On Friday, March 21, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented “a cappella NEXT,” in which three choirs performed a fascinating line-up of contemporary choral music in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Included were four world premieres, and many of the composers represented on the program were present in the sold-out audience, making for an evening vibrant with the vitality of new music.
First up was the University of California, Berkeley Chamber Chorus under the direction of Marika Kuzma. They opened with the short fanfare “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” from Requiem: a Dramatic Dialogue, composed by Randall Thompson on a commission from UC Berkeley in 1958. Hardly new by the standards of the rest of the evening’s fare, it was a reminder of the groundwork on which contemporary artists now stand and served as an entry point to a selection of more recent music by composers connected with UC Berkeley. The Chamber Chorus struggled with intonation and blend, possibly due to the acoustic of Weill Recital Hall, a space better suited to instrumental chamber music than vocal but one that produces an immediacy of sound that made for an intimate sonic experience. The sopranos sang with a pure—if somewhat young—timbre, and the altos shone in the excerpts from Jorge Liderman’s Sephardisms II with their clear, well-nourished tone. The largest of the three choirs performing, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus lacked some of the individual vocal strength of the other two ensembles but made full use of their size in the aleatoric passages of Robin Estrada’s “Awit sa Panginoon,” a fascinating blend of Filipino folk style singing with more modern tonal clusters, aleatory, and extended vocal techniques. The Chamber Chorus displayed some of their best singing in their final selection, “Vesna” from Pory Roku by Ukranian composer Lesia Dychko. Coming out of the bleakness of Richard Felciano’s “Winter” from The Seasons, the exuberance of Dychko’s piece was welcome contrast. While the performance felt at times a bit restrained, the Chamber Chorus delivered well-balanced singing, overcoming their previous struggles to find a cohesive ensemble sound.
Next to take the stage was NOTUS: Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Under Dominick DiOrio’s leadership, NOTUS stood out for the polish and dynamism of their performance. Though fewer in number than the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, NOTUS’s singers filled the hall with a more vibrant tone and achieved more secure intonation than either of the other choruses. Their set opened with two world premieres. The first, by Zachary Wadsworth, was a highly evocative setting of Wallace Stephens’s “To the Roaring Wind.” Beginning with voiceless breath evolving into tone, the piece unfolds with the text seemingly struggling to emerge from less organized sound—not unlike the idea behind Luciano Berio’s Visage, but a less tortured soundscape and one easier to follow. The piece has a directness—almost inevitability—to its linear development, but it is well paced in a way that makes its destination immensely rewarding. DiOrio and NOTUS did an excellent job of communicating the varied sounds, abortive sonorities, and moments of textual clarity, delivering an overall sophisticated performance of this fresh work.
The second premiere was of Aaron Travers’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “Virginia: The West.” Seizing upon the rapid shifts inherent in the text, Travers uses different styles spanning nearly a millennium to highlight each of the unique characters. The changes are as fast and thick as those in the poem, making for an eclectic montage bringing life to Whitman’s text.
Next on NOTUS’s program was the “Passacaglia” from Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 voices. Recently featured at the Grammy Awards in a performance by Roomful of Teeth, “Passacaglia” is an enthralling piece that makes use of a wide array of vocal techniques, often shifting abruptly from one style to another. As such, it presents singers with considerable vocal demands, which NOTUS negotiated skillfully. More challenges were to be had in Dominick DiOrio’s “O Virtus Sapientiae.” Described by the composer as “a bold reimagining of Hildegard’s chant,” it puts three soprano soloists to the test with fleet melismata, rhythmic displacement, and an expansive range. The soloists—Sandra Periord, Elise Marie Kennedy, and Martha Eason—imparted a convincing performance. Robert Vuichard’s “Zephyr Rounds” made for a rousing close to the set. The piece’s contrapuntal interest makes it much more than a simple crowd pleaser, but it was sheer fun, eliciting a well-deserved ovation for this exciting ensemble.
