Clocking in at well over three hundred minutes in duration, Michael Finnissy’s eleven-movement cycle for solo piano The History of Photography in Sound (composed 1997-2000) is a gargantuan effort for both composer and performer. Ian Pace is the foremost advocate for and interpreter of Finnissy’s piano music – over the past two decades, he has performed all of it and is presently writing a monograph about the composer. One cannot imagine a more heartfelt nor technically skilful performance of this work.
From a composer with a more directly programmatic bent, a work titled “North American Spirituals,” as is this piece’s third movement, would sound very different. But Finnissy’s musical language revels in a complex interplay of far flung reference points, ample virtuosity, and a penchant for pungent, dense harmonies and a coruscating rhythmic grid. Thus, musical program can sometimes be integrated in earnest or with a measure of critical distance – oftentimes, both aspects of dealing with narrative are at least somewhat present. The past, especially past music, can sometimes seem to be a far-off memory distantly evoked; it can also seem to be lampooned in over-the-top fashion.
Finnissy has been called a “New Complexity” composer, and late modernism is merely one strain of his work. While Ives’s sense of collage and quotation certainly is a touchstone, so too are Scriabin, Schoenberg, Liszt, folksong, pop standards, and, yes, Ferneyhough. Also present are a variety of recurring themes – homosexuality, freedom, violence, sensuality, Christianity, community, literature, poetics – the list goes on.
The question many listeners inevitably will have, particularly with the prospect of 5 ½ hours of Finnissy’s music ahead, is how to make heads or tails of an overarching message or narrative: it would seem to elude one’s grasp. And that’s because, as far as this writer can tell, there isn’t a single idée fixe to be had: that’s not the reason for this cycle’s existence. We may like to think that a monumental and cyclic composition must have a single thread for us to wend our way through it – even the twists and turns of the Ring Cycle have a mythological framework for us (tenuously) to grip. Pace has written often of Finnissy’s generous spirit, and if there is a through line to be found in The History of Photography in Sound, it is that spirit of generosity bestowing upon us all the many musical ideas Finnissy has to offer: and that’s quite a lot. So, don’t worry about “getting it” on first hearing: that’s not the point either. Instead, revel; wallow even, in the embarrassment of riches and abundant virtuosity on display here. Then, listen again, gradually peeling away successive layers to find your favorite bits.
Caution: The History of Photography in Sound is a heavy dose for a single sitting, much like watching a season of Breaking Bad in a single weekend: binge at your own risk! Still, this is a boxed set that is wholeheartedly recommended.
The follow-up to Listening to Istanbul, Seda Roeder’s CD spotlighting Turkish composers, Black and White Statements provides a wide-ranging overview of Austrian composers who write for the piano. Roeder is a champion of composers of many nationalities and stylistic backgrounds. On Black and White Statements, a couple of the works are quite severe; in particular, Mattias Kranebitter’s Drei nihilistische Etüden über eine Liebe der Musikindustrie is a tough sit. But most composers prove themselves adventurous and thoughtful, rather than assaultive, in crafting their miniatures. Many ably employ Roeder’s considerable prowess.
For example, Liszten to … Totentanz doesn’t settle for a pun(-chline) to win over listeners; it is clever, well-crafted music as well. The piece, by Johanna Doderer, channels the virtuosity of the Liszt work it cites into a postmodern cascade of ostinati that serves as departure and wry comment on the original. Similarly, Dla Rajun by Manuela Karer pits jazzy chordal interjections against more vigorous textural moments and passagework to create a witty juxtaposition of elements. Other composers are decidedly less interested in conventional pianism. Karlheinz Essl’s aphoristic Take the C Train uses the piano as a percussion instrument and allows Roeder the chance to evoke some train horn like keening from it as well. On the other hand, Rupert Huber’s Teardrops IIa lavishes traditional imagery upon the listener; but his reliance on irregularly repeated patterns and distant-sounding resonances allow the “teardrop” motif to avoid lapsing into sentimentality.
