Posts Tagged “Piano”

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.

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Eva-Maria HoubenHouben

Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog Records

I’m fairly new to the Wandelweiser aesthetic and this disc of Eva-Maria Houben’s piano music reinforces a lot of what I have taken in from other sources. To call this sound world “minimalism” is accurate in the purest sense: there is extremely little material here. What is different, though, is that Houben’s language emphasizes silence over repetition. The resonance of the piano lends itself to long and heavy pauses and Houben’s treatment of the piano as a sonorous entity rather than one for frenetic button pushing is gratifying and nourishing. The slow unfolding of events in both piano works, abgemalt and go and stop let every sound resonate with the listener before going forward. Any connections between events can be gestated well before plunging on into the next event. Having said that, this is not music with an obvious formal through-line. If you are driven by hearing rhythmic processes play out over the course of a piece, you’d best look elsewhere. Houben’s music is languid in the purest sense; events happen, silence happens, and it is very possible that neither has anything to do with the other. A Zen approach is necessary: just listen to what is happening. Trying to guess what is going to happen or should happen takes you away from the piece as it is.

Abgemalt is the longer of the two works and for me the most perplexing. Over the first two minutes the same dark chord is struck and decays down to nothingness three times. That’s it. The silences clearly outweigh the sounds. The amount of space in the piece is equal parts haunting, meditative, and unsettling. Playing the disc for a colleague, she shook her head in bewilderment; is this all it is? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes,” too, but with the follow up question “what more do you want?” As Abgemalt unfurls for 40 minutes, one does begin to lose all sense of direction. Why do all these moments belong in this piece? Why are they in this order? How did Houben know when the piece was finished? These are all intellectual questions which can’t thwart the overall rightness to the sounds. Go and Stop is a little easier to digest. There is a formal process which is more readily grasped as harmonic alternations are interrupted and grow into longer and longer iterations. Abgemalt, though, keeps sucking me back in. I can’t just casually listen to this disc as background noise. The deliberateness turns the recording into foreground listening. My ears strain to hear more and more of the piano decay, as if something is going to change. I can’t just turn the piece off in the middle, either, just as I can’t turn off Piano Phase without experiencing a sudden and jarring jolt.

Houben has set up an aural ecosystem in her work and Lee’s touch and timing are sensitive and nuanced. I can easily hear the care and concentration that goes into these performances and I have no trouble picturing a stoic and deliberate performance on stage. Lee’s craft is not one displayed through senseless theatrics and pyrotechnics. He clearly has a mind for this music and the ability to transform extremely minimal amounts of material into captivating performances.

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The Chord Catalogue, Within Fourths/Within Fifths vriezen

music of Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen

Samuel Vriezen, piano

Edition Wandelweiser Records

In the interest of “full disclosure,” when I saw that Samuel Vriezen had begun a Kickstarter to fund his recording of Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue I signed up and pledged money immediately. If you know me you probably know that I am a big fan of Johnson’s music and I was familiar with Johnson’s own recording of The Chord Catalogue. On the surface one might question if a second recording of all the 8178 chords found in a single octave was warranted but Vriezen’s technique brings out a new understanding of the composition. Yes, “all” Vriezen is doing is playing every combination of notes within an octave (first all the 2 voice combinations, then 3 voice, then 4, until the single 13-note cluster ends the piece) but Vriezen rides a peculiar edge between “all chords sound the same” and highlighting the rising chromatic lines which bring about an inherent amount of harmonic tension. Vriezen’s touch and blistering speed take the simple concept from a pedantic list into one of the most sustained examples of harmonic tension since Tristan und Isolde.

Vriezen’s articulation of the sinewy rising chromatic lines in each segment of The Chord Catalogue is then unwound and brought down for Vriezen’s own composition Within Fourths/Within Fifths. Vriezen describes the work as every combination of pitches a perfect fourth or fifth away from neighboring voices. The internal theory doesn’t de facto make a good composition, of course. Vriezen’s work does stand on its own as a slow and steady progression through expanding sonorous harmonies. The openness of the chords is the perfect tonic to the sheer density of the Johnson. The mad rush through chromatic lines is replaced with an almost complete lack of direction. Vriezen’s composition shows that there is still a lot to be done with fourths and fifths without making chords that sound like they belong in the TV theme of 70s cop shows.

