When art promises to be revelatory, it may become something to fear. Such is the case of String Paths, the first conspectus of music by Dobrinka Tabakova. Fear, in this sense, is close to awe, for before hearing a single note one knows its details will seep into places to which few others have traveled. Fear, because the trust and intimacy required of such an act is what the composer’s life is all about: she fills staves with glyphs so that anyone with an open heart might encounter their fleeting interpretations and become part of their accretion. Indeed, many factors go into the creation of a single instrumental line, incalculably magnified by its interaction with others. Fear, then, is closer still to love.
Born in 1980, Tabakova moved at age 11 from her Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv to London, where she went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her career began in earnest after winning an international competition at 14, since which time she has developed a voice that is refreshingly full and melodious. Such a biographical sketch, despite its prodigious overtones, does little to set Tabakova apart from her contemporaries. Recognition is one thing; experience is another. The coloring of imagination sustained in this timely album’s program, the whole of its corporeal sensibilities, can only come across when its water fills a listener’s cup.
Ukrainian violist-conductor Maxim Rysanov, notable proponent of Kancheli and other composers of our time, has become one of Tabakova’s strongest advocates. It was, in fact, his performance of the Suite in Old Style (written 2006 for solo viola, harpsichord and strings) at the prestigious Lockenhaus Festival that first caught ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s ear and led him to propose the present disc. As the album’s seed, it shelters refugees of the surrounding works. In amending a practice established by such visionaries as Górecki, Schnittke, Eller, and others who have mined elder idioms as a means of looking forward, Tabakova might be placed squarely in an ongoing tradition. She, however, prefers to trace the piece’s genealogy back to Rameau by way of Respighi. Given its descriptive edge, we might link it further to the great Baroque mimeticists—Farina, Biber, Muffat, Schmelzer, and Vivaldi—who were less interested in imitating each other (although some intertextuality was to be expected) than they were in describing nature and circumstance. In this respect, Tabakova’s triptych interfaces a variety of signatures, from which her own stands boldest.
The first movement is a triptych unto itself. Beginning with a Prelude marked “Fanfare from the balconies,” proceeding to “Back from hunting,” and on to “Through mirrored corridors,” already one can note Tabakova’s special affinity for space and place. A rich and delightful piece of prosody, its syncopations feel like ballet, a joyous dance of fit bodies. The viola leaps while the harpsichord adds tactile diacritics to Rysanov’s slippery alphabet. The transcendent centerpiece, entitled “The rose garden by moonlight,” is a shiver down the spine in slow motion, a season at once born and dying. The harpsichord elicits brief exaltations, pushing its wordless song into snowdrift, even as intimations of spring exchange glances with those of autumn. The quasi-Italian filigree of “Riddle of the barrel-organ player” and the Postlude (“Hunting and Finale”) fosters a nostalgic air of antique tracings, bearing yin and yang with plenty of drama to spare.
Insight (2002) for string trio opens the program with exactly that. Played by its dedicatees (Rysanov, Russian violinist Roman Mints, and Latvian-born Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist of the London Philharmonic), it unfolds in dense streams. For Tabakova the trio breathes as one, as might the moving parts of some singing, bellowed engine. The trio thus becomes something else entirely (a phenomenon achieved via the same configuration perhaps only by Górecki in his Genesis I). Moments of shining vibrato add pulse and skin. Glissandi also play an important role in establishing a smooth, coherent fable. The violin’s harmonics are glassine, somehow vulnerable. Indications of dances hold hands with jagged flames. Hints of a free spirit shine through the cracks. A decorated return to the theme looses a bird from an open palm, watching it fly until its song grows too faint to hear.
