Eminent composer, college professor, and Lutoslawski scholar Steven Stucky has died, aged 66. The cause was brain cancer. Below, listen to one of his beguiling works, the Notturno movement from Serenade for Wind Quintet.
On Friday night, February 5, 2016 a good crowd braved the dreaded 101 freeway closure to travel downtown to Art Share LA . The occasion was …until… the first concert of 2016 for wasteLAnd music, marking the third year they have offered programs of new and experimental music in Los Angeles. Four pieces were performed – including a premiere – each incorporating traditional acoustic instruments accompanied by electronics.
Scott Worthington was the double bass soloist on …until… #10, by Santa Barbara-based composer Clarence Barlow. This was the premiere performance and the inspiration for the concert title. …until… #10 begins with a steady electronic tone from a large speaker and this was joined by Worthington’s double bass. A series of moderately fast notes streamed out from the bass in repeating phrases that featured slight variations in the pattern of pitches and rhythms, but no overarching gestures or development. The notes were confined to the higher registers and none of the familiar deep, woody tones of the bass were heard. The mix with the electronic sound was quite complimentary, the warm tone from the speaker nicely filled up the nooks and crannies of the faster passages coming from the bass. Transient harmonies of bass notes against the electronic tone momentarily appeared and vanished, adding to the intrigue. There is a bright, bubbly optimism to this piece, effectively conveyed by the almost child-like melody. This pattern continued as the work progressed but the slight variations in rhythm and the sequence of the notes kept the listener actively engaged. …until… #10 is a masterful combination of simple electronics and refreshingly uninhibited musicality that envelops the listener with a cheerful buoyancy.
This was followed by Ilhas, by d’incise and this consisted of four snare drums with a player assigned to each along with a small, hand-held speaker. The speakers were placed face down on the drum heads, which were prepared with upturned plastic cups or boxes as well as other found objects. Soft electronic tones were heard and the speakers actuated the drum heads to produce a very light drum roll. The result was a pleasantly calming effect, like hearing an organ prelude in a soft rain. The electronic tones were sustained for a few seconds at a time, and the players adjusted the position of the speakers to achieve different effects. The speakers were moved from the center of the drum to the edges and at times the speakers were covered by the plastic cups or a box to concentrate and direct the energy to the drum head. The drum tension was adjusted and occasionally the speakers were lifted up slightly to vary the timbre and intensity of the drum head response. There was no scoring for this – it was up to each player to find the best place to maximize the various effects. Matt Barbier, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Scott Worthington were all effective in drawing out subtle differences in timbre and texture. Ilhas is an understated yet engaging work that is both inventive and surprisingly tranquil, given that it is performed with four snare drums.
Next was Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM, by Jessie Marino. And this was performed by Cory Hills with a single snare drum and lamp stand. The room was completely darkened and the piece began with a sharp rap on the drum followed by a short flash of bright light from a single lamp – and then a few seconds of silence. This sequence was then repeated. The sudden sound and bright flash of light was quite startling – the loss of visual references in the total darkness sharpened the senses and when the sounds and flashes occurred, it multiplied the effect. As the piece progressed the sequence changed so that the lamp flashed before the drum was heard. The beginning section invited your brain to associate the light and the sound together so when the light flashed first, the effect of the sound was that much more alarming. The feeling was reminiscent of a thunder storm at night – a flash of lightening closely followed by a loud thunder clap. Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM is an dauntingly instructive demonstration of the power of sensory conditioning on ear and eye.
The final work on the program was untitled three part construction by Michelle Lou, who is the featured composer for the current season of wasteLAnd concerts. For this Justin DeHart and Cory Hills were seated at desks containing a number of mechanical objects and one tape recorder. Matt Barbier and Scott Worthington shared a music stand, with muted trombone and double bass, respectively. Low, rough notes from the amplified double bass opened the piece while the trombone added a series of sharp repeating notes. Mechanical clickers were heard and more mechanical electronic sounds came from a speaker. As the clicking and clacking continued, ratchet wrenches were applied to stationary bolts and twirled backwards, introducing a light metallic ringing to the texture that added to the impression of being inside some sort of operating machine. At times, smooth tones from the bass made for a nice contrast with the clatter; at other times all was continuous rattling, commotion and roar. The feeling, however, was one of virtuous and industrious intent, free from any trace of malice.
