Archive for the “Women Composers” Category
Jenny Olivia Johnson
Don’t Look Back
Innova Recordings CD 925
Wellesley professor Jenny Olivia Johnson presents a program of synth-inflected songs on Don’t Look Back, her debut recording for the Innova imprint. Like many good indie classical songwriters, her formula combines beautiful sounds with stark lyrics: I like to think of it as the “Corey Dargel effect.” Very fine interpreters sing the songs: Megan Schubert, P. Lucy McVeigh, and Amanda Crider. Johnson’s performances as percussionist and electronic musician are seamlessly melded with instrumental contributions by some of the luminaries from the current indie classical scene: violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Peter Gregson, flutist Jessica Schmitz, clarinetist Eileen Mack, and pianist Isabelle O’Connell among them. Conductor Nathaniel Berman leads the ensemble in assured renditions of the material. While plenty of composers are reveling in the electro-acoustic playground, there aren’t too many that have the orchestrator’s ear and sense of pacing possessed by Johnson. Recommended.
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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
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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.
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Songs of Ascension
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Todd Reynolds Quartet, The M6, Montclair State University Singers/Heather Buchanan, conductor
ECM New Series
(to be released 5/17)
Meredith Monk has been among my favorite composers since I first heard works like Tablet and Key in the 70’s. Her work since Dolmen Music has remained consistently good, and has built on her considerable work with extended vocal techniques.
Songs of Ascension in part refers to one concept for the work in which performers ascend a double helical, dual staircase, which meant that strings were in, as keyboards and mallet percussion would not be feasible since schlepping them up the stairs is difficult at best. The title also refers to the title “Song of Ascents” that alludes to the changing of psalms during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which begs the question, why is going up considered sacred and going down, not so much?
This is the first piece for string quartet by Meredith Monk that I’m aware of, although she certainly has used isolated stringed instruments before (the cello solo of Dolmen Music immediately comes to mind). The string quartet, which includes the venerable Todd Reynolds, is also augmented at times by a shruti box, which creates a drone. There are other forces involved as well, including several vocal ensembles, winds and percussion.
But the music is quintessential Monk, with a clear evolution from the earlier works of the 70’s. The strings work very well, both by themselves and in concert with the other performers. Some sections worked better for me than others, particularly the last section titled Ascent, but that’s just my own personal preference. This is an extremely well performed album, and I can’t imagine it was easy to put together. The string writing is challenging, and the performance by The Todd Reynolds Quartet and Allison Sniffin on violin is impeccable. The various vocalists must perform extremely difficult parts, and they make it sound easy. The percussion and winds are also first-rate. It is always a good thing when performers come together to play new music; when they also clearly have an affinity for the music, that is especially uncommon. This is an album that any Monk devotee should have. But it is also an album for anyone interested in new music. And on May 17th, it becomes available.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Women Composers, tags: Cantaloupe, CD Review, Ensemble Resonanz, Jay Batzner, Julia Wolfe, postminimalism, strings
Brad Lubman, conductor
The big question I had when putting in this disc for the first time was “Will a string orchestra be able to recreate the visceral power and energy that I find vital in Julia Wolfe’s string quartets?” My fear was that the harder and sharper attacks I enjoy will be too diluted with more players in the ensemble. It was a silly skepticism to hold and any trepidations I had quickly melted away once I started listening. Also, Ensemble Resonanz is the same group that recorded Weather and a disc of Xenakis. I was pretty sure I was going to have a good time with this CD.
Ensemble Resonanz and Julia Wolfe make an excellent team. Not only did Wolfe obviously compose music better suited for an orchestra than a quartet (it was foolish of me to doubt that she would) but Resonanz also threw serious energy behind both pieces. Cruel Sister, inspired by a dark Old English ballad, is expressive and emotive balancing the programmatic elements with a clean dramatic line that makes sense in the abstract. The hollow open intervals which throb away at the beginning enmesh with more angry and spiky punctuations. The four attacca movements are woven together in a solid and disrupted narrative. Ensemble Resonanz brings power and control to the whole range of the sonic spectrum and Wolfe adeptly showcases register and texture. I am especially fond of the transition between the second and third movements which is (to my ear) simultaneously abrupt yet smooth.