The 2008 Concerto for Cello and Strings, written for and featuring Blaumane as soloist, moves in three phases, the names of which recall the designations of John Adams. The music, too, may remind one of the American humanist, singing as it does with a likeminded breadth of inflection. The first movement (“Turbulent, tense”) unfolds in pulsing energy. Like a spirit coursing through the sky, it searches the heavens, lantern in hand, for earthly connection. The spirit casts a longing gaze across the oceans, leaping from continent to continent, harming not a single blade of grass by her step. The cello thus takes up the opening theme like a haul from the deep, letting all creatures slip through its fingers to hold the one treasure it seeks by their tips. In that box: a beating heart, one that seeks its own undoing by virtue of its discovery. It is a story revived in countless historical tragedies. The orchestra flowers around the soloist, carrying equilibrium as might a parent cradle a sickly child, laying her down on the altar where the opening motif may reach. The slow movement, marked “Longing,” thus revives that body, spinning from the treasure’s contents a trail she might follow back toward breath. With her resurrection come also the fears that killed her: the conflicts of a warring state, the ideals of a corrupt ruler, the confusion of a hopeless citizenry. The kingdom no longer smiles beneath the sun but weeps by moonlight. Chromatic lilts keep those tears in check, holding them true to form: as vast internal calligraphies whose tails find purchase only on composition paper. Echoes appear and remain. Blaumane’s rich, singing tone conveys all of this and more, never letting go of its full-bodied emotion. The softness of the final stretch turns charcoal into pastel, cloud into dusk, star into supernova. It is therefore tempting to read resolution into the final movement (“Radiant”). From its icy opening harmonics, it seems to beg for the cello’s appearance, which in spite of its jaggedness never bleeds into forceful suggestion. For whenever it verges on puncture, it reconnects to the surrounding orchestral flow, from which it was born and to which it always returns for recharge. Its blasting high sends a message: I am fallen that I might rise again.
Frozen River Flows (2005) is scored for violin, accordion and double bass. Intended to evoke water beneath ice, it expresses two states of the same substance yet so much more. It encompasses the snowy banks, the laden trees, the footprints left beneath them. It imparts glimpses of those who wandered through here not long ago, whose warmth still lingers like a puff of exhaled breath. The violin takes on a vocal lilt, the accordion a windy rasp, the double bass a gestural vocabulary—all of which ends as if beginning.
Such different paths (2008) for string septet ends the program. Dedicated to Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, it ushers in a fulsome, chromatic sound. There is a feeling of constant movement here that is duly organic: in one sense as flow, in another as melodic variety. There is, again, a rocking quality, as if the music always rests on some sort of fulcrum. A quiet passage that deals with the barbs lifted to our eyes. It ends in transcendent wash, a bleed of dye in cloth.
The performances on this finely produced disc are as gorgeous as they come, even more so under the purview of such attentive engineering. This is not music we simply listen to, but music that also listens to us.
It is in precisely this spirit of mutual listening that I participated in an e-mail interview with Ms. Tabakova, who kindly answered the following questions from this enamored soul…
On Friday night, November 1st the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a program by three outstanding improvisational musicians: Tim Feeney on percussion, Ken Ueno, vocals and Matt Ingalls, clarinet. A little over an hour of improvisational music was offered in the reclaimed second-story industrial loft that is the Wulf, and a small but dedicated group of listeners gathered comfortably in the informal space. On this occasion there were no overhead lights – just a single back light behind the performers – and this added to the unusual atmosphere.
The three performers all have long experience playing experimental music using extended techniques. Tim Feeney came equipped with a table full of items for percussion: files, steel bars, a variety of mallets, a wooden stick, scrapers, copper plates and several bows. Tim has played extensively in Boston’s improvising community and has appeared at experimental spaces such as the Red Room in Baltimore, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ken Ueno is a composer and vocalist who is accomplished in Heavy Metal sub-tone singing , Tuvan throat singing and other extended vocal techniques. He includes attending West Point and winning a Rome Prize in his extensive resume and has appeared at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Musik Triennale Köln Festival among many others.
According to his website, Matt Ingalls is “ a prominent figure in the San Francisco Bay Area Improv Scene, and is known for his ‘composerly’ solo improvisations that explore extended techniques on his instrument that interact with the acoustic space, often as combination tones.” Matt is also founder and co-director of sfSound a new music ensemble, and is active in computer music programming.
The first piece began with a series of quiet gestures : a breath of air through the clarinet, the soft rubbing of the drum head and a low vocal whooshing sound that combined to evoke a dark, windswept plain at night. A lonely sort of howl sounded in the distance, adding to the wilderness atmosphere. As the early part of the piece progressed the sounds grew louder and more distinct – a heavier scraping on the drum, a distinct huffing sound from the vocals and regular squeaks from the clarinet. A solo voice drone with vocalise accompanied by bowing on the drum produced an interesting sonic combination. Other combinations of voice, clarinet and percussion took their turn – with one player resting – as the piece continued, building in intensity. As the clarinet reached a full screeching cry the effect was palpably primal in its impact.
