Posts Tagged “Piano”
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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performed by R. Andrew Lee
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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music for Disklavier
- 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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Complete Piano Works, volume 1
David Del Tredici
Marc Peloquin, piano
- 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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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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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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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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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Clarinet, electronics, Jay Batzner, Missy Mazzoli, New Amsterdam, Piano, postminimalism, strings, violin, women composers
music of Missy Mazzoli
New Amsterdam Records
Victoire is Missy Mazzoli: compositions, keyboards, piano, melodica, toys; Olivia De Prato: violin; Lorna Krier: keyboards; Eileen Mack: clarinet; Eleonore Oppenheim: double bass, electric bass
- A Door into the Dark
- i am coming for my things
- Cathedral City
- Like a Miracle
- The Diver
- A Song for Mick Kelly
- A Song for Arthur Russell
- India Whiskey
Victoire is an ensemble that is hard to categorize. On the one hand, this is an instrumental chamber group that (on this album) is championing the music of one of its members. Mazzoli’s compositional voice is clear and focused, she definitely has something to say. The textures of the music, the timbres in the ensemble, the use of synthesizers and electronics, though, make Victoire appear less like a conventional chamber ensemble and more like a “band.” Unlike Build, a similar genre-bending group on the same label, Victoire’s connection to either the “chamber music” or “popular music” worlds is much more fluid. You can love or hate this group based on whichever camp you find yourself.
But enough about what Victoire is not. Mazzoli’s compositions are smooth and flowing with a aura of emotional detachment. Harmonies are comforting, long lyrical lines are abundant, and Mazzoli finds exciting ways to provide rhythmic propulsion without a dedicated percussionist. The music simmers. Distorted guitar in A Song for Mick Kelly could have plunged that track into some real spleen-venting thrash but Mazzoli shows excellent restraint and control. This isn’t minimalism, this isn’t pop, this is simply Mazzoli. Her compositional voice is distinct and highly listenable. Events unfold slowly, unhurried, but never lagging or taking too long.
Each player in Victoire blends extremely well with the various synth and electronic sounds that form the sound world of each track. I am especially drawn to the juxtaposition of bubbling synths and the lyrical line of the double bass in Like a Miracle. The various breathy and hollow synth sounds are well chosen for their blend.
Many vocal elements permeate the compositions but again, there is a distancing of those emotionally charged elements from the listener. i am coming for my things replicates an answering machine message rich with emotional potential. India Whiskey uses the same technique of distancing a vocal element by manipulating a “number station” recording of a male voice counting over radio static. This static becomes the rhythmic motivator of the track as well as a timbral touchstone for the synths and instruments. I fear that a lot of the discussion about Victoire is going to revolve around the “what are they/what aren’t they.” I would much rather put that conversation aside and focus on their product: Intriguing music of our time, expertly crafted, performed, and produced.
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Orange Mountain Music CD 7006
Maria Bachmann, violin
Jon Klibonoff, piano
When it comes to minimalism, I must admit I’ve always been more of a Steve Reich guy. But I was quite taken with Philip Glass’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (2008), the work at the heart of a new disc on the composer’s Orange Mountain Music label. This world premiere recording by violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff highlights a Romantic urgency I hadn’t heard in Glass’s music before. Indeed, Glass’s program note cites a childhood memory of listening to recordings of the Brahms, Fauré and Franck violin sonatas with his father, at the time a record-store owner in Baltimore.
The fundamental Romanticism of Glass’s piece is underscored by Bachmann and Klibonoff’s programming, which places his recent duo alongside nineteenth-century staples: the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, and Schubert’s magisterial Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 162 (in the liner notes, Bachmann notes a “similar pathos” shared by the Schubert and Glass sonatas). The disc is rounded out by Ravel’s intriguing Sonata Opus Posthume, a work written in 1897 but left unpublished at the composer’s request, only to be discovered and published in 1975.
I first encountered Bachmann and Klibonoff on their eloquent recording of Paul Moravec’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy, a work composed for their ensemble, Trio Solisti, and clarinetist David Krakauer. The warmth and assurance of their playing is such that I would happily listen to them play most anything, canonical or contemporary, and their commitment to new American music is a boon to composers and audiences alike.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Jay Batzner, minimalism, Piano, tags: CD Review, Charlemagne Palestine, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Piano, strings, Sub Rosa
(piano, harpsichord, and string ensemble versions)
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.
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