Fuel is a far more abstract work driven by the problems the world faces regarding the necessity of fuel. Ensemble Resonanz masterfully blends in a variety of coloristic techniques, making sounds like scratch tones a part of the woven tapestry of sound. The CD notes go so far as to state that electronics were not used at all and that all the sounds in the piece are acoustic. I think that disclaimer is a bit much. There is certainly a wider variety of string techniques and timbres in Fuel than in Cruel Sister but I never had a “What the heck was that?” reaction. Scratch tones, harmonics, tremolo, and filtering the sound via bow placement are all active parameters in the sound world. Again, Resonanz brings a whole lot of power throughout the registers and forms a massive hyper-instrument blend the likes of which make string quartets secretly jealous.
Wolfe’s music is also doing what she does best: frenetic power created through post-minimalist techniques that transcend mere repetition. The music materials are sharp, taut, basic, and the economy of material is expertly managed. Wolfe knows how to make a lot out of a little AND pull the listener along for the ride. Both works have programmatic elements but not knowing the program does not interfere with the listening experiences. These works sound fresh and contemporary and I’m confident that audiences in the future will continue to relate and connect with the ideas therein.
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In Media Res / Roam / Double Violin Concerto / Synopses 1-15
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose
With Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Lisa Bielawa, soprano
Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, first gained fame as a singer, touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992, although she had concurrently been a composer since her earliest years and had received several performances when she was in her teens. She founded in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, and began concentrating on her own compositions. Right from the beginning, she has shown a decided preference for the larger forms of music. Her dense, robust symphonic style is not at all what you would expect of a vocalist turned composer, although she does not ignore the lyrical element in her music.
Roam (2001), one of the earlier works on this program, already reveals Bielawa’s gift for perusasive, moody orchestration and her passionate love of literature. The inspiration in this case was a quote from Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: “I roam above the sea, / I wait for the right weather, / I beckon to the sails of ships. / … / When shall I start on my free course?” In keeping with the verse, which has more to say about the inner state of the speaker than it is a tone picture of the sea, Bielawa focuses on the tension between the exhileration of freedom, like a ship moving freely on the sea, and the danger that freedom entails.
Double Violin Concerto (2008) was dedicated “to Colin, Carla, Gill, and BMOP” and reflects Bielawa’s close personal and professional relations to three key figures in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (see above). It represents a further step beyond Roam in its great melodic and tonal warmth. After the contrapuntal solemnity of the opening movement, “Portico,” we are in for a surprise in “Song,” as violinist Kihlstedt sings an English translation of a passge from Gorthe’s Faust accompanied by her own scordatura violin and Jacobsen’s deft arpeggios in support of the vocal line. The text is appropriate, too, a tribute to the transformative power of the imagination: “Leave the great world, let it run riot, / And let us stay where it is quiet. / It’s something that has long been done, / To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.” Jacobsen takes the center stage in the final movement, Play with a Play,” which begins in deeply moving music inspired by Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, grows more intense, and almost imperceptibly metamorphoses into, first, a stately dance episode, and then an evocation of gypsy fiddling with an improvided cadenza.
Bielawa herself is the vocalist in Unfinish’d, Sent (2000), inspired by a line from Richard III in which the protagonist excuses his evil proclivities by blaming them it on his physical deformity: “Unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” In the first half of the piece, which is all orchestra, a gesture struggles mightily to no avail, to coalesce into a melody. When the singer enters with an eery setting of Shaespeare’s verse, it reinforces the sense of something (such as a work of music?) striving to be born. Sound echoes sense again in an unsettling, rhythmically-recast, quote from Vivaldi’s Winter, emphasizing the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”
Lisa Bielawa saves the best for last on CD1. Titled In Media Res, the 2009 work is perhaps the most exacting of all genres, the concerto for orchestra. Bielawa wrote it to commemorate her tenure with BMOP and her friendships with its members. She based it, in turn, on her 15 Synopses, pithy, aphoristic pieces lasting on the average about five minutes that typically develop out of small kernels and crystallize to give a distinct impression of the personality and prowess of each musical artist. The individual Synopses are further distinguished with whimsical 6-word titles, such as “In The Eye Of The Beholder,” “It Takes One To Know One,” “No-No-No, Put That Down” and “Two days after you left, I,” further underscoring the orchestral concerto genre itself as a species of serious play. (The 15 Synopses are collected together on CD2, which, at 68:45, cannot exactly be considered an “extra” on this program.)