All in all, Black and White Statements suggests that the piano miniature remains a lively laboratory for compositional ingenuity, and that there’s much of that to be found in Austria.
with electroacoustic music by John Downey and Jenny Kallick
Libretto by Jenny Kallick
Navona Records CD/DVD
Pulitzer prizewinning composer Lewis Spratlan, abetted by electronics from John Downey and Jenny Kallick, crafts an elegant meditation on creativity in the chamber opera Architect. It is based on the ideas and life story of 20th century Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. The avant electronics palette of Downey and Kallick is well integrated into the score: Spratlan balances elements of traditional orchestration with a conspicuous amount of percussion that helps to bridge the divide between the acoustic and electronic elements.
Three singers are called upon to play five roles; in addition to the title character there are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, and Woman. Spratlan is known for the quality his vocal music – his opera Life is a Dream was the winning work for the aforementioned Pulitzer. While the demands of Architect on the singers are significant, the composer always writes so well for the voice that they sound terrific. He also knows how to pick an excellent cast of singers. Baritone Richard Lalli and tenor Jeffrey Lentz both bring vivid characterization and musicality to their respective roles. Soprano Julia Fox exhibits laser beam accuracy and evenness of sound throughout a wide range, even when the vocal lines she is required to sing are quite angular. The Navona release, generously stuff with information and extras, is an ideal complement to the multidimensional view of the creative life provided by the opera.
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz) – Philip Glass
(Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani)
Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – Mohammed Fairouz
The Naxos collection of “Wind Band Classics” has consistently delivered strong performances and this recording of two large-scale works by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Paul W. Popiel is no exception. True, I am an alum from KU but I don’t think any of the praise I am about to extoll on this disc can be led back to some kind of Jayhawker loyalty. Everyone should be able to agree that the performances on this disc are top notch.
The Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass is a bit of an odd work. Featuring the timpani can be quite tricky and while the performances by the timpani soloists are precise and impressive, I think that this piece rarely sounds like a fully completed composition. The timpani are certainly active in the piece but there is little to my ears which makes them foreground material. The recording is clean and clear and preserves the physical separation between the pair of soloists but at the end of the day the piece just sounds like an accompaniment lacking a focal element. Glass’ harmonic vocabulary seems even more conservative than usual and I found little to engage in either texturally or rhythmically. I am not overly familiar with the original orchestral version of the piece so I am in no way trying to compare the wind ensemble sound to the orchestra (see apples v. oranges, books v. movies, etc.). And honestly, the piece doesn’t intrigue me enough to track down more recordings of it.
My general dislike of the Glass is made up for, however, with Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Mohammed Fairouz. Inspired by the Art Spiegelman graphic novel of the same name, Fairouz delivers as powerful and evocative a work for wind ensemble as Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. Beginning with “The New Normal,” this four movement symphony draws in a wide array of creative and affective ensemble colors but none more colorful as in the second movement “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist.” In this second movement, metal percussion, harp, piano, and double bass scrape and groan through a grey-inspired aural landscape. The not entirely playful third movement “One Nation Under Two Flags” portrays a “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” through musical juxtapositions of a sort which would make Ives proud. The final movement, “Anniversaries” uses a ticking clock motive throughout to highlight the notion of passing time but also to imply a ticking time bomb. The composition rides this metaphor well by transforming a simple steady rhythm into something ominous and foreboding. Throughout the entire disc, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble sounds fantastic. All the musical layers are clear and articulate but their precision does not come through sacrificing emotion and lyricism (such as it exists in either work). Rock chalk, Jayhawks!
The challenge—and seduction—of sampling is to make what someone else has recorded yours. Most sampling hews too closely to the verb: Sampling, partaking of, nibbling, and, alas, delving no further than to extract a loop for the familiar temporal grid which has dominated music for over a half century. Noah Creshevsky samples, yet instead of just looping he sculpts tiny, poetic fragments into a startling, often luscious palette of timbres and long-limbed melodies; a drum flam, a rising string orchestra scale, and three snippets of bird-like vocal vibratos can collide and caress at once.