About midway through the piece there was a sudden, measured silence, followed by a high pitched note from the double bass, as if hearing a siren at a distance. Knocking and scraping sounds ensued from the electronics, adding a distinct feeling of anxiety. The siren tones increased and the trombone added a deep growling sound. A piece like this invites the listener to create a story around the sequence of sounds – was that the drone of bombers overhead? The thud of bombs falling in the distance? The clicking and knocking increased and the tape recording added more anxious sounds. The double bass and trombone added a few rugged low notes and exited the stage. The tape increased its intensity and finally became disconcertingly chaotic before a sudden silence concluded the piece. untitled three part construction is a marvelously creative combination of sounds and musical tones that invite the listener to inhabit the unfolding drama of one’s own invention.
The next wasteLAnd concert, titled point/wave, will be on February 26, 2016 at Art Share LA.
On February 12-14 and February 19-20, ECCE Ensemble premieres Switch, a new opera by my friend and colleague composer John Aylward. Directed by Laine Rettmer and conducted by Jean-Phillipe Wurtz, the piece features two vocalists: soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and bass-baritone Mikhail Smigelsk. The project is part of ECCE’s year-long residence at Le Laboratoire,a new multimedia space in Cambridge that combines visual arts, music, the sciences, and even olfactory stimulating exhibits.
To whet your appetite, below is a video of Aylward’s Ephemera.
WHAT: World premiere of the contemporary opera Switch
WHEN:February 12-14+ February 19-20 at 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Le Laboratoire, 650 East Kendall Street, Cambridge, MA,
T: Red to Kendall Square
TICKETS: $40/$20 Students.
To purchase, contact Le Laboratoire at
617.945.7515 or visit LeLaboratoireCambridge.com
On Friday, January 22, 2016 the wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a diverse concert of electronic music by four groups of artists. A standing-room only crowd turned out for an evening of intense sounds created by computer algorithm, spectral analysis and traditional percussion. The room was filled with all kinds of amplifiers, speakers, mixers, patch panels and miles of cable. The four sets made for a varied program that challenged both the mind and the ear.
First up was PDRM, by John Krausbauer and David Kendall. According to the program notes this piece is “…constructed from a ‘just’ tuned, three-string electric guitar with real-time and algorithmic delay and spatialization processing.” Four large speakers were placed on the four corners of the completely darkened performance space that also included active strobe lights. PDRM began with a warm, droney sound from the bowed guitar, accompanied by a substantial bass line in the electronics, providing a solid foundation. The sound filled the room and the consistent texture immersed the audience in a congenial sonic wash. As the piece progressed the volume seemed to gradually increase and the tempo quickened slightly as well. PDRM is very powerful experience that takes control of the senses – there were occasional bass tones that were felt as well as heard. The complete darkness and compelling sounds command the listener’s attention; Krausbauer and Kendall might consider adding an aromatic component to their performances to further extend this sensual dimension. The steady drone and flickering of the strobes give PDRM a distinctly primordial feeling – as if the audience is gathered around some ancient communal bonfire, meditating together in a deep trance.
Next up was an improvisation by percussionist Ted Byrnes with William Hutson on accompanying electronics, and this marked their debut as a duo. Hutson operated an old school reel-to-reel tape machine fed with a ten foot loop of tape that stretched across the room and produced a steady stream of metallic clattering and crashes as well as what sounded like a barrel of broken glass shards being rolled across the floor. To this chaos Byrnes added his athletically active drumming with a variety of mallets and brushes on a standard drum kit along with a number of found objects. The rhythmic drumming formed a kind of counterpoint to the crashing tumult from the tape and this became an anchor for the ear. The piece took on an epic character as it progressed: the heroic drummer in combat with the forces of anarchy. This contrast was so effective that the listener often found himself rooting for the drumming to prevail. Byrnes was a constant blur of motion and activity, yet the continuous outpouring of the electronics added a helpful consistency to the texture, filling in for those times when Ted changed drum sticks or reached down to add a new object to his kit. There were quiet stretches, as when brushes were used on the drum heads, but overall the intensity and drama that emerged from this mix of electronics and drumming proved to be a winning combination. The addition of fierce electronics to the animated style of Ted Byrnes was inspired, achieving a new level of energy and excitement for this duo.
Cameron Shafii, the San Franciso-based composer was next, presenting a solo sound piece, part of a collaboration with Joe Gilmore that according to the program notes, “…transforms brass and string instruments by spectral analysis.” This began with a loud drum clap followed by exotic electronic tones that added a vaguely alien feel. The steady electronics were accompanied by a drumming rhythm, producing a sense of anxiety and mystery. The volume seemed to rise as the piece progressed and the drumming became more concentrated and powerful – at times the beats were felt as blows to the chest. The electronic sounds morphed into purer tones and a series of loud rumbles, like distant thunder could be heard. At one point the mood lightened and there were some lovely harmonies. The total darkness and the relentlessly increasing power soon restored the feeling of menace, however, and at times the sound overwhelmed the senses and verged on the painful. Cameron Shafii and Joe Gilmore have crafted a daunting listening experience that operates at the harrowing edges of human perception.