What Bielawa did, amazingly, was to fashion her Concerto for Orchestra (which truly deserves the name: it is not by any means a pastiche) by assembling the various Synopses like a skilled lapidary into a very impressive and solidly cohesive whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Like the major work of symphonic music that it is, it ranges over all the emotions, from rising excitement mounting to terror at the very opening, to sadness, pensiveness, hope, and even joyous affirmation. Add the glowing, luminous orchestration, revealing a composer who understands well the range and expressive capability of every instrument, and you have a concerto for orchestra that will stand up with the most distinguished achievements in this genre of the past hundred years. Seriously, I urge every aficionado of 20/21 music to give full attention to this rising star.
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Piano Works (revisited)
I was surprised when the two-disc collection of piano music (composed and performed) by Elodie Lauten had me entranced from the opening of the first track: Cat Counterpoint. I approached this particular track with a fair amount of apprehension. I’ve simply been around too many instances of composers using their pet’s meanderings on music instruments as source material. Any hesitation I felt towards the track melted away within seconds. Instead of Lolcats, the room filled with driving and energetic punctuations. You can’t judge a track by its title.
The collected Piano Works from 1983 take the lead on the first disc: Cat Counterpoint, Revelation, Adamantine Sonata, Alien Heart, and Imaginary Husband make for excellent character pieces as well as a cycle of works. There is a foundation in minimalism present, as one would expect from an icon of the Downtown scene. Lauten’s minimalist language is one full of play and punk, separating it from the austere minimalism found safely inside textbooks. The underlying simplicity lends to a strong sense of flow over process. Each piece creates a moment that rarely extends beyond itself nor do they need to extend. These 1983 pieces were constructed with an ear and not a slide rule. I find Adamantine Sonata particularly charming.
The inclusion of ambient sound and supporting electronics is frequent in the 1983 works and the technique is put in overdrive for Lauten’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. This 1984 set uses a quilt of disconnected instrumental and electronic textures to create eight signature moments. Each of these segments is strongly focused around a shape, texture, or groove and throughout the segment’s lifespan the idea simply is. There is a zen element in this concerto, each track is totally of the moment. Some listeners may want more of a sense of trajectory and dramatic shape but I am not among them. These moments are what they are and as such they are fascinating. The spacious Orchestral Memory and the cheeky Tempo di Habanera form polar opposites of affect and, for that very reason, appeal to me the most. Disc one closes with a fairly straight-ahead Tango with a mournful and husky vocal line.
If you are looking for a deep end off which to go, then disc two will be happy to serve you. Instead of many short tracks, disc two provides two beefy works: Variations on the Orange Cycle and Sonate Modale. Any criticisms laid out about disc one’s lack of trajectory can be laid to rest in Orange Cycle. Within the opening seconds I knew I was going to be here for a while, letting the hypnotic and resonant sounds wash over me, La Monte Young-style. After about seventeen minutes, Lauten does the most amazing thing. The low drone, the foundation of the very work, goes away. The listener drifts and floats, untethered for some time, and when the low voice returns it is not the same static firmament we had left behind us. Where I expected the drone to reassert itself, it never finds full strength again. The piece closes on that drone pitch but with uncertainty, timidity, and quiet. The world of the piece has changed and Lauten did not take the easy way out. Variations on the Orange Cycle is worth every second.