Creshevsky’s palette has been multifariously open for decades, heard initially in hard-to-find split LPs released by Opus One in the 1970s and 80s—many of which are collected on the essential compilation disc The Tape Music of Noah Creshevsky 1971-1992 (EM Records, 2004)—to recent albums such as Rounded with a Sleep (Pogus, 2011), The Twilight of the Gods (Tzadik, 2010), and To Know and Not To Know (Tzadik, 2007).
Genres, instruments, and melodies which otherwise might never have cohabited do so freely and in unexpected, delicious ways throughout Creshevsky’s work. On “Cantiga” (1992), strict row-like choral lines, which if heard separately might have won pleased nods from astringent serialists like Donald Martino and Roger Sessions, interweave with flutes and pungently nasal, synthetic horns in a courtly dance, as if Stravinsky’s Agon had actually originated as electronic music. In “Canto di Malavita” from Hyperrealism (Mutable Music, 2003), a churning sitar-laden melody slithers through snare drum and cymbal hits, pausing at 20″ for a cooing female voice, which then reappears at the one minute mark and comes to a thrilling split-second stop at 1’03″. The palette blooms thereafter into frenetically clipped and cut piano scales, with what may be the closing cadence of Stravinsky’s “Madrid” (from the Four Etudes for Orchestra), and string pizzicati, all sealed by a quiet closing bell. Creshevsky makes impossible music possible. Read the rest of this entry »
In the early 90s, I sang a small role in Jacob Druckman’s opera Medea in the Juilliard Opera Center’s semi-staged production of it. I was struck by its synthesis of old and new, and demanding yet felicitous writing for the voice. Later I worked with Druckman at the Aspen Music Festival and saw him again in a masterclass at Boston University. At the latter he seemed unwell, but retained his charisma and sense of humor. Little did I know that he was terminally ill with cancer; he passed away some months later. Although my contacts with Druckman were brief, I miss him. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s portrait disc devoted to Druckman is a pleasing way to renew, or begin, one’s acquaintance with his potent music.
Druckman died a decade and a half ago, yet his influence is still palpable for contemporary classical composers. In the 1980s, his work exemplified the modernists’ version of postmodernism. Contemporary dissonances coexist with past practices; many of his compositions incorporate influences ranging from mid-century Americans such as Copland at his most modern, late Romantic masters such as Strauss, whose orchestrations he often praised, and early baroque opera. Indeed, several of his pieces recompose the latter material, leaving it recognizable but significantly changed and thoughtfully re-orchestrated. Two of these works, a suite of material from Charpentier’s Médée (hear a stream of a short excerpt from the suite on our blog’s Tumblr page) and an aria by Francesco Cavalli, appear on BMOP’s Druckman recording. Conductor Gil Rose and the group do a fine job giving both the “old” and “new” sensibilities of Druckman their due, in one piece mimicking aspects of a period ensemble and in the next hefting a sound three times that size.
All of Druckman’s work, whether it contains pre-existing material or not, displays a singularly incisive yet colorfully deployed harmonic language. And one is struck again and again by his masterful orchestrations. That Quickening Pulse is the perfect curtain-raiser; an orchestral overture that shimmers and thums with passionately played percussion, corruscating wind and brass lines, and icy string verticals, leavened with still more (pitched) percussion. Both low and high brass chorales articulate formal divisions, leaving skittering lines from the other sections as a written out echo chamber in their wake. Nor Spell Nor Charm is a fetching, indeed beguiling, work that started out life as a song for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani; after her own terminal illness, it became a memorial work that retains the beautiful lines Druckman imagined the singer would perform, but set instead for orchestra (with a vintage eighties Yamaha synthesizer featuring prominently).