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QuestionsCD cover

music of Tom Johnson

performed by Carol Robinson, Tom Johnson, and Dante Boon

Maria De Alvear World Edition

Tom Johnson’s music is very much like magic. I don’t mean necessarily that his music is magical more that his music works in the tradition of close-up or “micromagic.” As is often the case in close-up magic, the magician is telling you in no uncertain terms what he/she is doing without ever really revealing HOW any of it happened. The end result is a compelling “I can’t believe that just happened” experience and this is the area that Tom Johnson’s music occupies. Pieces like Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass or Narayana’s Cows include a narrator which explains, in no uncertain terms, how this piece works. An Hour for Piano or The Chord Catalogue relegates this information to program notes and such (the notes for An Hour for Piano should be read while listening to the piece; an internal narrator, if you will). The magic in Johnson’s music comes when he does exactly what he told you he was going to do but not HOW they are compelling and captivating.

Music and Questions is a prime example of how straightforward Johnson’s music can be. Five bells, all arranged in half-steps, are played in every possible permutation of single strikes. Between each permutation, Carol Robinson asks a simple question. The questions always relate to the listener’s experience of the piece and how the listener relates to the questions or the music. She also announces each section by stating which of the five bells are being struck first. That is it. For 23 minutes. No rhythmic motive to trace, no groove elements, no fancy orchestrational tricks, no surprise emotional outbursts, just a clinical exploration of 120 bell tones. It might be cliche to refer to this as a Zen listening experience but I honestly have no other words for it. There is absolutely nothing boring about this music but my brain tells me the music should be boring. That is the magic.

Music with Mistakes puts Robinson in the role of narrator and basset horn soloist. Listener engagement is key with Johnson and Music with Mistakes brings foreground listening to an audience that might otherwise expect to “zone out” during a typical process-oriented “old school” minimalist piece. Instead of the constant interruptions for questions, though, Music with Mistakes starts with the statement that melodic material will be played multiple times but only once without mistakes. The listener is to try to hear the mistakes. Arts organizations are constantly looking for ways to “engage the audience” with their repetitive concerts of warhorse literature. Johnson builds audience engagement into each piece. That is the magic. What is even better is that Johnson includes the answers at the back of the liner notes.

Same or Different operates under a similar basic principle as Music with Mistakes. Thick piano chords are played but the underlying question is: are they the same or are the different? A motive is played and the repeated: are they the same or are the different? This game lasts for about 27 minutes and it is some of the most active listening I’ve done in a while. I would love to give a copy of this disc to Edwin Gordon just to see how he does.

Since the music is, at its core, so simple and direct it is hard to say anything about the performances. Is there a word for this kind of virtuosity that puts the performers in a quasi-game where their detachment is a the primary fundamental skill? In the last two pieces, Carol Robinson and Dante Boon have to play their pieces without giving anything away. They have to make micro-changes and repetitions into a cheeky game of “did I or didn’t I” for considerable lengths of time. Not only is Johnson inviting the audience to hyper-scrutinize each micromotion of the performers he also gives them an extremely thin veil to hide behind. The whole disc is a delight to listen to. That is magic.

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Dennis JohnsonCD cover

November

performed by R. Andrew Lee

Irritable Hedgehog

Getting a copy of this recording for review reminded me of my all-time favorite CD review, Chuck Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy by Guns n’ Roses. I find it especially relevant when Klosterman states that reviewing the disc “…is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?”

Dennis Johnson’s November is the minimalist example of Klosterman’s situation. Spoken about in hushed, revered tones, November seemed to be a work on par with any other lost/imaginary work of art you’d care to name. Hearing this piece is, to my brain at least, similar to hearing the supposedly lost “first” symphony of Mahler and finding it to be as sophisticated as his ninth. Or seeing what could have happened if David Lynch had actually directed Return of the Jedi as Lucas originally had in mind. November is a piece of epic epicness; the minimalist unicorn circa 1959.

There is little about the construction of the piece that I can say which would add much to Kyle Gann’s stellar research and reconstruction efforts. At almost 5 hours exactly in duration, Lee’s performance shows us a world where minimalism was driven forward by time instead of pulse. The busy nattering process of old-school minimalism is not in play; events merely unfold at a slow and spacious rate. November is surprisingly easy to listen to for its full duration. The opening minor third returns at appropriate but not predictable times. The dissonance and consonance interplay is captivating and clear. Full chords are surprising rare; single tones and intervals dominate the glacial unfurling of events. When larger harmonies finally do coalesce, they are striking and new but they are right. November is a work about harmony as much as it is about time and Lee’s performance elucidates the harmonic drama and narrative throughout the entire duration.