At this point, as the intensity subsided somewhat, Matt Ingalls switched over to an apparatus consisting of a garden hose fitted with a bass clarinet reed and what seemed to be an extendable tube that might have been a vacuum cleaner attachment. This produced a low reedy sound whose pitch and volume was modified by the position of the extendable tube and by a plate held to its end, used in the manner of a horn player stopping the bell. This produced a low, mournful sound that combined nicely with the bowed drum and the overall effect as the piece concluded was that we were in the presence of something alien, but nevertheless sympathetic.
The second piece opened with a series of long, low clarinet tones. In time this was joined by a light tapping of the drum and soft vocals. The clarinet broke into a series of scales and arpeggios that gave the texture a bright, active feel that increased in dynamic as the piece progressed. Eventually the clarinet – amplified – produced an almost painful series of shrieks and screeches accompanied by a rapid tapping in the percussion and a forceful drone in the voice. A series of trills by the clarinet quickly broke into powerful sheets of sound that poured out – reminiscent of Coltrane or a Rahsaan Roland Kirk – in a fluid and intense expression. The familiar sonic territory exerted a strong pull on this listener – you could feel the old dynamism welling up and it was the perfect compliment to what had gone before. The piece slowly wound down from this high point and the voice, percussion and clarinet recombined effectively to produce a calming sense of the sacred as the piece concluded.
This performance was an impressive display of what can be created with extended techniques in the hands of experienced and capable improvising musicians. The varied sounds that were produced by all three players during the course of this performance was a real marvel and gives us a fine example of what is possible beyond the limits of conventional playing.
The next offering at the Wulf will be on November 17, 2013 with James Klopfleisch presenting.
It was an evocatively strange and ambiguous experience to hear Anton Batagov play Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories last Sunday evening in the newly restored Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory. The room is stunning, beautiful and elegant in a way that speaks not just of easy riches but of plutocracy and power. It’s the size of a studio apartment, and sitting in it is like being in the intimate quarters of the people whose riches ensure their legacy in and on buildings across the city.
And there we heard Feldman, the last of three concerts to inaugurate the Armory’s chamber music series. Fitting and strange — a born and raised New Yorker from a middle-class that won’t exist for many more generations, and one of the great and most uncompromisingly avant-garde composers in the Western classical tradition. A Jew in what is essentially a castle for old-money WASPS, making music that utterly ignores conventions of form, structure, development, harmony, melody and rhythm.
By the time in his career of Triadic Memories (1981) Feldman was not avant-garde anymore, that’s what my composer’s sensibilities tell me. He was, as the piece tells me both on paper and in my ears, a great composer in both history and craft; making music that developed and spread ideas important to the continuing development of knowledge about how to compose music, and notating those ideas with imagination, concision and profound skill. It’s a great piece of musical aesthetics and a great piece in the piano literature, pianistic in a way that makes it an absolute peer to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich, Ravel, Nancarrow, Carter and Ligeti.
Batagov dedicated the concert to Lou Reed — we had heard news of his death that morning — another ambiguous element. Reed is important and rightfully beloved, but his status in rock music and pop culture was, just before his death, cemented by his licensing of his song “Perfect Day” to sell PlayStations. Rock is part of mass culture and has never been able to escape commodification, selling is part of the point of its existence. Feldman is never going to sell any product, the three evenings of performances probably sold about 400 tickets. That many people heard Batagov’s transparent, affecting performance.
His concentration, his thinking, were exceptional. The music is terrifically challenging in a way that the likes of Lang Lang would never dare approach. The pianist must be on the knife’s edge of awareness, keeping a strict tempo for ninety minutes and placing notes in rhythms that are both exact and exceedingly finely varied. The technical point is to keep many pulses going at once through a specific period of time. Harmonically the music is tonal and dissonant, but there’s no predictable harmonic rhythm and there are few phrases, a handful of tightly confined one-handed patterns in the middle and towards the end. The physical demands are rudimentary, save for stamina, the intellectual demands are daunting. His measured tempo, slower than most of the recordings I know, shaded the experience with an initial and enticing feeling of tension: could he make it work at this pace?
