Take a seductive voiced art-pop singer and a post-jazz/alt-classical trumpeter. Add fragments of nineteenth century classical melodies, electronics elicited by a “mutantrumpet” controller. Then add influences ranging from ancient Greek mythology to the Hudson River Valley. What you have are the intricate yet intimate sounds on an evocatively beautiful new CD: Songs for Persephone.
The Persephone legend is one of the oldest in Greek mythology, with many variants that provide twists and turns to the narrative and subtext of the story. In the myth, Persephone, daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. During her absence, vegetation is unable to grow in the world; fields fall fallow and crops cannot be harvested.
To break this horrible time of famine, the gods come to an understanding with Hades. Persephone is eventually freed, but on the condition that, if she has eaten anything while in Hades’ realm, she must return to his kingdom for a certain length of time. Thus, each year she must remain in the underworld one month for each pomegranate seed that she has consumed. This serves to rationalize, in mythic terms, the change of seasons, times of decay and renewal, shifts in light and weather; even the autumn foliage and the falling of the leaves.
Vocalist Mimi Goese and trumpeter Ben Neill have updated the Persephone story, while retaining its iconic essence, on their new recording Songs for Persephone (out now on Ramseur Records). As one can see from the pomegranate on the cover, (a visual designed by Goese), the duo is mindful of the legendary Persephone’s history; but they are not hung up on providing a linear narrative.
In a recent phone conversation, Goese, who wrote the album’s lyrics, said, “The artwork that I did for the cover, featuring the pomegranate, is one acknowledgement of the myth of Persephone. And there are other images that I found in the lyrics. But we were interested in using what was evocative about Persephone to create our own story. That’s sort of how the myth evolved too – one storyteller picks up the thread from another down through the years.”
They started work on this music some five years ago, but originally presented it as part of a theatrical production by the multimedia company Ridge Theater, starring Julia Stiles. In 2010, it was produced at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.
The theatrical presentation and the mythological story behind it are only two strands in a disparate web of influences that resonate with Songs for Persephone. Both Goese and Neill make their home in the Hudson River Valley. Both for its stunning natural surroundings and its history as a home for artists of all sorts, the valley is rich with reference points. Neill feels that these are subtly imparted to the music.
In a recent phone conversation, he said, “I found myself particularly interested in the Hudson River School of painters. These Nineteenth Century artists depicted the local landscape and the changing of season with a dimensionality and symbolism that seemed to have an affinity with what Mimi and I were after in Songs for Persephone.”
For Neill and Goese, these extra-musical influences – artwork, nature, and theater – are an important part of the music’s genesis. But the polystylistic nature of their music making adds still another layer to the proceedings.
Goese says, “I started in dance and theater and later moved to performance art. Singing came along later. But I don’t have the musical background or training that Ben has – I’m self taught.”
She doth protest too much. Goese’s voice provided the steely, dramatic center to the work of late eighties band Hugo Largo. One part art rock and another dream pop, the group incorporated bold theatricality and ethereal experimentation, releasing two memorable full lengths, Arms Akimbo and Mettle, and the Drums EP, an alt-pop connoisseur’s delight. She’s also collaborated on several occasions with Moby and, under the moniker Mimi (no last name) released Soak, a solo album on David Bryne’s Luaka Bop label.
Goese is a powerful singer, but Songs of Persephone brings out the lyricism her voice also possesses. Cooing high notes and supple overdubbed harmonies are juxtaposed with the more muscular turns of phrase. Experience plays a role in Goese’s tremendous performances on the disc. But she also credits the musical creations of her collaborator Neill with spurring on her inspiration.
“Ben has been a terrific person with whom to work,” Goese says. “He’s inventive and willing to try new things. From the moment we first performed together, at a concert nearly a decade ago, I’ve felt an artistic kinship with him.”
One can readily hear why Neill’s music would be an engaging foil for Goese. His background as a producer, and his years of work designing the mutantrumpet, have encouraged Neill’s ear toward imaginative soundscapes. His 2009 album Night Science (Thirsty Ear) is an example of Neill’s nu-jazz arrangements and soloing at their very best.