The disc’s title composition features vocalist Lucy Shelton, who is called upon to sing in four different languages: Ovid in Latin, folk conjurations in French and Malay, and a snippet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde auf Deutsch. The narrative shifting through this cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope is the story of Lamia, an unfortunate Queen from ancient Libya whom the gods transform into a child-eating daemon. It has resonances with another long-time interest of Druckman, the story of Medea, and presages some of his later work using that tale. It also features spatial notation in places, allowing for a certain amount of rhythmic flexibility. Shelton is an excellent interpreter of Druckman’s music, capturing its emotional volatility, earthy incantations, and soaring climaxes with vocal assuredness and consummate expressivity.
It is hard to choose among BMOP’s many excellent recordings: call this one something of a sentimental favorite that comes highly recommended.
Pianist Gloria Cheng’s first CD release, from 1995, was a recording of Messiaen’s music for Koch. Her interpretations of the French composer’s works have only grown richer with time, as evidenced by her latest recording, The Edge of Light, for the Harmonia Mundi imprint. The centerpiece of its program is the Preludes. Composed in 1929, they were only performed privately until their debut in a 1937 recital. Of course, Debussy’s Preludes loom large and undoubtedly influenced Messiaen. That said, it is extraordinary how refined and singular the younger composer’s aesthetic is by age 21.
We get a taste of the birdsong that will figure prominently in a great deal of Messiaen’s music. For instance, he replicates the cooing of a dove in “La Colombe.” Elsewhere, the wind is depicted in “Un reflet dan le vents.” Sometimes the natural world is eschewed in favor of the subconscious or inward-turned expression-filled emotional terrain, as on the beguiling “Les son impalpables du rêve.” Cheng seamlessly inhabits each of these moods, finely executing the multi-faceted textures and playing styles that evoke them. The Calder Quartet joins Cheng for Messiaen’s brief and mercurial Piéce for piano and string quartet (1991), a late work that captures a wide range of emotions, from brittle and incisive to languidly mystical, in just three-and-a-half minutes.
The quartet’s lower half, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, also collaborate with Cheng on Kaija Saariaho’s trio Je sens un deuxième Coeur. Cast in five movements and composed in 2003, it sounds like an extension of Messiaen’s “color chords,” suggesting that these complex harmonies presaged spectralism and other explorations of resonance and timbre undertaken later in the 20th (and into the 21st) century; its second and fourth movements remind one more than a little of punctilious passages in the aforementioned Messiaen quintet. Not only does it pair well with Messiaen, the trio is a dazzling work in its own right.
Cheng also presents debut recordings of two of Saariaho’s solo piano pieces, both written in the last decade. Prelude is filled with limpid gestures and post-Impressionist harmonies; but these are given a strong tinge of postmodernism, set as they are against muscular arpeggiations and strongly articulated verticals. The Ballade seems to operate a bit less in conversation with the early 20th Century. It pits sonorous bass tolling against feverously repeated notes in the treble register. When its own arpeggiations arrive, there is a more portentous sensibility found in the Ballade’s gestures and harmonies. Cheng rendering of these disparate pieces is both fluid and fluent. This is my favorite recording of hers to date, and that’s a tall order. Recommended.
Two Etched Marks (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
Behind Corneal Gates (Mary Hubbell, David Morneau)
My Husband (Eleanor Dubinsky, David Morneau)
Cupid’s Song (Lana Is, Baraka Noel, and David Morneau)
Music in Me (Melanie Mitrano, Rebecca Ashe, and Edward Morneau)
Summer (Shabana Tajwar, Vladimir Katz, and David Morneau)
Crumpled Sonnets (Katherine Crawford, David Morneau)
My Song (Mary Hubbell and Vladimir Katz)
Love’s Slave (Lana Is and David Morneau)
Now I Love You Best (Melanie Mitrano, Edward Morneau, and David Morneau)
When a composer writes “songs” these days, what does that mean? Pop songs? Art song? Lieder? Songs are essentially everywhere due to the prevalence of vocal music in popular culture with instrumental works only existing in classical realms. If you’ve ever taught music appreciation and bristled at someone talking about a Beethoven piano sonata as a “song” then you know what I mean. If we can make a distinction, popular songs seem to be attached to the performer and not the composer. It might be a gross overstatement to say that when you talk about or focus on the composer of a song rather the artist who sings it you’ve entered the realm of “classical music” but that is the assumption I’m working from. Another way of stating this could be: is Morneau a composer or a songwriter? Some of you might enjoy drawing lines in the sand and parsing the deeper meanings inherent in the implied opposition of those terms.
