Archive for the “Piano” Category

868_cover

 

FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.

Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than  showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.

The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.

Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.

Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.

Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.

Comments 1 Comment »

Michael_Vincent_Waller_-_Five_Easy_Pieces_-_cover[1]Michael Vincent Waller: Five Easy Pieces

 

Gumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai

 

 

 

 

Five Easy Pieces is a new CD of solo piano music by composer Michael Vincent Waller. The five tracks in this album are uncluttered and introspective, offering an inviting entry into Waller’s accessible style. The pieces on this CD are cast from familiar materials and played with exemplary care, allowing the listener to fully concentrate on the many emotions and feelings imparted by the music. Gentle and approachable, this is music that inspires both concentration and contemplation.  Gumi Shibata performs on all the tracks save the last, which is played by Jenny Q. Chai.

The first track on the CD is L’anno del Serpente (2013) and this begins with an uncertain, pensive feeling in the melody that is accentuated by a rising bass line. The tempo is deliberate and the texture is effectively fashioned from repeating lines with simple harmonies. The piece proceeds by way of variations on the opening theme with the first variation offering a bit more complexity and a nice counter melody in the bass. At no time does the piece feel rushed but moves along purposefully so that by the second variation it becomes forcefully declarative. The melody transitions to a flowing, forward-moving series of lines and closes with a quiet passage that leaves the listener in a satisfyingly reflective mood.

L’anno del Serpente is followed by Ninna Nanna (2013) and this piece opens with a gentle, questioning feel that is reinforced with a repeating, bell-like melody. The tempo is unhurried and this allows the sonorous intervals in the harmony to fully ring out. A slight syncopation provides a sense of languid motion as the piece progresses. The first variation increases the tempo, adding density with more notes and counterpoint and this provides a nice contrast to the opening section. The second variation returns to the slower pace of the opening and here the repeating tones become almost hypnotic, the harmonies seeming to hang in the air. The final notes at the close hover above like a fine mist.

The next two tracks are titled Per Terry e Morty I and II (2012) and refer to Terry Jennings and Morton Feldman respectively. Part I begins with strong, direct quarter notes in the melody and a repeating line in the bass that produces a sense of searching and uncertainty. A slight tension is introduced as counterpoint moves into the upper registers so that part I seems to close in a question.  Part II has a middle eastern feel right from the beginning, with a simple melody above and strong chords below to form a powerful declarative line. Now counterpoint by way of a repeating figure above leads to a restatement of the opening with the addition of a descending line. Softening, slowing and then a return to tempo that restores the original color, followed by a strong chord at the finish. These two tracks provide an interesting contrast, especially part II with a strong exotic flavor.

The final track of Five Easy Pieces is Acqua Santa (2013) played by Jenny Q. Chai.  Dark, deep notes open and the mysterious feeling is enhanced with a moving line above, alternately accelerating and slowing.  A repeating line emerges, syncopated against the melody which serves to further deepen the mysterious feel. As the piece proceeds a series of solitary notes gather themselves into a halting cluster of full bodied chords, followed by a long arcing line that reestablishes the forward momentum. Finally, a sweet melody appears that accelerates, then slows turning introspective again.  Acqua Santa closes with an abbreviated recall of the mysterious opening.

Five Easy Pieces, like much of Waller’s music, seems to look forward and backward simultaneously. The sounds are recognizable and familiar – especially in an album consisting of solo piano music – but the studied simplicity and use of repeating figures owes much to the vocabulary of late 20th century minimalism. The result is a mixture that should appeal to even the most determined critic of contemporary music.

Five Easy Pieces is available on iTunes here .  More ways to download and listen are here.