This recording is also a testament to humanity. Most big-time works of minimalism, especially early works, seem to treat the performers as machines dutifully assembling the music as it comes by on a conveyor belt. Expression and interpretation are eschewed for rhythmic precision and crisp bright timbres. Early minimalism is many things but I doubt many would use the term “lush.” November comes alive under the fingers and musical abilities of R. Andrew Lee. Every note, every chord, every ninth that still doesn’t resolve even after 4 hours, every moment is in its perfect place. November is not something like “Clapping Music” where as long as you put the right notes in the right order the piece takes care of itself. November needs a deft mind and Lee delivers. The piece is not a technical challenge of the fingers but rather a challenge of the performer’s interpretation and mental endurance. Given such few musical materials and so much time, there are rather few pianists who I think could pull this off. Some could work with these materials for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, but the ability to bring forth five hours of music in such a compelling-yet-accessible way is nothing short of a miracle. An earlier draft of this review included a “loaves and fishes” reference at this point but I think it best if I leave it out.

So the piece that should have never existed finally does and it exists in as definitive of a performance as possible. What more could we ask for except R. Andrew Lee’s next release?

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Jocelyn Robert CD cover

immobile 

music for Disklavier 

Merles Recordings

  • bolerun 1
  • für louisa
  • für eli
  • bolerun 2
  • la pluie

Jocelyn Robert’s approach towards the Disklavier is quite different than what I usually encounter. Typically, I find the Disklavier used in a hyper-kinetic way, a way that simply overpowers conventional fleshy pianists with a flashy and thick stream of harmonies and rhythms at semi-ludicrous tempi. Robert’s approach is refreshing in its sparseness, using the Disklavier to evoke an almost piano-as-wind-chimes aesthetic. What Robert embraces in his  music is an underlying nature and humanity. The textures get thick at times and while portions of each piece might be playable by a human many portions are not. The fact that my ear loses the exact moment when that possible/impossible shift occurs makes me like this disc even more.

The two bolerun works assemble grander textures from extremely simple repeated figures. Robert is quite adept at filling in the blank spaces with new material while simultaneously expanding the original looping material. As usually happens in a work of interlocking ostinati, my ear drifts from layer to layer in an almost hypnotic fashion. bolerun 1 is shorter and a bit less forceful than bolerun 2 but the overt use of looping material seems to be what binds these works together (as well as the loudest activity happening in the mid/low range of the piano).

The two für pieces are significantly different from each other. für louisa is a staccato and spritely monophonic work which arpeggiates through fairly conventional harmonies. The work abruptly cuts off at the end, keeping it just under 60 seconds but I could have easily listened to his melody for a while. für eli is a 26 minute work which slowly unfolds while maintaining a lot of open space between gestures. A rich harmonic progression seems to be the glue which binds this piece together and an almost random articulation of the tones in the progression make the work infinitely listenable to my ears. Tendency tones are well established and the underlying dissonances are resolved in a leisurely yet timely manner. At 26 minutes, I could still listen to more of this piece unfold. Any systemic or mechanical processes are kept invisible to the ear (at least to mine). The final work on the disc, la pluie, delves even deeper into the ideas of resonance and space than für eli and relies less upon a motivated harmonic progression. The attacks are sometimes sharper than in für eli and, while la pluie does more to coalesce its energies, at 17:25 in duration the work is still relatively directionless (in a good way).

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Gotham GloryCD cover

Complete Piano Works, volume 1

David Del Tredici

Marc Peloquin, piano

Naxos

  • Aeolian Ballade
  • Ballad in Lavender
  • Ballad in Yellow (after García Lorca)
  • S/M Ballade
  • Gotham Glory (Four Scenes of New York City)

Marc Peloquin sounds perfectly at ease with this disc of David Del Tredici’s piano music and there are many reasons why that should be the case. Peloquin’s technical facility is certainly not in question, he makes works such as the self-described “pianistic terror” of the S/M Ballade sound effortless and almost breezy. Overall, his playing is sensitive and clear and Peloquin captures the emotional core of each work. Another reason that this disc sounds at ease under the performer’s fingertips is the music itself. Del Tredici’s writing is perfectly idiomatic and his compositional language pretty much squashes the “neo” from the label Neo-Romantic. Most of the compositions pull straight from the Chopin playbook and Chopin certainly knew a thing or three about making the piano sound good (Aeolian Ballade is more Debussy than Chopin but again, Debussy is a fine model for piano writing). Gotham Glory is a particularly engaging work with a mock-Chopin prelude, a sensual fugue (if such a thing could be), the hollow perpetual canon of “Missing Towers” and the closing witty fantasia on “The Skater’s Waltz.”

As a composer, I found these pieces a bit disappointing because I’ve always connected Del Tredici to the more expressionistic and often histrionic vocal works. That level of kinetic energy is mostly missing from this disc. Since the latest work on the disc is from 1997, I think my expectations were simply faulty and I was expecting Del Tredici to write the kind of music he was writing in the ’60s and ’70s. These compositions are full of elegant refinement and pianists would do well to freshen up their over-played literature with these compositions.