Personally, I don’t enjoy such debates and definitions but this disc brings some of these questions to the surface. On one hand, this collection of songs is very much about Morneau’s composed musical intentions. Each song pairs a Shakespeare sonnet with a complimentary modern poem in a single unbroken musical fabric. Would anyone other than a Serious Composer try to set a Shakespeare sonnet? Several of these songs are sung by voices which would be at home singing Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf but the most haunting performances retain a more commonly heard pop/jazz technique. Electronics abound on the disc but usually in the form of keyboards, virtual instruments, and poppy sequenced rhythms. It seams like every time you think you know what world this disc is in, it changes just enough to make you question your assumptions.
More songs tend to fall more in the “composer camp” than “songwriter camp” if such lines must be drawn. “My Husband,” co-written with Eleanor Dubinsky, switches the music into full “songwriter” mode. Dubinsky’s dark and relaxed tone makes this torch song seem like it belongs on a different album altogether. “My Husband” is also the most hooky and ear-worm worthy song on the disc and I hope for more Morneau/Dubinsky collaborations in the future. Personally, I think the songs that are from the “songwriter” side are stronger than the “composer” works. “My Husband,” “Love’s Slave,” “Crumpled Sonnets,” and “Now I Love You Best” bring out the best of Morneau’s melodic writing and rhythmic drive and these specific performances hit the musical nail right on the head.
While the songs do feature a mercuriality in Morneau’s compositional abilities, the disc provides a chance for the singers to show depths as well. Katherine Crawford favors art-song technique in “Two Etched Marks” but strips away these classical touches on “Crumpled Sonnets.” I heard “Crumpled Sonnets” in an earlier version which included samples of ripping paper and I much prefer this disc’s version with just voice and synth. Mary Hubbell reverses the transformation that Crawford undergoes; Hubbell’s first song “Behind the Corneal Gates” is sung more lightly than her dramatic return in “My Song” and while a lot of that can be attributed to Morneau’s response to very different poetry it is always welcome to hear performer exhibit a range of characterizations.
The transitional moments between Shakespeare and each song’s paired poem are well handled and at times hard to hear. Often the singers shift their declamation just a touch to make a shift in the mood but sometimes it happens without my knowledge. My favorite of these moments has to be “Music in Me” sung by Melanie Mitrano with Rebecca Ashe, flute and Edward Morneau, guitar. Musically, the texture and harmony stay very Shakespearean and folksy. By the time you’ve tuned out a little you hear Mitrano sing “my vagina so engorged that I can feel it when I walk” (from the poem “Music” by Susan Maurer) and realize that you probably should have been paying attention to how you got here in the first place.
From far-away Anaphoria comes music by Kraig Grady in a new album titled Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room. This features Kraig playing the Meta-Slendro Vibraphone and Terumi Narushima on the Meta-Slendro Harmonium, a vibraphone and pump organ, respectively, that have been modified specifically to the microtonal pitch requirements of the five pieces on this CD. The live recordings, produced by Eva Cheng, took place in a pentagonal reverberation chamber with no parallel walls to better capture the acoustic possibilities inherent in these pure harmonic tunings.
A Wish Resounding from a Well, the first track on the CD features the Meta-Slendro vibraphone and begins with lightly delicate cloud of notes in the higher registers. Bright and mystical, the interplay of these tones add to the sense of a shimmering atmosphere. This does sound like the inside of a well and the instrument effectively leverages the acoustic properties of the reverberation chamber. Lower and middle tones ring out forcefully as the piece progresses offering a solid counterpoint to the airy wishes hovering in the upper registers. The piece ends with a slowly dissolving series of tones that seem to float upward and out of sight. This piece nicely balances the acoustics reminiscent of a well with the ephemeral nature of a rising wish.