Comments No Comments »

American Vernacular CD Cover art

New Music for Solo Piano

Nicholas Phillips, piano

New Focus Recordings

  • Spectacular Vernaculars – Mark Olivieri
  • Occidental Psalmody – Ethan Wickman
  • On the Drawing of Constellations – Ben Hjertmann
  • Bill-ytude – Joel Puckett
  • Piano Miniature #10, #12, #13 – Mohammed Fairouz
  • Beloved – David Maslanka
  • Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey – Luke Gullickson
  • Playin’ and Prayin’ – John Griffin
  • A Southern Pride – William Price
  • Hotfingers – David Rakowski

Nicholas Phillips approached several composers looking for music inspired by the phrase “American Vernacular” and the end result is a strong balance of eclectic musical tastes framed within relatively conservative harmonic and formal frameworks. Mr. Phillips was aiming for a “classical crossover” disc at the start but he creates is a disc of fun and charming music which, while performed with a high level of technical and musical sophistication, doesn’t feel the need to take itself too seriously. There are serious works on the disc, no doubt, but the overall focus is on enjoyable works which sound as gratifying to play as they are to hear. If you want a disc which is trying to rant for or against a style or idiom, you want a different disc. This is merely a well-programmed and performed collection of music which is approachable and engaging to listeners from a broad range of backgrounds.

Several works highlight direct ties to “vernacular” roots. Mark Olivieri’s Spectacular Vernaculars draws on ragtime, “Stella by Starlight” and De La Soul but clearly uses these inspirations as jumping off points instead of as a cursory exterior. Bill-ytude by Joel Puckett achieves the same using Billy Joel and Elton John stylings. Playin’ and Prayin’ by John Griffin takes Christian worship music tropes on a rhapsodic adventure and Mohammed Fairouz alludes to Liberace and Tin Pan Alley in two of his three miniatures. Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey synthesizes guitar licks and gestures from Fahey as well as Mississippi John Hurt.

Other composers focus more on the “American” side of the “American Vernacular” inspiration. William Price’s A Southern Prelude asks the question of “what makes music not just American but Southern?” and Ethan Wickman’s Occidental Psalmody takes the visual inspiration from watching the ocean rise and fall and turns that into expanding quintal harmonies. Fairouz’s third miniature, “America never was America to me” reacts to the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech filtered through the events of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances again shows David Rakowski’s flair for idiomatic and engaging piano writing. These three short works sound right at home among his piano etudes. Maybe I’m biased but I think every disc of American piano music should include something by Rakowski. David Maslanka’s Beloved doesn’t draw from any specific vernacular touchstone but rather keeps close to his other “remembrance” compositions. Perhaps the most removed from the “vernacular” idea, On the Drawing of Constellations by Ben Hjertmann is the least harmonically conservative and predictable. This work stands out on the disc for its unusual and captivating musical language and more ambient and environmental approach to its linear unfolding.

No matter the composers’ inspirations, Nicholas Phillips delivers solid and engaging performances which give first-time listeners all the overt connections they need and all the nuance that repeat listenings can uncover. American Vernacular is well worth checking out for anyone interested in current trends of contemporary American piano music.

Comments No Comments »

Layout 1

 

Here and There

Music for Piano and Electronics

Brian Belet / Jim Fox /
Jeff Herriott / Tom Lopez /
Ed Martin / Phillip Schroeder

Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano

Innova Recordings

Innova Recordings has assembled the work of six composers in this CD of music for piano and electronics, performed by Canadian pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. Released in early 2013, this album contains works written between 2006 to 2012 and combines the fine playing of Ms. Astolfi with varied atmospheric electronic and processed sounds.

Crystal Springs (2011) by Philip Schroeder is the first track on this CD and is inspired by the Arkansas landscape of brooks, streams and mysterious caves. This piece begins with booming bass chords that are created from electronically manipulated bass, cymbal and sounds from the inside of the piano. These are combined with piano trills in the middle and solitary notes in the upper registers. This effectively conjures a running, liquid feel combined with the deep darkness of an underground cavern, as if we are following a subterranean stream.

The piece is constructed in three parts and with each part the mysterious dark sounds in the lower registers increase and the watery sounds are reduced. The second section has a more animated and less of a flowing feel and is dominated more by the bass chords – as if we are traveling deeper and the water is splashing downwards. By the third section we hear long bass tones accompanied by slow, languid chords, then single notes sounding in the middle registers – a feeling of going deeper still. The low tones are more comforting now and by the conclusion of the piece there is the sense of arriving at a distant, unexplored place filled with a quiet serenity. The electronic processed sounds and the skillful playing of Ms. Astolfi combine here to produce just the right balance of mystery and beauty.

