Archive for the “Other Minds” Category

Alabama Places

Ellen Tweiten, piano; Kurt Carpenter, microtonal keyboard

innova Recordings

“The synthesizer uses a piano patch and is detuned by 40 cents.” You know, when you encounter tid-bits like this in the booklet notes, you are talking about a different kind of animal altogether, in whose habits, care and feeding I do not claim to be familiar. So, I’ll be very brief before exhausting my knowledge on the subject. It seems that microtones are intervals of less than an equally spaced semitone. In Western music, which is based on 12 equal intervals to the octave, microtones have been of negligable importance (not so in music of the non-western world from Africa to Bali, where considerable use is made of them). Contemporary interest in semitones has been spurred by real-time computer music performance systems in both electronic and rock music. Beyond that, there seem to be literally hundreds of possible microtonal keyboard designs, which may vary considerably in the way they take and modify information from another source, such as a traditional keyboard instrument.

Alabama Places is a set of twelve duets for piano and microtonal keyboard, which composer Monroe Golden describes as “the fruit of an introspective four-year journey.” Each duet is connected in some way to a place that has either a strong personal association for the composer or some regional or historic significance. While we aren’t given specific information as to the type of microtonal keyboard employed here, Golden does inform us that these pieces were conceived as studies in the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, only in overtone-based harmony rather than key relationships. “The keyboard is detuned by an interval between 4 and 48 cents, in 4-cent increments, for each of the twelve pieces,” says the composer. “Thus, the entire set explores twelve different 24-note scales made up of two asymmetrical 12-note equal-tempered scales. Available pitches at a given moment correspond to overtone relationships from fundamental frequencies that also shift in 4-cent increments.”

Confused? I must admit I don’t follow the theory involved, so I’ll focus on the affective side of the music. Other critics have spoken of the “beauty and elegance” of these microtonal duets, finding them “delightfully disorienting” and “sumptuous, yet arcane.” Since my own ears have not been sufficiently “detuned” or “re-tuned,” I must confess there seems to be more than a little family resemblance among them, or, as Lewis Carroll’s dormouse would have put it, “much of a muchness.” The effect on the listener can be described as “mesmerizing,” if one is inclined to like what he hears, or “stupefying,” if one isn’t.

There is a kind of calming, soothing effect, perhaps even pensiveness or nostalgia, in the simplicity of Golden’s writing for the piano, which goes along well with the evocation of place names like “Iron Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “North Shelby,” and “Pell City.” The music in each duet did not always strike me as a perfect correlative for the place name. There are two duets with notable water-associations: “Tensaw,” inspired by a canoe trip down the Tensaw River, is described by Golden as “slow moving, lyrical, effortless, and buzzy” like the river itself (“Buzzy”? Maybe that’s the sound made by cicadas on the riverbanks on a hot summer’s day?.) “Coosa Basin” is more energetic, with cadences allegedly inspired by the hydroelectric plants in the area. Other correspondences are not as obvious, however: “Demopolis,” in a region of the state that time seems to have forgotten, is characterized by music not so very different from that used for “Montevallo,” Golden’s tribute to his alma mater, the liberal arts university where he studied in the early 80’s and where he fell in love with his first Moog synthesizer.  Switch the name plates, and we might be none the wiser.  There is, however, something for just about everyone to like in Alabama Places, whether you are a microtonal buff or not.

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Studies for Player Piano
Conlon Nancarrow
The Original 1750 Arch Recordings
Supervised by the Composer

Other Minds (4 CD set)

I first encountered the original LPs of Nancarrow’s amazingly intricate Studies when I was in college and hosting a new music program on WHPK-FM. Nancarrow’s background (he was in the Lincoln Brigade that fought against Franco’s fascist government in Spain, which made his continued presence in the US untenable), along with his incredibly focused devotion to his music for player pianos (which required a very laborious and time consuming process), was as compelling then as it is today. At that time, however, while I respected his music and genius, his works just didn’t grab me. I was awash in minimalism, coming out of a background in 12-tone music, and Nancarrow’s music didn’t register with me.

My ears have since matured, fortunately. Several years ago, I obtained the Wergo set of the Studies, and I’ve been in love with Nancarrow’s player piano works ever since. Much has been made of the influence Nancarrow’s music had on Ligeti, and it’s easy to see elements of Nancarrow in Ligeti’s later works, particularly the Etudes. To say that Nancarrow’s player piano works are among the most important music of the 20th century is not an understatement.

So if the Wergo set is so good (it is), why bother with this 4-CD set? Because it’s the real deal. All of the recordings were done under the direct supervision of Nancarrow himself, using his own player pianos (“two 1927 Ampico player pianos, one with metal-covered felt hammers and the other with leather strips on the hammers.”), and now digitally remastered. Just as no two pianos are truly identical, no two player pianos have quite the same sound. What you hear on these recordings is exactly what the composer heard in his studio in Mexico. Plus the comprehensive and detailed notes by James Tenney and an essay by Charles Amirkhanian (who produced the set), nicely reproduced from all four original LPs, are by themselves well worth the price.

Of all the studies, my personal favorites are #21 (one of the most amazing compositions, IMHO), #25 (with the famous ending of 1028 notes in 12 seconds that even grabs my daughter’s attention) and #37. Nancarrow was a master of tempo canons, and of canonical writing in general. I didn’t appreciate this when I was in college, and have been making up for lost time in the past few years by listening to as much of Nancarrow’s music as I can get my hands on. If you have any interest at all in new music, buy this album. If you already own a recording of the Studies, buy this album, since it’s as authentic as you can get short of going down to Nancarrow’s studio and playing his piano rolls on the original pianos in real time. I should note, however, that the Wergo album has a few items (like Study 2b and the Tango) that are not included in the 1750 Arch set.

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Hands Like Waves Unfold
Improvisations for Prepared Piano
Kui Dong

Other Minds

The prepared piano has had a long history and has been used by composers such as Cage (who invented the concept), Nancarrow (just once, to the best of my knowledge), and even Arthur Berger. The composer Kui Dong can now be added to the list, as she has released this very nice album of improvisations she performed on a prepared piano, some of which used preparations specified by Cage himself.

Dong trained both in China and at Stanford, and has been active in a free improvisation group with Christian Wolff and Larry Polansky up at Dartmouth (or down at Dartmouth, if you live further north than NH). As such, she is well versed in improvisation and this recording reflects her skill and creativity. For starters, regardless of whether or not she used Cage’s preparations, this music sounds nothing like any of Cage’s prepared piano works. Rather, it has an individual quality all its own, to Dong’s credit. At some points, Dong also seems to go the Henry Cowell route and play the strings of the piano.

This is largely very meditative music, and was a pleasure to listen to. What is particularly interesting is the fact that Dong tends to approach the prepared piano less percussively, to my ears at least, than did Cage and others. In all, this is a very fine album of improvisation for the prepared piano, one that is meant to be enjoyed.

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