Unerringly. I praise Batagov when I write that his playing never made the demands of tempo, thought and action noticeable. These are the things I did notice: uncanny and rich timbres of difference tones and especially overtones morphing out of the piano (the pedal is halfway down throughout the piece) — the first octave and fifth were almost as strong as the fundamental pitches — and demonstrating the great acoustic of the room, which gives even the softest notes fullness and presence; the audience so quiet that the sound of a second-hand ticking on a watch somewhere in my row was noticeable (although several people left during the performance, highly disruptive and puzzling — why did they come?); the sense of time not passing but accumulating. There are intellectual and mystical depths to Feldman, paths through those can be explored by each listener. What is objectively true about the piece is that it defines time not as notches on a line but a container to hold a set of events, it beings, proceeds through action and ends, and the arbitrary points that mark the first measure and the last could just be windows into something that is eternal. That’s as great as it gets.
Before the show, the chorus warmed up the crowd with some catcalls, and that prompted the room to loosen up. The vibe was fun. The orchestra did a wave. The audience hooted and hollered like they were at the Fillmore. During an awkward silence, some brave soul chanced a “Freebird!” shout, and was lucky to get hearty laughs instead of groans.
It seemed like a loose crowd, that was in the mood for a fun show. From my vantage point, the audience was dominated by old Zappa fans. (A very nice old man in my section was cheerily wearing a bright yellow Wazoo helmet.) But it seems there’s some kind of critical mass that just can’t be escaped at an orchestra concert. Before long, concert etiquette killed the mood.
The concertmaster drunkenly stumbled onstage with his bow tie on his head and his shirt untucked. It was a cute gesture, but it signified a lot of what was to come, which was a serious orchestra trying way too hard to have fun. Esa-Pekka came onstage to a rock star’s ovation, but he simply mounted the podium and got down to business. The rambunctious crowd almost completely settled down by the time the Overture was finished.
A few hearty folks kept up the rowdy atmosphere during the opening numbers. They’d whistle and shout out one-liners in response to jokes in the show. Unfortunately for them, by the time Lonesome Cowboy Burt had left the stage, the rest of the audience had fully reverted back to reactionary classical concert mode. From that point on, the groundlings were shushed mercilessly. One poor fellow, who just did not want to settle down, kept doing his best to stay in rock ‘n roll mode. His neighbors nearly had him ejected. After several minutes of prudish hissing and reprimands to “Be quiet!!”, the guy gave up and behaved for the rest of the show.
The shift in behavior was a drag for the performers as well. The built-in gags that were designed to elicit audience participation later in the show fell flat. Everyone sat in their seats like they were watching a concert version of an opera, instead of the Zappa show they paid to see. Maybe if the LA Phil had let us take beers inside the hall, left the doors open, and let the musicians wear street clothes, the audience wouldn’t have reverted to “square” behavior. Odds are that it would have happened anyway. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around it, no matter how primed an audience is to have fun at a classical concert.
As for the show itself, it was a muddle. That’s the nature of 200 Motels, and I hope no one was expecting something else. The only real frustration was that the vocal mics were so incompetently mixed to an ear-splitting level. There was no blend between the orchestra and the soloists. They might as well have been in two different rooms. That disparity rendered Zappa’s orchestra score (the ostensible reason that we were all there) an afterthought, which is unfortunate given all its charms. For my money, the most arresting sonorities were the stacks of woodwinds during the masturbation scene.
A new video (posted yesterday) of New York Polyphony live in midtown Manhattan at St. Mary’s. We have been playing the quartet’s latest BIS recording, Times go by Turns,in heavy rotation. The disc includes Renaissance masses by Tallis, Byrd, and Plummer as well as contemporary pieces by Gabriel Jackson, Andrew Smith, and one of the last works written by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. “A Colloquy with God”, gifted by Bennett to NYP, is, simply put, a knockout.
The website eClassical is sharing a bonus track from the album, Tallis’s beloved motet “If Ye Love Me,” for download here.
Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.
Monday at the DiMenna Center, New York New Music Ensemble presents a program of works by Lukas Foss (1922-2009). Lukas (with whom I studied in the 90s when I was at BU) was a man of many musical talents with a near-omnivorous interest in a host of musical styles. Rather than try to present a comprehensive portrait of them all (a tall order in a single evening!), NYNME will focus on pieces from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, the period during which he was in his most experimental phase. In Echoi (1963), Foss made use of vast swaths of serial-inspired charts – there are pictures of them taking up whole walls of his studio. However, his performance directions add a measure of postmodern theatricality and there’s more than a bit of aleatory at work too. These seemingly disparate elements come together in a piece that is a masterful melange. Paradigm (1968), is more ebulliently chaotic still. Incorporating clangorous percussion and vociferous shouts alongside quasi-rock riffs from electric guitar, it channels more than a bit of the cultural and political revolutions afoot in the year of its composition.
Solo Observed (1982), began its life as a virtuosic solo piano piece, Solo, which found Foss experimenting with minimalism and maximalism at the same time. Solo Observed (1982, in versions for both orchestra and chamber ensemble), adds additional instruments, who observe, comment on, and sometimes even obstruct the pianist’s solo. The last work on the program, Tashi (1986), written for the star-studded chamber ensemble of the same name, is one of my favorite of Foss’s chamber works. Abundantly virtuosic and sumptuously harmonically varied, it is one of the best syntheses of the various styles and varied materials that fascinated Foss. Hunt down Rendezvous, the group’s 1989 recording on which it appears. Better yet, catch it live tonight.
A bit past the halfway mark in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll comes a passage marked “Lebhaft” (lively tempo). It begins with a bright, energetic horn fanfare that is quickly answered by bird calls in the flute and clarinet. The flow of the piece makes it sound like Siegfried – Wagner’s son as much as his character – has awoken from gentle slumber to find himself in the woods. But there was nothing like that sensation when Alarm Will Sound played the original sinfonietta version last Friday to open their “The Permanent Collection” concert, which itself opened their new residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Limor Tomer is remaking the Met into the most interesting performance space in the city, with programming that rivals that of Miller Theatre and the use of the gallery spaces for live music. Alarm Will Sound has some great programming on tap, including an all Steve Reich concert November 16, but Alan Pierson and the group choose to set their first concert in the museum’s physical collection by showing the roots of their ensemble. Pierson hints at something of an argument about the sinfoniette being the prototypical new music ensemble, which is sort of true and sort of not – it depends on what year you’re look from, and which direction you turn your attention.
Wagner was certainly making new music in the nineteenth century, but that’s not what the Idyll is. It’s one of his loveliest works, but the aesthetic is entirely different than that of the new music movement that began around a hundred years ago. The music is about cadences, modulations between chords and tempos and the gestural language used to effect those. That’s where the expression is, and Alarm Will Sound is steeped in the aesthetic of non-narrative expressive language. They strung along the notes, played nicely, but had nothing much to say about the actual music. It had me searching for my recording of Glenn Gould conducting an intellectually critical and lovely take with the same forces.
Thomas Adés Living Toys is more in their style, but only superficially. I’m not a fan of the music, or his work in general. I find his composing masks an ordinary romantic sensibility in a lot of bravura hand-waving material that, if it doesn’t amount to something ordinary, amounts to little at all. There is a mismatch between the density of musical activity and the density of thinking. It suffered in inevitable comparisoin with all the great pieces from John Zorn I heard last month, music that is overwhelming with both detail and musical, aesthetic and intellectual meaning. But Adés is more old music in new music clothes.
Truly new, and truly excellent, were Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto and Ragtime Dances1 and 4 by Charles Ives. These works are at the heart of Alarm Will Sound’s purpose, music that explores the possbilities of the future and that was written with experimental values at the fore. Ligeti’s work comes from his cloud phase, a period when he heard music as something like a collection of webs, gossamer strends connecting to each other across distances and forming sections that fill in space with a tantilizing wispiness. This was a beautiful, concentrated performance, the music clearly excites the players’ interest and concentration, everything focussed and spooky. The Chamber Concerto doesn’t tell stories, and it displays instrumental prowess in subtly challenging ways, the results tickle the bass of the skull in rare ways.
The Ives’ dances are rarely played or recorded, which is a shame because they are brilliant and practical, distilled and sharply written examples of his art and his importance. Ives was always pinning popular tunes to his pieces, but there’s something about hearing him create and lay out his own ragtime beat that is revelatory. True to form, he fractures it deliberately and exuberantly, and like a pinata, the yield is delight, joy and real, substantial satisfaction.
Q2 will have the concert archive available to stream, check their site for availability
Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.
On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’scomposition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.
I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.
Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?
Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”
CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?
CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?
JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.
In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)
What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.
Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.
CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?
JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.
CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.
JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!
CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.
The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.
So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”
CB: That’s so great.
JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)
So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”
And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.
Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.