as this.

And, of course, it is frustrating what one must leave out to keep a list manageable in size. Indeed, I’ve had to leave off a number of sentimental favorites. Note that I am not attempting to give them the “greatest hits” of the past sixty-five years. Instead I strove for a diversity of selections, both watershed masterworks and vibrantly interesting pieces that merit attention, even if they may not be the first ones that come to mind for the given composer. On a different day, we could come up with sixty different pieces: a composer must be prepared for a lifetime of listening, score study, and learning. Even after that, they must also be humbled by the fact that they will only get to a fraction of all the good stuff out there!

Let’s say that an undergraduate composer began working with this list or a similar one at the beginning of their junior year; listening to and, if possible, studying the score for one of these pieces every week. Between their own performance experiences, WCC’s theory and history courses, and this survey of recent works, by the time that they were ready to consider applying to graduate programs in their senior year, they would have a decent grounding in the repertoire.

1-    Adams, John C. Nixon in China (1987)

2-    Adams, John C. Chamber Symphony (1992)

3-    Adams, John Luther. Red Arc/Blue Veil (2002)

4-    Andriessen, Louis. La Passione (2002)

5-    Babbitt, Milton. Philomel (1964)

6-    Babbitt, Milton. Arie da Capo (1974)

7-    Berio, Luciano. Circles (1960)

8-    Birtwistle, Harrison. Secret Theatre (1984)

9-    Boulez, Pierre. Le marteau sans maître (rev. 1957)

10-  Boulez, Pierre. Répons (1984)

11-  Cage, John. Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1948)

12-  Cage, John. Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958)

13-  Carter, Elliott. String Quartet No. 1 (1951)

14-  Carter, Elliott. String Quartet No. 5 (1995)

15- Chin, Unsuk. Akrostischen-Wortspiel (1993)

16- Crumb, George. Ancient Voices of Children (1970)

17- Czernowin, Chaya. String Quartet (1995)

18-  Davies, Peter Maxwell. Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969)

19-  Feldman, Morton. Rothko Chapel (1970)

20- Feldman, Morton. For Samuel Beckett (1987)

21-  Ferneyhough, Brian. Bone Alphabet (1991)

22- Ferneyhough, Brian. Terrain (1992)

23- Foss, Lukas. Echoi (1963)

24- Glass, Philip. Satyagraha (1980)

25- Grisey, Gérard. Les espaces acoustiques (1985)

26- Haas, Georg Friedrich. In Vain (2002)

27- Harrison, Lou. La Koro Sutro (1973)

28- Kurtág, György. Kafka-Fragmente (1986)

29- Kurtág, György. Stele (1994)

30- Knussen, Oliver. Where the Wild Things Are (1983)

31-  Lachenmann, Helmut. Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (1990)

32- Lang, David. Little Matchgirl Passion (2007)

33- Ligeti, Győrgy. Atmosphères (1961)

34- Ligeti, Győrgy. Violin Concerto (1993)

35- Lim, Liza. City of Falling Angels (2007)

36- Marshall, Ingram. September Canons (2003)

37- Messiaen. Olivier. Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (1991)

38- Monk, Meredith. Songs of Ascension (2008)

39- Nancarrow, Conlon. Three Canons for Ursula (1989)

40- Nono, Luigi. …sofferte onde serne… (1976)

41-  Pärt, Arvo. Fratres (1976)

42- Penderecki, Krzysztof. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

43- Reich, Steve. Music for Eighteen Musicians (1976)

44- Reich, Steve. Different Trains (1988)

45- Riley, Terry. In C (1964)

46- Saariaho, Kaija. L’amour de loin (2000)

47- Scelsi, Giacinto. Prânam 2 (1973)

48- Sciarrino, Salvatore. Vento D’Ombra (2005)

49- Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947)

50- Shapey, Ralph. Millenium Designs (2000)

51-  Stravinsky, Igor. Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam) (1964)

52- Stockhausen, Karlheinz, Kontakte (1960)

53- Takemitsu, Tōru. From me flows what you call Time (1990)

54- Turnage, Mark-Anthony. Blood on the Floor (1996)

55- Xenakis, Iannis. Pléïades (1978)

56- Xenakis, Iannis. Tetras (1983)

57- Varèse, Edgard. Poème électronique (1958)

58- Wolpe, Stefan. Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano, & Percussion (1954)

59- Wuorinen, Charles. A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1975)

60- Young, LaMonte. The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-present)

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[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcHnL7aS64Y[/youtube]

We had just seen John Cage recite his mesostic/theater work, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. My composition teacher, a tenured faculty member who had won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize, told us, “Everyone should see John Cage once.”

And then, as if to underscore the idea that one only needed to see Cage once, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer added, “But of course, his ideas are much more important than his music.” At that time (the early 1980s), there weren’t many recordings of Cage’s music available, and I rarely encountered any performances of his music, so my professor’s utterance was a reasonable statement for many.

Three decades later, there are 279 recordings featuring one or more works by John Cage available on arkivmusic.com; my old teacher has under 30 listed. It isn’t just that Cage is the most-recorded member of the postwar avant-garde—he has more recordings than plenty of conservative composers. Here’s a list of the top 10 recorded composers born in the 20th century at arkivmusic.com

1. Shostakovich 1449
2. Britten 958
3. Bernstein 632
4. Barber 541
5. Rodrigo 461 (and 103 of those are the Concierto de Aranjuez)
6. Messiaen 431
7. Walton 413
8. Khachaturian 357 (138 of those are the Sabre Dance)
9. Cage 279
10. Arvo Part 239

Clearly, Cage’s compositions, as well as his ideas, are very important in the classical music industry. This year you’ll be hearing a lot of his music, as various cities and organizations celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth. The John Cage trust is a useful web site to learn about upcoming performances, but if you live in Southern California, you’ll want to consult this list I compiled for the LA Weekly of Cage events this year.

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Why did you have to burn your symphony, Jean?

Sketches for an untitled orchestral work dating from the time Sibelius was writing his Eighth Symphony

Big news from Finland: Sketches of what appear to be Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony (long thought destroyed by Sibelius) have emerged. Here’s a clunky Google translation of the Finnish web site announcing this incredible discovery, along with an orchestral reading of those sketches. At the original Finnish link, you can access a video and hear the realization of the sketches. Those of you who don’t speak Finnish will want to jump ahead to ca. 2:00, where the music actually begins. Yes, it sounds like Sibelius, but a more chromatic and fragmented Sibelius than we’re accustomed to.

A more comfortably written article on the discovery and the musicology supporting the claim can be found here.

And a great big Thank You to Sibelius booster Alex Ross, who hipped me to this at his web site.

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