Sonate Modale, in this live recording from Toronto in 1985, is a rather intimate experience. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall while Lauten created all the 1983 pieces and the Concerto. The ambient electronic environments are cut from the same cloth as the earlier pieces and the live piano meanders through gestures and stream-of-consciousness improvisations. Dramatically, the piece works well as a whole, as if Lauten decided to stich together the quilt of the Concerto.
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Simple Lines of Enquiry
Eve Egoyan, piano
You have to be in an unfamiliar mindset to listen to Ann Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry. If you’re not, you might find yourself waiting just under an hour (58:41 to be exact) for something momentous to happen, and then leaving with the feeling that you have been cheated. As presented here with great discipline and sensitivity by pianist Eve Egoyan, who has often collaborated with Southam and gives the present work its premiere recording, the twelve movements that make up this major work for piano come across as the aural equivalent of twelve abstract paintings hanging by themselves in a gallery, generating an atmosphere of silence instead of sound, stasis instead of the activity we usually expect from a work of music.
This, of course, is minimalist, and very slow. The emphasis is on a 12-tone row, or rather a 12-interval row, as Southam would have it, with a slow, gentle, and precisely sequenced exploration of these intervals and the sonorities they create. As Southam has explained it elsewhere, the two notes in the right hand at the end of the sequence provide a kind of tonal center around which the 12-tone row works. At the same time, Southam’s music is distinctly atonal. Her silences are as eloquent as the bell-like sounds she is fond of deriving from repeated notes. In this recording you will typically hear Eve Egoyan play a cluster of 5-10 notes which seem to hang in the air, mingle their overtones, and then fade into near silence before she resumes her attack on the next cluster. Egoyan talks of Southam’s “magically suspended, weightless sound world, a place for deep listening and contemplation.”
And here we get to the crux of the matter. In Southam’s writing, the usual linear aspect of music takes on a very different meaning. Notions such as melody, rhythm and counterpoint exist, if at all, in a personal context. Tones and their overtones take on the character of the principal subject of the music. The end result is to create a deep listening experience that focuses and relaxes the mind of the listener, facilitating a contemplative state. Since these ends are so highly intimate and personal, it is difficult to imagine Simple Lines of Enquiry inspiring much enthusiasm from a concert audience, as opposed to the performer or the home listener. As contemplatives, we exist as individuals, not en masse. Depending on your own mood and your listening needs at the moment, attending to the music on this CD may leave you feeling deeply relaxed and centered. (If, however, you prefer things Canadian served up with a bit more excitement, go and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs!)
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Innova, Jay Batzner, Piano, Women Composers, tags: CD Review, Innova, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Millikan, Piano
Music of Ann Millikan
Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Grigor Palikarov, conductor
- Ballad Nocturne (with Emanuele Arciuli, piano)
- Trilhas de Sombra
- Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal
Ann Millikan’s music is a wonderfully eclectic mix of several contemporary compositional styles and yet Millikan retains an individual and consistent voice throughout each work on this Innova CD. Ballad Nocturne, (2009) for piano and chamber orchestra, puts jazz harmonies and figurations through a Druckman-esque prism. Neither straight-ahead jazz nor purely-abstract instrumental music, this piece encapsulates Millikan’s musical personality: that of a synthesizer. Disperate elements flow together and mix in seamless compositions. Around the 8 minute mark of Ballad Nocturne, time simply stops as high strings and a repeated high piano figure float over a slightly-disturbed walking piano bass. The piece switches gears from pseudo-lounge to Morton Feldman without dislocating the listener’s eardrum. Instead of ending the piece at this moment, which I fully expected, a more traditional jazz ballade lugubriously emerges and clarifies everything we’ve heard previously with the subdued juxtaposition of earlier elements.