The second track is Swirling Sky (2011) by Ed Martin who describes this piece as inspired by “…peaceful moments spent lying in the grass, gazing at cloud formations drifting above.” This music contains a series of mystical, swirling sounds powered by light arpeggios in the upper registers combined with a sense of majesty in the lower chords. At 4:30 the feeling turns dark and powerful, like a storm approaching full of rain and thunder. Electronic effects provide a sense of rushing wind as the piece slowly winds down to a gentle finish. Swirling Sky was composed for Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi whose sense of imagination adds to this already imaginative work.

Track three is green is passing (1999, rev. 2006) by Jeff Herriott. Jeff explains that “The initial version… opened with pulseless material that would become typical of my later work. In 2006, when I reworked the piece for a performance by pianist-composer Dante Boon, I retained this opening structure but changed the piece’s development to better suit my evolved musical style.” The opening is indeed simple and spare, consisting of soft passages with just a few notes. It proceeds in a slow and stately manner, like a person speaking quietly with well-chosen words. There are pauses between the short phrases, allowing the notes to reverberate, and this evokes a sense of suspense and questioning. At other times there is a definite feeling of warmness – turning almost wistful and nostalgic. The piece ends with a long sustained note that seems to melt into the air. Ms. Astolfi’s playing provides the delicate and sensitive touch critical to this quiet piece.

The fourth track is by Brian Belet, titled Summer Phantoms: Nocturne (2011) and this completely lives up to its name. The piece opens with deep, scary sounds, like the throwing of a knife in the dark or a large blade cutting through the air. Piano notes, often dissonant, add to the tenseness. The electronics here are particularly effective and atmospheric. Brian explains: “The fixed media part is made up of piano sounds (string scrapes, hand-dampened tones, soundboard strikes and isolated tones) that I processed through Spectral Analysis, Sum of Sines, Time Alignment Utility and additional stochastic algorithms…” For all of that, the effects are genuinely chilling and not artificial or overly analytical. The piano weaves its line skillfully in and out between the electronics and the balance between the two sustains the tension. This piece convincingly portrays things that go bump in the night, and could well be the sound track for a horror movie.

Track 5 is Confetti Variations (2012) for piano and fixed media by Tom Lopez. According to the liner notes by the composer, this piece “…entailed shredding Brahms and Feldman piano music into brightly colored fragments, firing the sparkly bits into the air, and listening to them rain down on field recordings.” Accordingly, the piece starts out with a rousing segment of Brahms accompanied by the sounds of a fuse lit and burning – followed by explosions. More loud Brahms follows and a spectacular fireworks display is heard overhead. This gives way to distant thunder and rapid piano playing alternating with soft wind sounds and a quiet Feldmanesque piano section. Now a downpour is heard and the piano jumps from rapid, loud playing to quiet simple chords. The sounds of booming surf follow with gentle piano passages alternating with energetic Brahms. The plunk of a rock thrown into a stream is heard and the water seems to be moving more slowly now. Soon we are in a full-blown rain forest complete with sounds of birds and the croaking of frogs. This tranquil setting is leisurely accompanied by the piano and the buzzing of bees. The occasional piano notes and a few simple chords bring us to a quiet ending. The piano playing by Ms. Astolfi here is impressive as she switches seamlessly between the two styles – Brahms and Morton Feldman being two of her favorites. The field recordings are of a convincing and vivid fidelity. This track is an imaginative mix and demonstrates the creative possibilities of piano music combined with field recordings.