Last to perform were the Kansas-based Ad Astra Singers under the direction of John Paul Johnson. As the smallest ensemble of the evening, the Ad Astra Singers seemed to feel most keenly the lack of support from the hall’s acoustic. With voices that sounded unaccustomed to singing senza vibrato, they struggled through the premiere of Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn’s Four Haikus. Sternfeld-Dunn sets the scant text pictorially, at times with broader brush strokes, at others with specific gestures like layered ostinati depicting the jumping of frogs in the second movement. Rather than four distinct paintings, each haiku becomes its own series of scenes.
Kansas City-based composer Jean Belmont Ford penned two songs on the program. Her music is characterized by a lush harmonic palette that is relatively accessible though not fettered by tonality. The first of her pieces performed here, “Draba” from Sand County, is a beautiful and pleasingly uncomplicated setting of a text about an overlooked desert flower. “Love Song”—the evening’s fourth and final premiere—was full of Ford’s typical harmonic twists and turns, evoking a variety of colors. The Ad Astra Singers negotiated most of these twists well, giving the piece a fair hearing. Wayne Oquin’s spacious “O Magnum Mysterium” wanted for a more stable sostenuto sound than the seventeen voices of the Ad Astra Singers could deliver in the acoustic of Weill, and some of its more interesting harmonies and soaring lines fell short in this performance. After the reverent “O Magnum Mysterium,” the rhythmic drive of Jósef Świder’s “Cantus Gloriosus” made for a sharp contrast to close the program. Though continuing to battle problems with ensemble and intonation, the Ad Astra Singers nevertheless delivered a spirited performance to wrap up an ambitious program for the small chorus.
In sum, the concert made for a delightful sampling of the vast array of new music available to adventurous choral ensembles. All three directors provided the audience with variety that kept the program consistently intriguing. They and their singers are to be commended for this undertaking, and many thanks are due to DCINY for putting on such a concert.
James Knox Sutterfield is a choral conductor and writer, with degrees from Furman University and the Yale School of Music.
Now that we’re well (and sadly?) past the era of composers’ cutting contests, where the likes of Beethoven would take a theme from a pretender and improvise a dazzling set of variations (the origin of the finale of the “Eroica” symphony), it is exceedingly, impossibly rare to witness what I heard in December.
Early in the month, the American Modern Ensemble played a concert at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The program was based around music from Robert Paterson’s terrific recent recording, Winter Songs, made with the same ensemble. The concert was bookended by Paterson’s CAPTCHA and the title sequence, about half the contents on the CD (there’s also the song-sets Eating Variations, Thursday and Batter’s Box, making for one of the best releases of 2013).
One of Paterson’s Winter Songs is “The Snow Man,” from Wallace Stevens’ poem. Preceding that set was another song of the same poem, “The Snow Man,” by composer Steven Burke. Two songs from two different composers using the same text, finding entirely different meanings and producing dramatically varied effects. In a strong and enjoyable concert overall, this was a special moment and had a powerful effect.
Paterson is an excellent, old-school style craftsman. He produces limpid melodies and harmonies, his small ensemble orchestrations are colorful and clear, and he values lyricism and beauty. His Winter Songs are just that: despite the overall feeling of shattered loneliness in the poems he collected from Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, and Billy Collins, the overall feeling is of interpretation at a distance, the composer and listener outside the experience of the poems themselves, safe from the emotional dangers.
Paterson’s “Snow Man” is only shrouded in ice, the warmth from the fire reaches out to touch the music. The singer, bass-baritone David Neal, and the music, describe the emptiness “Of the January sun; and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” like a docent describing a painting. Burke’s setting, which came out of a period of personal turmoil for him, is deep inside the music and the poem. His singer was a tenor, John Matthew Myers, and the accompaniment is only violin and piano, not Paterson’s chamber ensemble. The voice of the music is the voice of the snowman, the feeling is of experience, not observation. Burke’s is the sound of a man lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he’s going to do.
In contrast to all this is CAPTCHA, the nonsense text used on the web to verify that the user on the other end of the interface is a human being. Paterson collected a decent amount of these … words, such as they are, and made them into songs. They are utterly brilliant, and I’m not sure the composer recognizes their strength. Expertly sung by the great young baritone Jesse Blumberg, they are songs that poke fun at the entire art song tradition and yet fulfill the clichés of the style with skill and wit. That a man can sing “Voix gustroor/voice niionss/MUSICAL alengus/harmonic nstryfl” with a full, beautiful voice and an arched eyebrow, and convey meaning, testifies to how great this set is. By saying nothing, they mean everything. It needs to be a standard choice in the repertoire.
The concert was completed with songs from Tania Léon, Turning, and Russell Platt, “Two Whitman Panels” from his A Walt Whitman Cantata, that varied based on the quality of the poetry. Each composer writes fine vocal music, but Léon’s poetry couldn’t completely fill out her composing. The series of texts, sung by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, from Sarah White, Lucille Clifton, Janice Mirikitani and Judith Ortiz Carter, hint at both social isolation and rituals that extend from ancient beliefs to modern materialism, but their cores are minimal, and the music tries, not completely successfully, to press them in to a maximal expression. Neither side is wrong, but they mostly mis-fit.
Platt’s two songs, with Jesse Blumberg again, contrast with each other. His settings of the poetry are superb: the first, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” is a genteel love song, one man to another, while “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” has the pleasing roughness and muscularity that is so special in the poet. Platt captures each quality well.
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On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallaby presented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.
The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.
The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone. A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.
d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played. Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.
Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.
This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe. Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet. At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.
This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.
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The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres. For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work. Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.
The scene’s relentless DIY approach has led to the establishment of numerous artist-run concert series and festivals, of which the Outsound New Music Summit, the Tom’s Place house concert series in Berkeley, the SIMM Series at the Musicians’ Union Hall, the Wednesday and Sunday series at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival are just a few examples. This month they’ll be joined by a brand-new one, the Active Music Festival, covering February 20-22 in downtown Oakland. Read the rest of this entry »
Composer Vivian Fung
This week marks the premiere of a new concerto by Vivian Fung
for the harp. Starting in Alabama
this Thursday and later this spring in Germany, NY, DC, and in the fall, California, harpist Bridget Kibbey unveils the piece for harp, percussion, and strings. “It was tricky,”
says Fung. “When we were deciding on the instrumentation, we originally thought it was going to be for the entire orchestra – but the harp is like a guitar, or other instruments that have balance issues, if you are not careful [with the orchestration]. So even with the percussion, I have to choose instruments that could compliment that sound very well, but not drown out the sound of the harp.”
Fung also prepares the harp in one section of the work, placing card stock in the strings. “It kind of mutes the strings (in the low register) so it almost turns it into a percussive sound, almost a bass guitar sort of sound – you know, the thump.”
Listen to an interview with Vivian Fung about this new concerto here as an mp3 file including how the commission came about, whether to name or subtitle the new work, inspirations, and writing for harp.
The New York premiere takes place Sunday and Monday, April 6 & 7 at le poisson rouge.
Bonus - more behind the scenes for composers – shop talk with Vivian and John Clare: mp3 file Hear the answers to how Ms. Fung started as a composer, dream genres, and the importance of recordings/publication for a composer.
Friday, February 7, 2014 Piano Spheres presented The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II, performed by Gloria Cheng at Boston Court in Pasadena. The concert included an intriguing mixture of early French and Italian Baroque works along with late 20th century pieces. The Marjorie Branson performance space at Boston Court held an enthusiastic crowd and was the perfect venue for an intimate evening of harpsichord music.
Along with Ms. Cheng, the other star of the show was the double-manual harpsichord constructed by Gloria’s husband Lefteris Padavos. The instrument took shape in their garage during 2012 and is based on a model created by the 18th century French master harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793). The tuning was, according to Ms. Cheng something of a compromise given the diversity of the program – the early Baroque and our modern equal temperament being distinctly different. The Vallotti tuning was adopted for this performance and the result was a warm, full sound that did not detract from any of the pieces played. The light amplification and good acoustics of the space also contributed, so that even the more subtle textures and passages with elaborate ornamentation were clearly heard.
The concert opened with Prélude non-mésuré (c. 1650) by Louis Couperin. This was a quiet, flowing piece with a wistful, nostalgic feeling. The tuning and acoustics complimented the music perfectly. Other early pieces by Frescobaldi and Rossi followed, and these had a more familiar harpsichord sound, with cascades of successively more complex phrases pouring out from the keyboard. Ms. Cheng explained that the notation of this period is very general, leaving much to the performer in the moment. The playing here was precise and unhurried, even when the passages were in a fast tempo and highly ornamented.
Trio Sonata (1994) by John Harbison followed, consisting of four short movements, all titled Fast. Beginning with a blizzard of notes and variously quiet, syncopated, halting or playful, this piece provided an interesting comparison to the music of the first part of the concert in that, when played on the harpsichord, it did not seem so far removed from the 17th century. Carolyn Yarnell’s Prelude and Fugue (1984) followed and this seemed brighter and more optimistic when compared to the formal Baroque pieces while equaling them in elaborate phrasing. There was, to my ear, at least, a sense of continuity between the centuries that was underscored by hearing these pieces played successively on the harpsichord.
More Baroque music followed, including La Marche des Scythes (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. This piece was very formal – almost pompous – and extremely dense at times. It was written as a musical description of barbarian cavalry and the tempo was often fast and furious as befits the subject matter. The playing was often difficult and taxing – the effort being appreciatively received by the audience at the finish. Les Baricades mysterieuses (1717) by Francois Couperin followed, and provided an excellent contrast to La Marche. Soft and lush, with expressive harmony, Les Baricades mysterieuses has a simple and endearing quality that approaches an almost romantic sensibility.
Three late 20th century works closed the concert. The first of these was Continuum (1968) by György Ligeti. This piece is built on repeated arpeggio phrases, with single notes often floating above, a form that prefigures the later minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. The effect as heard on the harpsichord is now lovely, now distressing, and now rising in tension. The playing soon becomes fast and intense and the harpsichord keys in the higher registers could be heard clicking under the strain. The tension and pitches ratchet higher and higher – the notes now pouring out – until the sudden ending, greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. This was followed by the more introspective Rain Dreaming (1986) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose work is informed by a love of nature and space. Rain Dreaming is quiet, spare, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It is at times solemn, lonely and seems to alternate between shadow and light. A feeling of uncertainty arises in this music that never quite leaves the piece, but it ends on a lovely warm chord at the finish.
The final work on the program was Phrygian Tucket (1994), a piece by Stephen Montague for amplified harpsichord and tape. A tucket is an Elizabethan musical phrase that means a flourish of trumpets and drums. The addition of the tape provided a series of deep chords in the lower registers that act to form a solid foundation for the melody in the harpsichord. The result is a strong, muscular sound as would be expected from a tucket. The bass tones coming from the tape seems to fill in between the more strident tones of the harpsichord and this adds a luminosity to the upper notes that is quite effective. As the piece progressed, certain of the passages in Phrygian Tucket acquired a more introspective feel. Soon , however, an increasing tempo and discord introduce a sense of building tension that is released in a dramatic full-keyboard arpeggio that ends the piece in sudden silence. The addition of the sounds from the tape definitely enhances the harpsichord and makes Phrygian Tucket an interesting blend of old and electronic.
The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II was carefully programmed and impressively performed, combining old and new music as heard through the lens of the harpsichord. The audience responded with an extended ovation in appreciation. An encore followed by Ms. Cheng, a repeat of Les Baricades mysterieuses, the Francois Cuperin piece that nicely summed up the mixture of old and new that was the theme of the program.
Piano Spheres will next present a concert by Mark Robson at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 11.
Since (Le) Poisson Rouge, (LPR) opened in 2008; the venue has established itself as a sure ticket to an unconventional concert experience. LPR’s motto, “serving art and alcohol,” gives some idea of its free-spirited approach.
Now, with the launch of its own ensemble, LPR has further expanded the venue’s ventures into unchartered, artistic territory. David Handler, LPR’s co-founder and the ensemble’s artistic director, initiated the establishment of the ensemble as a natural outgrowth of LPR’s curatorial identity. He collaborated with Ronen Givony, co-director of Le Poisson Rouge’s mission and creator of the multi-genre “Wordless Music“line up.
“LPR was always about creating community, cultivating camaraderie among musicians, and encouraging freedom of expression through atypical programs,” says Handler, a composer and violinist/violist, as he describes the core vision for LPR that he and co-founder Justin Kantor, a cellist, had during their student years at the Manhattan School of Music. Handler and Kantor, with Givony’s assistance, were effectively shaping the experimental curating scenery then in demand by a host of diverse audiences. LPR succeeded in providing what audiences were missing by tapping into a broad cultural craving for accessible presentations, a platform on which Ensemble LPR can build with high expectations.
“It’s a very exciting moment for us,” shares Handler. “We feel privileged and take very seriously the trust of our listeners in our ability to create an innovative merger of programming,” he maintains, “And with the ensemble, we continue to manifest and express ourselves artistically by making our own choices as a group. For us that means playing anything from Baroque to today’s music, rigorously, at the highest level, and with peerless guest artists – collaborating with classical and non-classical artists who have something interesting to express.”
The ensemble will follow the principal concept of LPR’s expanding artistic alliances without compromising high-performance standards or intriguing repertoire. The secret ingredients of this model have attracted new audiences and high-caliber artists within the classical and non-classical music scene alike, shifting people’s notion of what belongs on the concert stage and how that stage should project onto its audience.
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The American Composers Forum–in partnership with the super cool So Percussion, has announced the finalists in the 2014 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest: Michael Laurello (Yale School of Music), Todd Lerew (CalArts), and Kristina Warren (University of Virginia). In addition to a cash prize, the three finalists get to compose an 8 – 10 minute piece for So Percussion, and travel to Princeton to hear it workshopped and premiered on July 20 as part of the So Percussion Summer Institute 2014. One of the works will be chosen to receive the final prize, which includes an additional cash award and future public performances by So Percussion.
The National Composition Contest is open to composers currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States; this year’s installment drew more than 250 applicants from 39 states. Each finalist receives an award of $1,000 plus an additional stipend of $750 to help defray expenses associated with attending the workshop and studio performance. Along with further performances of his/her piece, the winning composer will receive an additional $2,000.
The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. JACK Quartet was the ensemble for 2011-12. The competition went on hiatus last season, returning in September 2013 under its new name, the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest.
A B O U T T H E F I N A L I S T S
Michael Laurello (b. 1981) is an American composer and pianist. He has written for ensembles and soloists such as the Yale Baroque Ensemble, Sound Icon, the 15.19 Ensemble, NotaRiotous (the Boston Microtonal Society), guitarist Flavio Virzì, soprano Sarah Pelletier, pianist/composer John McDonald, and clarinetist and linguist/music theorist Ray Jackendoff. Laurello is an Artist Diploma candidate in Composition at the Yale School of Music, studying with David Lang and Christopher Theofanidis. He earned an M.A. in Composition from Tufts University under John McDonald, and a B.M. in Music Synthesis (Electronic Production and Design) from Berklee College of Music where he studied jazz piano performance with Laszlo Gardony and Steve Hunt. He has attended composition festivals at highSCORE (Pavia, Italy) and Etchings (Auvillar, France), and was recently recognized with an Emerg ing Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation (Boston, MA). In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Laurello is a recording and mixing engineer.
Todd Lerew (b. 1986) is a Los Angeles-based composer working with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. Lerew is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which utilizes a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford’s CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles. He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children’s game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. H is pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).
Composer and vocalist Kristina Warren (b. 1989) holds a B.A. in Music Composition from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Composition and Computer Technologies from the University of Virginia. Recent works include Three Sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (soprano, electronics), Folk Studies No. 1 (Up in the A.M.), No. 2 (Vimeda Sakla), andNo. 3 (Shousty) for voice-based electronics, and Pogpo (electric guitar quartet). Warren’s research interests include voice, electronics, and questions of aleatory and performance practice in conjunction with various non-Eurocentric musics, such as folk music and Korean p’ansori. Warren’s compositions have been performed across the US and in Europe, and she has been fortunate to study composition with Ted Coffey, Judith Shatin, Anthony Kelley, Scott Lindroth , and John Supko.S
Nick Brooke: Border Towns
To experience Border Towns is to undo the idea of both. The border is metaphorically ubiquitous—as powerful as it is arbitrary. Towns are more immediate—tactile and moving to the pulse of indeterminate social interaction. Together the words form not an oxymoron but a median. Such is the spirit that moves composer Nick Brooke in this quasi-opera of Americana and stardust.
The music’s formula is diaristic, appropriating snippets from songbooks familiar and not so familiar, gunpowder from the popular canon loaded into a rather different cannon and shot across the past century until fleetingly recognizable. Brooke’s intertextual approach lays new coordinates over cartographic mainstays, in which resound the piece’s seven embodied singers—voices treading bullion in a cold electronic stew.
Movements like “Silver City” tickle the synapses of our collective memory, opening in a Judy Garland nightmare with the barest intimations of rainbows. An old radio pays homage to underlying frequencies, flagging the limits of nostalgia in what little we may recognize. What begin as utterly ingrained snippets become new beginnings, radiant and free. The end effect is haunting in the best way possible.
Subsequent movements chew their respective morsels of philosophic disturbance. Whether the overt sampling aesthetic of “Del Rio” (a deft reconstruction of a ubiquitous sound byte) or the distant mountain spirit of “Heart Butte” (a pretty mélange of rodeo, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton balladry), an oddly compelling backstory emerges by virtue of Brooke’s narrative integrity. The grander arc takes shape in a chain of referential vertebrae, disks filled with everything from Whitney Houston to Steve Reich. Other portions glisten with cinematic qualities. In the latter vein, “Jackman” smacks of thunder with its battle cry, its implications of outer space as dense as its decays are short. “Tombstone” is another. Dotted by splashes of Chinese gongs as it rides the tailwinds of stray bullets and Hollywood stereotypes, it traverses landscapes of lock-grooves and shattered DJ remnants. Border Towns recycles even itself, beginning and ending somewhere not over the rainbow, but in a place without space, folded like a paper football and flicked into its own gaping mouth.
Interspersed throughout this exercise in anthemic surgery are various ambient reflections: train whistles, cross lights, pedestrian babble, sound checks, impassioned listeners, crickets, church services, and the like fill the interstices with quotidian fascination. From their manipulations of source text and flame emerges a quilt of hymnody, torn and re-squared until it burns.
The clock ticks only for those who hear it.
~Interview with Nick Brooke~
1. What is your background as a composer and as a listener?
I was classically trained at Oberlin, though in a healthily offbeat way, and grad studies at Princeton happily did nothing dissuade me from mixing anachronistic materials in my current polyglot manner.
I do listen voraciously cross-genre, coming from a deep interest in getting to know people, contexts, and cultures. I tend not to listen to recordings much—solo listening can feel solipsistic and lonely. I prefer live performance. And given experiments with theater and dance over the last decade, I’m much more comfortable in those mediums than I used to be.
2. Talk a little bit about the history of Border Towns: in terms of both its evolution as a piece and the slices of Americana that make their way into the mix.
When I started Border Towns, I saw a lot of theater and musical groups going on these “all-gone-to-look-for-America” trips and it all felt wrong, so wrong. The whole genre of musical Americana is often engaged in portraying and skewing one side of a multiplicity that’s indescribable. Americana often thumbtacks culture to the wall rather than asking questions about it. So I wanted to use Border Towns to unpack musical icons, but also engaging somehow with those de Toqueville-like-trips—literally traveling around the country.
3. Is there an inherent visual or theatrical element in Border Towns? The music almost screams for it.
Completely. Most of the music is created with the choreography already in mind, often in canon or some kind of physical and musical structure. “Tombstone” is literally a calf-roping contest between two people, as well as a fugue between Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. In “Ocean Grove,” people are laid on blankets, while rapturously singing Ray Charles (“I see”). Then, through a laying on of hands, these performers are converted into Bruce Springsteen (“Born! Born!”). It’s a canon in seven parts, the number of singers in the piece. I need to predict the exact number of physical events when I compose the music, and the choreography develops in lockstep with the samples. (There’s a primer on this weird process on my website.)
4. The first word that came to mind when I listened to the album was “plunderphonics,” although your aesthetic seems like a more organic or live iteration of John Oswald’s mission of audio piracy. In this respect, I am inclined to align it more with the live mash-ups of a group like Ground Zero, whose Revolutionary Pekinese Opera seems the closest analogue. How would you situate Border Towns in terms of genre or musical space?
I enjoy Oswald and Ground Zero, though in terms of mash-ups I tend to take the slow route, with lots of silences, and I often attempt to completely break down then reassemble a specific genre, or even just a song. Plunderphonics and Revolutionary Pekinese Opera have a joyous aesthetics of excess to me, and also revel in effects like tape delay and studio layering. I tend to go for a more “real” sound, which ends up being surreal when you perform it live. A performer sings x song, but the words and phrases are in completely different places, and it still somehow makes sense; at the same time, it plays with memory and meaning. Because I’m using live performers, using the sounds of early tape manipulation or even electronica breaks a surreal plausibility I’m trying to establish. And in Border Towns, the materials are often dealt with more procedurally than these other composers: i.e., “Heart Butte,” which tries to deal in a semi-exhaustive way with slow, classic country.
5. An especially delightful aspect of Border Towns is the way in which it flirts with our nostalgia. Familiar songs are quickly swapped out for others, such that by the end we experience a new folk narrative. Is your intention with the piece to do simply that, or does it have broader, extra-musical aspirations as well?
In making each song, I often tried to go against the grain of the nostalgia, or at least create a new meaning to each song or genre. And of course if I could exactly pinpoint that meaning here, I’d be preaching, and it would become clichéd. The ideas for Border Towns emerged at a time when the “Lomax remix” genre, such as Moby’s Play, was at its height. I resisted the comfortable, warm electronic remix broth given to these samples. Did people realize the issues of Paul Robeson singing “still longing for the old plantation”, or why “cowboy music”—a genre of guys often falsetto yodeling, was anachronous? I was trying to unpack assumptions on a structural level, by the choices of what I remixed and where. I wanted to be omnivorous, and substitute old traditions, even stereotypes, with something else. Each piece take on a different icon—Tex-Mex, border radio, plantation songs, cowboy music—but tries to bend them at moments of expectation.
6. The vocal performances on Border Towns are wonderful. How did you settle on these particular musicians and how did the recording project all come together?
It’s always a challenge. Together with Jenny Rohn, my co-director for the live performances, we’re always looking for that experimental “triple threat”: people who sing, act, move, and also understand the weird, tricky-to-sing music. Some of these singers are uncanny chameleons. Some are hugely gifted in physical theater. It came together as a performance at HERE’s Resident Artist Series first—then I took it to the studio.
7. How do the ambient interludes function in Border Towns?
In a way, the ambient “interludes” are islands of realness. The sounds are actually taken from trips to the border towns on which each song is purportedly “based.” But, outside of these ambient interludes, the songs take on stereotypes of Americana, mass-produced materials that I often found sold, broadcast, or otherwise referenced in the places I visited. Cage once said if you destroy all recordings people will learn to sing again. Likewise, if one stops asking the potentially obsolete question, “What do people from this place listen to?” you just end up listening, and that’s the best part. In recording ambient sounds, I’m vamping off the long tradition of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. In the final song of Border Towns, the ambient recordings swallow up a single performer on stage, maybe in a final moment of immersive, real listening.
On Tuesday, January 21, 2014 several of the lesser-known works of composer Alvin Lucier were performed by the Southland Ensemble at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of central Los Angeles.
About 35 people attended with only a few empty seats in the compact venue that also doubles as a movie and video location. The reclaimed brick and cement interior of Monk Space was ideal for hearing Lucier, whose work is strongly informed by the relationship of sound and space.
The concert began with 947 (2001), a piece for solo flute and tape. A series of pure electronic tones was heard from a speaker system and flutist Christine Tavolacci matched the tone exactly, or played at an interval, or moved up and down around the electronic pitch by a few hertz. Sometimes the flute predominated, other times it was the electronic pitch and sometimes there was the zero-beating of the two – I thought the zero beating was more pronounced and effective in the lower registers. There were times a single electronic tone was heard and other times there was a mixture of electronic pitches, often slowly changing in loudness. When the cool, impersonal electronic tones were displaced by the flute, there was a sense of encountering a distinctly human element. The constantly changing relationship between the flute and the electronic tones propelled the piece forward, producing a haunting and pure feel.
The acoustic space, electronics and flute were all in good balance – and this was essential to bring out the often subtle sonic interplay. Afterward, Ms.Tavolacci explained that the various effects were all carefully scored and she used alternate fingerings and rolled the barrel of the flute slightly in order to bend the pitches when needed. The pitch control by the flute was impressive, considering that it was being continuously compared by the audience to a series of steady electronic tones.
The second piece on the program was Theme (1994) and this was scored for four voices and sonorous vessels, on poems by John Ashbery. Each of the four voices spoke into a wide-mouth glass jar that was fitted with a microphone pickup and connected to a small portable amplifier. The John Ashbery poem - Skin, Meat, Bone - was recited into these jars, sometimes by a single voice and sometimes in various combinations of multiple voices. The words could occasionally be made out, but text was not distinct – and this was intentional. The jars muffled the words but tended instead to amplify the various tones and frequencies present in the speaking voices.
The result was that the cadences of the text and the patterns in the poetry produced a sort of dreamy tone cloud that hovered around the voices, changing in color and duration depending on what was being spoken at that instant. The varying voice combinations and registers created different intensities and textures from moment to moment and the effect was quite remarkable given the simplicity of the concept. This would seem to be an extension of Lucier’s well-known work from 1969, I am sitting in a room, where the spoken text is recorded, played back and the re-recorded many times in the same room. Eventually the words are lost but the characteristic sonorities of the space are distilled into the tape. The amplified jars in Theme seem to doing something similar to text spoken in real time.
Wind Shadows (1994) followed, and this was similar in structure to the opening flute piece. In Wind Shadows a constant electronic pitch was heard from the speakers, varying only slightly in volume. A single trombone matches the pitch, or plays slightly above or slightly below it. Sometimes the electronic pitch dominates, other times the trombone – and as with 747, your ear tends to hear one or the other. The effect is spare, but warms noticeably when the trombone dominates. The lower register of this instrument was particularly powerful when zero-beating occurred – it sounded like a flight of B17 bombers passing overhead. Trombonist Matt Barbier used two slide positions to match the electronic tone – one giving more control for bending the pitch upwards and the other better for slightly lowering to the zero-beat frequency. As with all these pieces, the balance between the electronics, the acoustic space and the players was excellent.
After a short intermission Septet (1985) was heard and this work is also along the lines of 747 and Wind Shadows, but with larger musical forces. A single electronic tone from the speaker system was matched by three winds and four strings: bassoon, clarinet, flute, bass, cello, viola and violin. The instruments entered in various combinations and sequences, rising and falling in intensity, creating a constantly changing spectrum of sounds. The assortment of timbres and the power of the ensemble against the steady electronic tone produced a fine variety; where the tones were dissonant, the effect was ominous, while at other times there was a feeling of tension and suspense or a sad mournfulness. There was even one section that, to my ear, sounded just like a train horn in slow motion.
The electronic tone from the speaker was set to a loudness that would mix well with the larger number of instruments, but when the instruments would lay out for a bit the electronics seemed too intense. No doubt a compromise, but this was the only time during the concert when the electronics sounded out of balance.
The final offering for the evening was Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) and this was a sound installation for microphones, loudspeakers and electronic sounds. An electronic tone was put out through the PA system and two specially positioned auxiliary speakers. These were arranged in such a way as to produce different sound patterns throughout the space. The audience was invited to walk about the space and in so doing altered these wave patterns. The result was that in some areas there was no sound, in others a definite pitch and yet by walking just a few paces it all changed. My smart phone tuning app seemed to think the sound in the speakers was pitched to B (247 Hz) but changing my position by just a foot or two altered this pitch considerably.
There was also a sound scanning feature. A portable microphone and amplifier were carried about to detect the pitch present in a given place and then amplify it outward, thus further altering the local sound patterns. Scanning irregularly-shaped objects – two 55 gallon drums were placed in the space – produced complex patterns and unexpected pitches nearby. Outlines of Persons and Things was a powerful demonstration of the hidden acoustic possibilities that are present in any given space.
This concert by the Southland Ensemble of works by Alvin Lucier, successfully realized at the boundary of music and acoustic science, provides us with a rare glimpse of the many creative possibilities that await us there.
The Southland Ensemble includes: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, April Gutherie, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jon Stehney, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci and Brian Walsh.