The second track is To Search for Traces and begins with steady tones from the harmonium mixing together in a gentle, questioning wash of sound that is soon joined by a line of single tones from the vibraphone. The combination of the long, soft harmonium pitches and the percussive notes of the vibraphone combine effectively to create a sense of movement and journey. The harmonium finishes on a lower pitch and the vibraphone seems to increase in tempo and this leaves the listener with a feeling that the search continues even as the playing has concluded.
Reflections in a Mirrored Cavern is track three, and spare, solitary vibraphone notes begin this piece. Soon the notes are sounded in pairs and the intermixing of the tones closely related in pitch produce a shifting, surreal sound. More notes are added, and now beating between the tones produces new sounds, adding to the unreal atmosphere. The decay time of sound in the pentagonal chamber can be as long as 12 seconds and there is a sense of reflection and interference of tone patterns that accurately evokes a sense of multiple shimmering images. This piece is a fine example of how the interactions of tones sounded together can be used creatively given the right acoustic environment.
Track four is Illuminated Mist and here the vibraphone begins with a sparkling splatter of high notes that is soon joined by a high pitched tone in the harmonium. This is followed by sustained low pedal tones in the harmonium that are especially effective in reinforcing the sense of mystery. The vibraphone creates a fine mist of notes and overtones that, grounded by the harmonium, give the piece its descriptive title. The harmonic interactions, at once exotic and reassuring, beget a sense of unfolding wonder at an imaginary landscape. Like walking around your neighborhood in a heavy fog, this piece is artfully mysterious and familiar at the same time.
The final track is titled Dawn Crossing of the Bridge and starts with simple, light vibraphone phrases accompanied by long, low harmonium tones that suggest a slow dawning presence just over the horizon. As with Illuminated Mist, this combination of vibraphone and harmonium textures are very effective in building a sense of place and mystery. As the harmonium sounds sustained tones in the upper registers, a feeling of the sun rising is achieved and the movement in the vibraphone line reinforces the the forward sense of motion. This piece ends quietly having accurately described not only the crossing of a bridge, but also a crossing from darkness into light.
Clocks and Clouds is a delicate, sensitive work that explores the landscape of alternate tuning in a completely convincing way. This is the album to send to your friends who may be skeptical of mictotonal music. This album makes a quiet – but convincing – argument.
Clocks and Clouds, In a Pentagonal Room is available at the music page of the Anaphoria website.
OgreOgress has been a key player in offering strong recordings of lesser known/recorded works by composers such as John Cage, Alan Hovhannes, and Morton Feldman. This Philip Glass disc is truly for the comprehensive Glass fan since it contains portions of Phaedra which were not included in the Mishima soundtrack and 21 different versions that Robert Moran arranged of Glass’ Modern Love Waltz.
Released as a DVD-A, the sound quality is exceptionally true-to-life. The music is beautifully captured and so is the space in which it was recorded which adds a great deal of depth to what could have been a sterile and flat studio recording. The string trio used through these five brief scenes from Phaedra (2, 4, 6, 14, and 15a specifically) maintains a lush and rich tone and keep the pulse energized without ever sounding mechanical and machine-like. The percussion blends extremely well with the trio when used and the guitar additions provide a bit of snap to the articulation without overshadowing the thicker bowed strings.
Modern Love Waltz, originally a short piano piece by Glass, was orchestrated into 35 different parts by Robert Moran and the rest of the disc is dedicated to presenting all of those 35 parts in 21 different modular performances. I am of two minds of this portion of the recording. On the one hand, I’m not sure how many times I need to hear this 4:25 piece of music. On the other hand, OgreOgress has paced out all the different versions of this piece so well that there is a gradual and almost imperceptible build from one track to another. By the time I hit track 16 which is only for piano and winds, the piece really sounded different to my ears. Each track stands on its own as a solid realization of the piece but the gradual increase in the ensemble size and instrument diversity makes for a fun ride. It turns out I can listen to this short piano piece many many times after all.