Perhaps jazz transformations aren’t your thing. No worries there, because the orchestral triptych Trilhas de Sombra, (2009) a programatic work based upon a story written by Millikan’s niece, feeds any needs you have for good ol’ American atonal expressionism. Except, of course, when Millikan doesn’t need such language to express the ideas in the story. Gestures and textures tend to abound instead of melodies but the music is still a cohesive unit that moves in a single, unified direction. The melodies that emerge are long and fluid and showcased with solid and direct orchestrations. Millikan doesn’t get caught in the trap of being overly clever and instead crafts a wonderfully picturesque and programatic work and like many great programatic orchestral showcases, Trilhas de Sombra doesn’t come across as a movie soundtrack without the visuals. Unabashedly contemporary in sound, this is an approachable and enjoyable work that does not condescend to the listener.
Millikan has been flexing her synthesis muscles in the previous two works and the final composition, as one would expect, merges elements from the previous two (even though it is the earliest piece on the disc – 2008). Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal is just as trippy and fun as the title might suggest. I don’t know how to land “inside the inside” of something, nor do I wholly understand how the spacey, abstract, atonal music of the first half relates to the Afro-Cuban inspired dance rhythms that drive the second half. I also don’t know how this all ties into the “story of initiation” mentioned in the program notes. You know what? I don’t care that I don’t know how this works. It works. Being a fan of WTF moments in compositions, Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal hits me right where I live. This piece is a journey but, unlike Trilhas de Sombra, there didn’t seem to be a predetermined path to follow. It is as if Millikan just struck out to go somewhere and ended up in the most wonderful and fantastic places.
I do have one problem with this disc. While the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds great on each piece, it really irks me that such purely American music written in the last 2 years had to be outsourced for the recording. I should think that American orchestras would be falling all over themselves to perform and record Millikan’s output.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, Women Composers, tags: CD Review, chamber music, free improvisation, Jay Batzner, Piano, saxophone, strings, Vocal, voice
Vivian Houle, vocalist
- Mandrake (with Peggy Lee, cello)
- Molehills mumps (with Lisa miller, piano)
- Paperthin (with Coat Cooke, saxophone)
- Gratte-moi le dos (with Kenton Loewen, drums)
- Quiet eyes (with Ron Samworth, guitar)
- It’s not the moon (with Chris Gestrin, analog keyboards and live sampling)
- Betters and bads (with Jesse Zubot, violin)
- Finely tuned is my heart (with Jeremy Berkman, trombone)
- Au revas (with Paul Plimley, piano)
- A little storm (with Jeff Younger, guitar)
- Bells hung in a tree (with Clyde Reed, bass)
- Song not for you (with Brent Belke, guitar)
- Curve (with Stefan Smulovitz, kenaxis)
The very essence of chamber music is perfectly captured in these thirteen tracks. Viviane Houle’s duets with each of these artists is raw music making – free improvisations that transcend the ordinary and provide sonic experiences unlike anything else. Houle’s sonic repertoire is no short of astonishing. Half of the time I can’t tell which sounds she is making and which are being made by her instrumental counterpart. On the same token, both performers on each track are so adept at listening to each other that the flow of events sounds totally organic and alive. While the bulk of the tracks are showcases for Houle’s vocal fireworks she is always blending with the ensemble and creating a sonic “hyperinstrument” that is neither one nor the other.
A few of the tracks feature a more traditional melodic and sung role for the voice. Houle, who also wrote all the texts, trends towards the smokey and hazy sounds of somber jazz or beat poetry. Her rich sound and warm emotional expressions are further featured on one of my favorite tracks, It’s not the moon. Houle’s voice is the DNA of Chris Gestrin’s synth work creating a haunting, graceful, and eternal sounding track.
The last three tracks on the disc transition smoothly from one to the next, making an excellent journey. Bells hung in a tree has a subdued ending that sounds like it continues as the next track fades in. Song not for you hits me right in my Heavy Metal spot. Houle and Belke sound like a great thrashing metal duo from somewhere in the Oort Cloud who have recently learned to sing using random Japanese phonemes (and I mean that in the best possible way). The thrash continues while the ambient sizzle of Curve takes over. Like It’s not the moon, Curve puts Houle’s voice in the background and she inexorably emerges from the synthetic world into an oozing and pulsating mass of delicious aural goo.
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