The final track is titled The pleasure of being lost (2012) by Jim Fox and is also for piano and fixed media. This piece was written for Jeri-Mae Astolfi and includes the speaking voice of Janyce Collins. The voice is distinct and is accompanied throughout by electronically processed sounds suggesting a steady roar of the wind.. The piano is heard as solitary notes and chords between long pauses, lending a lost – but not tense – feeling. The words are spoken in a flat, perfunctory tone and this provides a sense of reassurance. The text is from the 1854 journal of Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of Charles Darwin and an early explorer of the Himalayas. The words are partly an objective account of the remote surroundings in which he must have found himself and partly the stray thoughts of a wanderer. While this is certainly a solitary account, there is no sense of loneliness or fear. The piano provides a commentary on this discourse, sometimes building a bit of tension, sometimes turning introspective and nostalgic. The combination of voice, electronics and the spare piano passages are in just the right combination for building a convincing portrait of the seemingly contradictory states of pleasure and being lost.

This CD, as well as its separate tracks and links to the composers are available from Innova Recordings.

Comments No Comments »

Bright Angel

Kimberly Cole Luevano (Clarinet), Midori Koga (Piano), Lindsay Kesselman (Soprano)

 

Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano

 

Fleur De Son

 

FDS 581019

 

 

 

Fleur De Son’s recently released “Bright Angel: American Works For Clarinet And Piano” is an album that does right by new music in this country. It champions important composers who currently enjoy a range of notoriety through amazingly performed works that are strong and indicative of contemporary styles without sacrificing their reverence for tradition. There are two offerings by current big-namers Joan Tower and Libby Larsen and two more by accomplished and ascending Roshanne Etezady and Abbie Betinis whose path to dominance in new music’s near future will only be eased by their triumphant representation on this CD.

 

Of course, at the heart of any recording’s success or faaiure is the tremendous quality of its performers, and “Bright Angel” features three of today’s most fabulously gifted interpreters of contemporary music. Clarinetist Kimberly Cole Luevano and pianist Midori Koga appear throughout the disc, and Soprano Lindsay Kesselman joins them for Ms. Betinis’ song cycle Nattsanger. Their performances are exquisite as is their ensemble chemistry, which is demonstrated in moments like the opening of Ms. Etezady’s Bright Angel, when Ms. Luevano draws her sound out of a high, quartal or quintal harmony in the piano, or in the last movement of Nattsanger, when Ms. Kesselman’s scream of madness emerges from a high, screeching clarinet line.

 

As I alluded before, the pieces on “Bright Angel” are fairly centrist in their style, that is, they are certainly not aesthetically anachronistic, but are also not highly experimental or aggressive. Frankly, every work is extremely appealing, and represents the kind of music I wish could more frequently act as an ambassador of contemporary music to broad audiences. For example, Roshanne Etezady’s Bright Angel (which receives its recording world premiere on this CD) opens the album with warm lyricism and enthralling moments of virtuosity. Inspired by the architectural drawings of nineteenth century American architect Mary Jane Colter, Bright Angel possesses clear musical images of the West, which are conveyed clearly and thoughtfully through the grand tenderness of Ms. Etezady’s musical language.

 

Next up is Abbie Betinis’ Nattsanger (also a world premiere recording), which is a dramatic yet approachable song cycle on Norwegian texts depicting various stages of the night. Nattsanger presents dark, beautiful music that is skillfully orchestrated, namely in the way the clarinet and soprano play off each other’s similar colors and range. The performers are used conventionally with the exception of the fourth and eighth movements, where the texts’ underlying surrealism is most apparent. Here we find the clarinet and soprano used by themselves in a nervous duet (the fourth movement), and the aforementioned scream, which essentially ends the piece (the eighth movement). These are anchors of extremity, both in terms of the music’s expressive force, but also in the work’s symmetrical structure.

 

Joan Tower’s Fantasy (…those harbor lights) and Libby Larsen’s Licorice Stick further underscore the skill and craft of the composers and performers featured on “Bright Angel”. Fantasy is appropriately impulsive in character and mysterious in its expression. The prominence of the clarinet and piano’s roles are constantly shifting as they trade off prominence and, at times, share it – particularly when the musical explodes with energy about a third of the way through, rollicking through winding scales and arpeggios for most of the remaining music. Licorice Stick is less expansive an endeavor as Fantasy but nonetheless powerful. The most extensively aggressive work on the disc, Licorice Stick shows off the clarinet’s flare for bombast by drawing on its heritage as a jazz instrument (I’m about 90% sure there’s a Rhapsody In Blue quote) with pitch bends, trills and screaming altissimo lines. Throughout the shredding clarinet solos, the piano punches through with driving bass lines that make the piece stagger along the way to its loud, stumbling conclusion.