On the current CD, Neill’s playing remains impressive; but his arranging and collaborative skills come to the fore. There are intricate textures to found, on which Neill’s trumpet and electronics are abetted by strings, bass, and drums, but it’s the melodies, floating memorably past, one after the other, that are most impressive here. Some of the melodic lines he crafts are imitative of the voice in their own right: it’s no accident that some of the most inspired music-making on Songs for Persephone are when Goese and Neill create duets out of intricately intertwined single lines.
Neill says, “The classical materials that I used as the basis of the compositions on Songs for Persephone were melodies from the Nineteenth century: from opera and symphonic music. Many of them were from relatively the same era in which the Hudson Valley painters worked. I found it fascinating to juxtapose these two genres that were in operation more or less at the same time.”
He continues, “I’d describe the material as fragments of melodies: small excerpts rather than recognizable themes. None of them are treated in such a way that most listeners will be able to say, ‘Hey that’s Berlioz,’ or ‘That sounds like Schumann.’ They were meant to be a starting point from which I would develop the music: it’s not a pastiche.”
At 7:30 PM on September 27th, Goese and Neill will be having an album release party at the Cooper Square Hotel, part of Joe’s Pub’s Summer Salon series. Goese says, “It’s an interesting space – we’ll have glass windows behind us, which is unusual as compared with a more conventional stage. But it’s fun performing in non-standard venues. It allows you to try different things and to bring different elements into the mix in terms of theatricality, lighting, and the way that you play off of each other. I’m excited to see how Persephone changes as we take it into various performing spaces.”
-Composer Christian Carey is Senior Editor at Sequenza 21 and a regular contributor to Signal to Noise and Musical America. He teaches music in the Department of Fine Arts at Rider University (Lawrenceville, New Jersey).
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Wearing both of those hats simultaneously, Hilary had a video chat via Skype with composer Max Richter earlier this week. Richter is one of 27 composers commissioned to write an encore for Hahn; she begins debuting the pieces this coming October. In order to spotlight the featured composers, Hilary’s planning to release a video interview with one each month. It makes us here at Sequenza 21 feel kind of special. After all, how many other websites have their video blogger booked two years out?
Maya Beiser, everyone’s favorite ex-Can Banging All Star downtown cellist, was an invited presenter at the March 2011 TED conference. The TED site recently released a high quality video of her lecture recital, and it’s already garnered over 80,000 views!
TED’s slogan: “Ideas worth spreading.” We’re glad that Maya’s getting the chance to spread the word about Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint and David Lang’sWorld to Come far and wide!
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My parents-in-law have a long tradition of enthusiastic photography. Greta the golden retriever is less than a year old, but she’s already an accomplished model.
To those readers in the United States, I’d like to wish you a safe and happy Independence Day. While there’s a lot of music played on this holiday that is arranged to be “broadly appealing,” Charles Ives was never one to compromise. “Fourth of July” (1904), from the Holidays Symphony, complexly layers a number of patriotic tunes, which move a different speeds and simultaneously appear in different keys.
No one will mistake this piece for John Philip Sousa anytime soon, but it’s Ives’ way of paying tribute to the complex and multifaceted portrait that he saw both as America in the modern age and as the epitome of the American dream. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony in the embedded video below.
Steve Reich turns 75 this coming October, and the celebrations have already begun. Later this month is a concert at Carnegie Hall on April 30th. It features the Kronos Quartet in a new piece commemorating a more sombre anniversary: WTC 9/11.
In the lead up to the Carnegie concert, there will likely be countless interviews, features, etc.; but this YouTube video is a terrific five-minute distillation of Reich’s interests, influences, and musical style.
I love the segue early on from bebop ii-V-I changes to Steve Reich’s pulsating ostinati.
Thus far, 2011 seems to be the year of the festival. From Tune Up to Tully Scope and beyond, a wide variety of adventurous outings have been offered in New York. Starting tonight, Symphony Space joins in the fun with their Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival.
If each festival has had its own identity – Tune Up reveling in the Park Avenue Armory’s generous space and acoustics, Tully Scope celebrating the diversity of its offerings and its newly remodeled digs – the emphasis of Cutting Edge seems, like so many events at Symphony Space, to be outreach and interaction.