The last piece in the program was VRS, a project from Ellen Phan of Los Angeles who presented “…a new piece exploring modalities of experimental sound.” This piece deftly unpacked an eclectic variety of sounds – a loud buzzing, gongs, bells and the crash of smashing china. The pitches accelerated and became higher and more cutting even as the texture attained a sort of frenetic consistency. Voices were heard in an unintelligible scat singing and the electronic sounds assumed a bouncy, arcade-like feel. As the piece progressed a powerfully percussive hammering dominated, and this soon morphed into a nicely rhythmic groove. VRS is full of fast-changing textures that made for a refreshing wash of bright colors and energetic surfaces that agreeably filled the performance space and the listener’s ear.
Update on the wulf: The building has now been sold and the wulf is seeking new accommodations, although no schedule has been announced. Fund raising for the expected moving expenses has been successful and donations are still being accepted – see www.thewulf.org for details.
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Augustus Arnone performs Milton Babbitt’s Time Series and other solo piano works at Spectrum, Sunday January 24, at 2pm
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of Babbitt’s major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2007. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread of three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). The concert also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording.
Arnone’s performance begins at 3pm, but prior to that, at 2pm, will be an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades. The event should be worth the trek through any rain, sleet, and slush.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concert II
Sunday Jan 24, at 3pm (pre-concert discussion at 2pm) $20, $15 (Students/Seniors).
Spectrum, 121 Ludlow St, NYC.
Those interested in still more Babbitt can check out the Focus Festival at Juilliard, which begins tonight and goes through next Friday. I’ll be writing about that more next week.
Pianist Jenny Q. Chaiis a versatile artist. Her repertoire includes works by contemporary Europeans such as Phillipe Manoury and Marco Stroppa (her dissertation topic), and she recently recorded an excellent portrait CD on Naxos of music by Nils Vigeland. She also performs standard repertoire, such as Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy.
On January 10, in a program entitled Where is Chopin? (subtitled “Steampunk Piano 2”), Chai creates a juxtaposition of Carnaval by Schumann with brand new pieces that feature artificial intelligence, performing the music of Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, a Stanford University-based composer who uses the AI program Antescofo. It supplies a live visual component that responds to the particular nuances and inflections of a given performance. Doubtless Chai will give the program plenty to think about.
On Saturday December 5th at New York’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, presented a program that included two composers firmly ensconced in their wheelhouse. Sacris Solemniis and Gaude, Gaude, Gaude by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558), with long held chant notes offset by passages of sumptuous counterpoint and spare plainsong, provided context and set the stage for the later Renaissance work on the program, Thomas Tallis’sMissa Puer Natus Est Nobis. This piece is also filled with the intricate polyphony, but it makes use of what was by then an archaic device – long held notes in the tenor voice. At St. Mary’s, the piece felt jubilant, bustling with busy passage work and corruscated with counter-melodies.
The concert also featured music by a composer active more recently, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, who turned eighty this past year. These newer works were given incandescent performances. In contrast to the Tallis mass’s busy textures, Pärt’s O Antiphons epitomized clarity of line. The upper voices soared in his Magnificat.I am the True Vine featured delicate and touching harmonies, rendered by the Tallis Scholars with impressively pure diction. Indeed, while one hesitates to downplay the Renaissance portion of this thoughtful and well-balanced program, it was the Pärt that stole the show.
This Thursday, the Danish Piano Trio will make their US recital debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. The group – Katrine Gislinge,piano, Toke Møldrup, cello, and Lars Bjørnkjær, violin – will present piano trios by Niels Gade and Felix Mendelssohn (one of my personal favorite chamber works, the swoon-worthy Piano Trio in D minor). The group will also present the premiere of Bent Søresen’s Abgesänge. Pianist Steven Beck guests, joining Møldrup in the world premiere of Geoffrey Gordon’sFathoms (Cello Sonata).
The group’s DaCapo recording Danish Romantic Piano Trios is out now.
Danish Piano Trio
Weill Recital Hall
December 17 at 8 PM
Student/Senior tickets: $10. available in person at box office only.
Carnegiehall.org | CarnegieCharge 212-247-7800
Box Office at 57th and Seventh
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