 

“Bright Angel” is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and from Fleur De Son’s website.

 

Comments No Comments »

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

Comments No Comments »

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.

Returnings

Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee

Comments No Comments »

Drew Baker

Stress Position

featuring Marilyn Nonken, piano

New Focus CD FCR 116

Composer Drew Baker’s music is demanding stuff. Highly conceptual, viscerally physical, and often politically charged, it requires much from its performers. Baker is fortunate to have a staunch advocate in pianist Marilyn Nonken. She has championed his music, commissioning works and programming them frequently on her recitals. This New Focus disc demonstrates just how much she has internalized music that would fell many a less formidable artist.

Take the title work, which is named after the “vigorous interrogating techniques” that, during the past decade, proved to be one of many regrettable blights on the United States’ human rights record. The piece requires Nonken to have her arms extended to both registral extremes throughout, gradually stretching her hands to navigate wider intervals and thicker chords. Sensory assault – increasingly piercing amplification – and, live at least, sensory deprivation (the work ends with the lights out, imitating a detainee being blindfolded) are also part of the package. It’s an unnerving, deeply troubling piece about an equally squirm inducing topic. The most amazing thing to me about all this – Nonken asked for this piece: she’s a plucky pianist!  Asa Nisi Masa, another amplified work, features fists full of dense low register clusters, delivered in a battery of cannonades.

But, thankfully, Baker isn’t merely indulging a streak of danger music throughout the disc. National Anthem, another piece commissioned by Nonken, is a far more delicate affair. Yet it’s just as politically motivated as Stress Position. The Star-Spangled Banner is deconstructed, played in three different keys, in a slowly moving overlapping canon. What might seem like an Ivesian conceit is deployed in a more Feldmanesque fashion, to agreeable effect. Also quite appealing is Gray, another slowly developing piece featuring angular linear counterpoint and gently articulated yet dissonant harmonies, delicately shaded with careful attention to pedaling indications and keen awareness of the decay rates of various resonances. It’s played quite beautifully in this detailed performance by Nonken; she inhabits it with graceful poise.

Baker and percussionists Sean Connors and Peter Martin join Nonken for Gaeta, a work for two pianos and water percussion. I heard this piece’s premiere at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process Series back in 2006 and found it to be quite impressive.  One was awash in a plethora of water sounds, hand percussion, and prepared piano in a soundscape that was abundantly varied yet never overly busy. While Gaeta thrives in a live acoustic, the New Focus disc has done much to capture its shimmering sonic magic.

Comments No Comments »

CD coverThe Calls of Gravity

music of David Laganella

The Prism Quartet, Marilyn Nonken, Ensemble CMN

New Focus Recordings

  • Leafless Trees – The Prism Quartet
  • The Hidden River – Marilyn Nonken
  • Unattainable Spaces – Ensemble CMN
  • The Persistence of Light – Marilyn Nonken
  • Sundarananda – Ensemble CMN

These recent works by composer David Laganella feature a constant nattering of activity full of motion and gestures and with very little stability or repose. Leafless Trees is an energetic and coloristic set of miniature toccatas for saxophone quartet. The Prism Quartet are clearly at home here as they make the acrobatics and difficult timbral shifts sound fluid and organic. The quartet is a showy virtuosic piece and I found that I wanted to listen to the individual sound worlds of each movement for a greater amount of time that Laganella had composed.

Marilyn Nonken’s two performances (The Hidden River and The Persistence of Light) features almost constant activity and flow as is fitting to the compositions’ inspirations. Both pieces function with their own internal logic through a linear form that eschews repetition for constant development. These pieces are based on textures instead of gestures with broad dramatic shapes to guide the listener. Harmonies are dense clusters which occasionally relax into softer sounds. As a whole, Laganella uses the piano as a single voice with very little use of large-scale polyphony. The smaller gestures that make up the whole composition are again appropriate given his inspirations of water and light.

Unattainable Spaces stays true to the sound world that Laganella has presented thus far. Tight dissonances are the glue that bind this ensemble (string trio, clarinet, and percussion) into a single unified instrument. The language is equally sinewy and slippery as it progresses from one moment to the next. In a refreshing change of pace, the final composition played by Ensemble CMN has smooth edges and a more tender touch. Sundarananda for flute, cello, and guitar, is a compellingly understated piece built of slower moving lyrical lines sometimes punctuated by more hectic activity. The trio waxes and wanes and is full of breath. Short spiky gestures that become the mainstay of Laganella’s later compositions (this work is the earliest on the disc – 2004) are given resonant space. A tight control over the dramatic arch is still maintained. I’m not sure what has happened in the past 7 years to move Laganella’s music into a more hectic and manic direction but I hope he will still draw upon the serene contemplations he had when composing Sundarananda.

Comments No Comments »

Charlemagne Palestine   

Strumming Music

(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)

Sub Rosa

Upon first cracking open this 3-CD collection of Strumming by Charlemagne Palestine, I saw the brief newspaper article by John Rockwell who tells the tale of a Palestine performance cut short because the composer was playing a Steinway and not a Bösendorfer (“cut short” is relative since the piece lasted 2.5 hours instead of 4).  The article presents the situation as an acute case of “diva-itis” but when I heard the original version of Strumming (even listed as “for Bösendorfer piano”) and heard the massive clouds of overtones and sympathetic vibrations, I could see why Palestine would not be pleased with a Steinway instrument.  So much of the piano version of Strumming doesn’t happen at the keyboard but in the air around it.  The incessant keyboard hammerings melts into waves of sound much like dots in a Seurat painting.  Around the 17 minute mark of this 52 minute performance from 1974 my brain couldn’t hear the keyboard anymore – just the spectra of the harmonies pushing against each other.  The cresting wave around 30 minutes is an absolutely transcendent ride as is the surrender to the “power chords” 7 minutes later.  I trust Charlemagne Palestine to deliver what he wants me to hear and this recording is one you can trust.  As much as I would love to hear a more recent, higher-resolution, and longer version of the work, I think it is hard to call this performance anything other than definitive.  It makes the 12 minute version of Strumming on the Godbear album feel like a 5 Second Film.

In addition to Palestine performing on Bösendorfer, the Sub Rosa collection has two other versions: one for harpsichord performed by Betsy Freeman in 1977 and one for a string ensemble organized at the SF Conservatory by John Adams in that same year.  The harpsichord version weighs in at 35 minutes and is probably the closest to providing an actual “strum” aesthetic although without the pronounced melting of sustained sonic spectra.  Freeman’s technique and treatment of the material is compelling and well paced.  Some folks might approach a harpsichord version of Strumming with extreme distaste but there is no reason to avoid this wonderful performance.

I found the string ensemble version (about 25 minutes long) to be surprisingly sustained whereas the keyboards furiously chug away.  There is nary a tremolo to be heard nor any other picturesque technical tricks that one would expect from string ensemble writing.  The harmonic journey is laid bare and exposed in a frail and naked manner.  It is this string version that I really hope gets taken up and revisited in a longer and higher quality recording (at least one without coughing).  As a minor quibble, I’m not sure why this is sold as a 3 disc set since the harpsichord and string versions could comfortably fit on a single disc.  True, there are few of us who will spin all versions back-to-back-to-back, but I always bristle when I have a disc with so much dead space by a composer known for extended compositions.

While these recordings are supposedly of the same piece of music, each of these versions contains a different element of “truth” to them.  Each stands squarely on its own as a performance of a hypnotic and unique compositional voice instead of sounding as mere arrangements of the original piano version.  These three recordings are interconnected the same way that good film/book pairings (2001, Blade Runner) contain the core of the work while still showcasing different distinct artistic visions.

Comments 1 Comment »