All of the composers will be present at the concerts featuring their music. Each program will include onstage discussion between the featured composers and Victoria Bond. One hopes that meeting composers “in the flesh” and learning about their works firsthand will encourage audience members to approach their works with open minds and ears.
Tonight’s concert includes a world premiere by talented up and comer Hannah Lash, as well as a New York premiere by perennial audience favorite Peter Schickele. Kathleen Supove performs a work by Randy Woolf . Topping it all off is Hidden Inside Mountains, a new multimedia work by downtown luminary Laurie Anderson.
Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival is on four Monday evenings at 7:30 pm on
March 28, April 4, April 11 and April 25, 2011 at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre in
Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street in New York City.
More information about the Festival, including program notes, performer and composer bios, and
Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) is a decorated composer and an important figure on the international scene. But even though she’s won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, one could still argue that she isn’t programmed nearly enough as yet in the United States. I was very taken with the Ensemble Intercontemporain’s 2009 performance of Akrostichon-Wortspiel at Alice Tully Hall. It sent me in search of scores and recordings to study. Sadly, I haven’t since had the opportunity to hear more of her work live.
But tomorrow, the Talea Ensemble and guest pianist Taka Kigawa will perform an Unsuk Chin Composer Portrait at New York’s Bohemian Hall on February 16, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. The concert includes selections from her Piano Etudes (1999), and the New York premieres of Chin’s ParaMetaString (1996), Allegro ma non troppo (1994), and Fantaisie Mécanique (1997). Ms. Chin will be present for the concert and featured in an onstage interview with Dr. Anthony Cheung, Talea’s Artistic Director.
JACK Quartet presents two concerts in LA this coming Sunday and Monday. On 2/13, they’re giving an afternoon concert for the Da Camera Society (tickets/details here) at the Southern California Instituteof Architecture. The program includes early music – Machaut and Gesualdo – as well as contemporary works: Philip Glass’ 5th Quartet and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis. The selections certainly suit the concert’s location: both Xenakis and Machaut are composers who should be of interest to architects!
On Monday, JACK will present a different program as part of Monday Evening Concerts at the Colburn School (tickets/details here). It includes both of Aaron Cassidy’s quartets, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, Anton Webern’s Op. 9 Bagatelles, and Horaţiu Rădulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born.”
This looks to be an amazing double header of new music programs. I hope that some of our Californian readers will be able to attend. If so, please send us a report.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson has an excellent post about Aaron Cassidy’s 2nd Quartet on New Music Box today.
As Tim pointed out on his blog, Paul Griffiths’ notes for the 2/14 program are online.
Merkin Hall’sEcstatic Music Festivalkicked off this week with a seven hour long marathon of concerts on Monday. The focus of the festival is on connections between contemporary classical and current indie/pop music. Artists from both sides of the stylistic street are performing. This year, the festival runs all the way until March 28th.
This pop/classical hybridization may not be everyone’s cup o’ joe (John C. Adams has had some less than charitable things to say about it of late), but it certainly is inspiring to a number of composers in their 20s and 30s, and the energy of their work and enthusiasm of their collaborations I finding exciting.
Alas, I missed the marathon, but I’m going to see the Chiara String Quartet, performing works by Nico Muhly & Valgeir Sigurðsson, tomorrow night (review will appear in Musical Americalater this week).
Ah, this the Golden Age, my friends, when the mellifuous sound of Autotune is everywhere, bringing dulcet harmony and order to everything from the latest pop and hip-hop singles worldwide to even the news. And now, thanks to the inspiration of Toronto composer Matthew Reid, even to the veritable sounds of “silence” as well!… Of course we all know that John Cage‘s iconic piece 4’33” is not really three movements of silence; the point is that those movements frame and draw attention to all of the other sounds present in the space where the piece is being played. What Reid has done is to create a performance of 4’33”, and then turn Autotune loose on that “silent” background. It turns the ambiance of the space into the sound of ghostly choirs and tiny chordal outbursts. While the Cageian purist might say this undermines the whole point of the piece (listening to the sounds that be as themselves), to me there’s a bit of innovation and subversion that recalls the twinkle in Cage’s own eye: