Archive for the “Mode” Category

John Luther Adams

Four Thousand Holes

Scott Deal, Percussionist;

Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist

Cold Blue CD CB0035

Songbirdsongs

Callithumpian Consort; Stephen Drury, director and pianist

Mode CD Mode 240

Alaskan (by way of New York) composer John Luther Adams was long known as the “other Adams” of contemporary concert music, overshadowed by Californian (by way of Massachusetts)  John Coolidge Adams, composer of the operas Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic and the Pulitzer prizewinning On the Transmigration of Souls. The balance of recognition seems to be shifting, as the Alaskan Adams has created several large scale works that have raised his public profile, such as the spatial percussion piece Inuksuit and museum installation (with an accompanying book) The Place Where You Go to Listen. Adams frequently speaks of “creating ecologies of music.” Both of the aforementioned pieces are based on aspects of Alaska: the former the traditional music of its native inhabitants and the latter shifts in the region’s weather patterns and tectonics (with an implicit demonstration of the impact of climate change on its environs).

Boston’s Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort, whom he directs, are staunch advocates of JL Adams. Two recent recordings present different aspects of his music-making, as well as still more contrasting facets of his adopted state. The tintinnabulation of percussionist Scott Deal’s vibraphone and chimes, Drury’s piano (which plays major and minor chords throughout), and a haloing electronic aura courtesy of the composer mimic the shifts in light and many crags found in a wilderness’ varied terrain. Within the half hour duration, Adams never allows this limited palette to grow stale; he continually refreshes the sound world with shifts of tonality and varied interactions between percussion and piano. Its companion piece …And Bells Remembered… takes the tintinnabulation still further. Alongside Drury, five percussionists use both mallets and bows to craft a slowly evolving tolling of bell sounds both high and low. Is it meant as a memento mori or as a secularized ritual or meditation? We aren’t told in the booklet’s aphoristic notes, but we are left with an incandescent sonic shimmering that again indicates a sweeping vista to the mind’s eye.

Many composers have incorporated birdsong into their music. Perhaps the most famous of these is the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who was an amateur ornithologist and travelled the world to collect birdsongs; they appear in most of his compositions. Even Messiaen’s transcriptions of these arias of the animal world are somewhat limited by Western ideas of notation: they occur at a precise moment in the piece that is studiously indicated as a conventional (if complicated) rhythm. Adams has taken the incorporation of birdsong materials further in conception. Rather than prescribing when they are to occur, he gives the musicians phrases (transcribed in the field) as well as detailed indications of the habits and movement patterns of the various species which sing them. Thus, the musicians are tasked with accommodating their playing to approximate the birds’ preferences and the space in which they reside; not the other way around. Thus, creating an ecology of music involves much more than what’s printed on the page: it requires empathy, study, and imagination. While Messiaen is to be commended for paving the way towards this aim, songbirdsongs dispenses, insofar as is possible, with human expectations of formal trajectory and “pretty Polly” mimicry, instead replacing it with something wild, unfettered, and, in the performance captured hear, often enthralling.

-Christian Carey

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Giacinto Scelsi
The Works for Double Bass

Nuits (1972)
I. C’est bien la nuit
II. Le Reveil profond
Et maintenant c’est í  vous de jouer… (1974)
Robert Black, double bass

Ko-Tha “Three Dances of Shiva”
transcription for double bass by Fernando Grillo (8:14, 2:19, 3:44)
Robert Black, double bass
First Recording

Dharana (1975)
for cello and double bass
Robert Black, double bass
Felix Fan, cello
First Recording

Maknongon (1976)
for any low instrument (or bass voice)
Robert Black, double bass

Kshara (1975)
for two double basses
Robert Black, double bass
John Eckhardt, double bass
First Recording

Okanagon (1968)
for harp, double bass and tam-tam
Robert Black, double bass
June Han, harp
Tom Kolor, tam-tam

Mantram (undated)
Robert Black, double bass

Mode Records

I knew some of Scelsi’s music when I was much younger, such as Anahit and kinda liked it, but didn’t get seriously involved with Scelsi’s vast oeuvre until the past year or two, and at this point probably have nearly everything that has been released. Or at least I thought I pretty much had it all until I came across this recording of music for contrabass as expertly performed by Robert Black and a variety of additional performers.

Scelsi, who has been called the “Charles Ives of Italy” (just like Vermeulen is the Charles Ives of The Netherlands). But that really doesn’t do Scelsi justice. Scelsi was a great original, who started writing beautiful, yet conventional, works like his first string quartet, then suffered a nervous breakdown and recuperated by playing one note over and over again. This was at least a decade before La Monte Young was to find his voice with drones and silence. Initially writing Eastern-inspired works for piano, Scelsi became even more taken with writing for single tones as augmented with microtonal glissandi, and gave up writing for the piano for good, favoring strings and winds. He wrote a total of five string quartets and a string trio, which (as in the second string quartet) might involve the use of metallic mutes to modulate string timbres, and (as in the fourth quartet) could even require four staves per instrument (one per string).

This recording is a welcome addition to any serious devotee of Scelsi’s music, and mostly contains works from the later period of his compositional life. Some of these works represent first recordings or (as with Ko-Tha, which I also know as a work for guitar or cello), transcriptions of works. Ko-Tha is particularly noteworthy in that the instrument is played lying on its back and in a percussive fashion.

Scelsi’s music works very well for contrabass, and the virtuosity and interpretive excellence of Robert Black is clearly on display, as it is with all the performers involved in this recording. The performance of Okanagon compares very well with the old LP performance by Ensemble 2e2m, while the recording of Maknongon is somewhat slower than the version for saxophone as recorded by Claude Delangle. Both performances of this work, however, are valid and expertly done, so I can’t say that either one is preferable. That there is more than one performance of any Scelsi work available on recording is a great thing.

So if you already know Scelsi’s music, this recording is a treat and a must-have. If you already don’t know Scelsi’s music, which is one of the most original outputs of the 20th century (up there with Ives, Partch, Nancarrow, Cowell, Feldman and a few others), you should, and this is a good introduction to his incredible and very beautiful music.

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John Luther Adams: Strange and Sacred Noise

Percussion Group Cincinnati
Mode 153 (CD or DVD)

In the small corner of that small corner of the world known as the new music community, John Luther Adams seems to be what I guess I’d call a monopolarizing figure. Most of the names that get tossed around in informal aesthetic discussions of contemporary music are very much of the “love them or hate them” variety; any cursory glimpse at a Sequenza21 or NewMusicBox comment thread will yield the usual suspects””Babbitt, Glass, Ferneyhough, Zorn, and so forth ad nauseam. One could probably devise a fairly accurate aesthetic barcode for composers based on their binary responses to a list like that: love, hate, love, love.

Not so with John Luther Adams. It seems, rather, that one either sees him as a relatively unheralded but extremely important composer, a musical and musico-philosophical pioneer and inspiration, or as a creator of briskly beautiful, rigorous music that is very well done indeed but not fundamentally earth-shaking. One either loves him, that is, or likes him.

I find myself, based admittedly on the limited and exceptional example of the present hour-long cycle of pieces for four percussionists, in the latter camp. These are compelling pieces, moving in their austerity. All but one of the nine pieces is scored for a quartet of identical or very similar instruments””that exception is scored for ten very similar instruments””and each explores a very limited ambitus of material and gesture, usually enveloped in a slow and simple structure of swells and fades. In fact, in his reliance on pure symmetry and self-similar patterns, Adams seems driven to attempt to do away with form altogether, regarding it as a mere nuisance that must be dispatched with given music’s inconvenient reliance on time and memory. The goal is rather a focus on sound, on the grain of a snare drum, on the intricacies of the absolutely unforgettable sound of four air-raid sirens wailing in fractal patterns.

The conceptual austerity, the bare confrontation with maximally stripped-down forms and sonic blocks, is distantly reminiscent of certain early works of Cage, and more distantly still of Satie, but the effect is entirely different. The most direct precedent is probably James Tenney’s epoch-making Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (indeed, solitary and time-breaking waves, the second constituent piece of Strange and Sacred Noise, is scored for four tam-tams and dedicated to Tenney). It’s true what they say, that Adams’ work evokes the frozen expanses of his home state of Alaska, that it seems””at least to the listener armed with the knowledge of the composer’s geographical situation””very much bound to a sense of place and an attendant attitude towards scale and geologic change that can only be palely reflected on a city boy like me. Had Adams lived and worked in, say, Rochester, I’m sure the explanations, and thus possibly the effect, would be quite different. But say the word “Alaska” in the context of this music, and it sticks, indelibly, until it is impossible to hear it any other way.

The performance, by the Percussion Group Cincinnati (whose approach to ensemble performance is detailed in a fascinating short essay in the liner notes by Steven Schick) is exemplary, and the sound quality of the recording is well nigh miraculous. I’m not yet convinced of Adams’ genius, of the claim to enduring influence as a singular creative figure that many seem ready to make on his behalf, but I am willing to be persuaded.

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