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Ligeti/Beethoven

Nonesuch 530562

Jeremy Denk

I recently took part in an online conversation about Bach’s Goldberg Variations in which several pianists affirmed their devotion to Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 recording. For many, it serves as the benchmark against which all subsequent accounts (including Gould’s own) are measured.

The same might be said of Pierre Laurent-Aimard’s world-premiere recording of György Ligeti masterful Piano Études (1985-2001). Even as these works have been taken up by a growing number of pianists, one still experiences an initial shock of unfamiliarity when a performer launches into the first étude, Désordre, at a more deliberate tempo than Aimard’s.

But Jeremy Denk’s more poetic, less kinetic conception on his new Nonesuch disc is wholly convincing. Ligeti’s late works are profoundly concerned with the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythms and tempi, which Denk approaches as one might a Bach fugue: these performances are all about phrasing and voicing. Denk’s sensitive pacing affords greater breathing room to Ligeti’s underrated lyricism, and to his fleeting nods towards triadic harmony.

The pairing with Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, op. 111 in C minor, is at once inventive and unremarkable. Indeed, the most gratifying aspect of Denk’s superb recording is that it offers up the Études simply as great piano music. Ligeti’s varied influences – from Chopin and Debussy to the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, from jazz and non-Western music to chaos theory – recede into the background, as we listen to an eloquent pianist bring timeless sensibilities to bear on an evolving canon.

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Bach Crossings

New Focus Recordings FCR 124

DUO Stephanie and Saar

The music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág evinces a deeply personal connection to the music of the past. Many of his spare, elliptical works pay homage to other composers: his six-volume Játékok (“Games”) for piano include tributes to Scarlatti and Stravinsky. In his piano transcriptions of music from the cantatas and organ works of J.S. Bach, Kurtág engages directly with the work of a master.

Kurtág and his wife Márta have performed and recorded several of the transcriptions for piano four-hands on ECM. On this recent release from New Focus Recordings, DUO Stephanie and Saar – themselves a married couple – offer their own take on Kurtág’s Bach. The disc also includes Bach transcriptions by Max Reger and Franz Xaver Gleichauf, as well as Kurtág’s transcriptions of two pieces by one of Bach’s most significant precursors, Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Much as the Kurtágs met during their studies at the Franz Liszt Academy, Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia connected as graduate students at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where Leon Fleisher encouraged them to play Beethoven’s string quartets at the piano together. The duo’s elegant, unaffected interpretations of Kurtág’s arrangements are realized with clarity and warmth, affording the listener a glimpse into the eighteenth century by way of the twentieth.

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CD cover artAnn Southam

Soundings for a New Piano

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog  Music

 

Ann Southam is one of those composers I wish I would have been introduced to sooner. Soundings was the first piece of hers that I have heard and the work brings forth such a delicious dichotomy that I have scoured available sources to find more of her music and hear how it is, and simultaneously is not, an example of commonly mentioned techniques. The two words that I have heard tossed about regarding Southam’s music are “serialism” and “postminimalism.” Soundings is easily both and yet also neither. Is there a twelve-tone process at work? In a sense. The austere opening arpeggio adds new tones as a means of development and Southam admits to working with the same row for several decades. Is this post-minimal? Why not? There is a rhythmic stubbornness but it seems to come from a sense of obsession with the sonority rather than some rigorous process. This is the same opening chord (and articulation) found in Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry, so obsession seems to be the right word. In contrast to Simple Lines, Soundings has a more urgent aura about it and a brighter, more vivacious piano sound in the recording.

Through the twelve short movements and one central interlude, this chord is played out in mostly monophonic and spacious gestures. The serial music you are taught to hate in college doesn’t ruminate, it lectures. This music, serial in the looses sense, is languid and floating. Deceptively simple arpeggios dissipate from the beginning to the interlude, where time seems to stop completely. Post interlude, thick and chunky chords appear and provide the firmament for the final five movements. Those meaty chords try to dissolve but rebuild themselves in the 11th movement and, once they have been worked out of the composer’s system, the whole composition unwinds and vanishes.

This EP release (Soundings is around 23 minutes) is another excellent vehicle for R. Andrew Lee to showcase a subtle virtuosity and sensitive musical touch. It is also one of the best sounding pianos I’ve heard on disc in quite some time. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am close friends with David and Michelle McIntire, the Executive Producers of this album and masterminds of the Irritable Hedgehog label. You may subsequently dismiss this review as cronyism but I am positive those thoughts will evaporate once you’ve heard this disc or their An Hour for Piano recording (both available for free streaming on their website).

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