Elliott Sharp may sometimes be characterized as a cellular composer, but he is by no means a cellular thinker. Rather, he seems to conceive of things in large swaths of creation, only then removing skins and reconnecting veins until each organism revives by means of unexpected blood flow. The Boreal collects four somewhat recent examples, of which the 2008 title composition, performed here by the JACK Quartet, employs awesome extended techniques, including bows strung with springs and ball-bearing chains, in addition to standard hair.
But through this recording it’s not so much the craft as the art that shines. Like the electric effluvia on the cover photograph, Sharp’s writing emits an attractive aura all its own, leaping from one motif to the next with ionic inevitability. The new bows reveal inner voices in the second movement, which with its sonic forensics swabs the seat of creation for any residue left by whoever last sat there. Whether plying striated territories in the third movement or touching off cyclical measures in the fourth, the musicians are fully present and work their touch to suit the needs of changing topography. It is a piece that would fit comfortably in the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire, but which feels just as much at home in JACK’s hands. Sounding almost electronic yet with such intimacy as to only be renderable in real time, the quieter passages especially highlight the potential of these extensions.
Fearless musicianship is characteristic of the album as a whole and is embodied to its fullest at the fingers of pianist Jenny Lin, who gives Oligosono (2004) more than it ever dreamed of in an interpreted life. Raw technique again pays dividends, forging rhythmic codes through a tactile relationship with the piano strings. Lin handles these messages as if by her very DNA, harmonic overtones reinforcing one another through mechanisms of repetition. Each section is grafted to the ones before and after it (even the first and last carry unheard continuities). The insistence of certain impulses exists not for the sake of minimalism, but to maximize the potential for incidental utterances and hidden voices within the instrument’s architecture. The whole thing feels like a medical test of space-time itself as the depth-soundings of the third and final movement give chase to biological data, savoring the imprints left behind of an entity they cannot ever catch. Here is the piano as machine, the body as instrument.
Proof Of Erdös, written in 2006 and performed by Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon under the direction of David Bloom, is something of a non-portrait. Despite being inspired by the persona of mathematician Pal Erdös, it doesn’t so much illustrate a life as one of its many panels of expression. Here the bowing, while more familiar, sprouts a forest that is less so. Feelings of tension give way to silence and reset. Sharp’s expanse of internality is overrun with genetic details, a mitochondrial frenzy turned inside out, a tuning of the self to the self until there is no self left to tune.
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Peter Rundel, gives the final reading of the program, performing On Corlear’s Hook (2007) with commitment. The piece is cinematic in scope—think 2001: A Space Odyssey—but works its cosmic drive inward rather than outward. It inhales dark matter with the appetite of a black hole. The vaster instrumental forces at work enhance this feeling of inwardness. Every new shift of texture and color is a veritable terabyte of information compressed into a drop of ink on staff paper. It is the nervous system as metropolis, and sensations as traffic running through its streets. Harp, strings, and brass work together toward a unity that feeds on self-fragmentation. Epic, to be sure, but only the beginning of life.
These pieces are translations: of inside to outside, of colors to emptiness, of stillness to vibration and back again. In them are whispers of screams and vice versa. Together, they are a mirror, cloudy but usable, waiting for the polish of an open ear. Like the void within that ear, Sharp’s is a sonic universe devoid of politics, an environment where one can simply listen, be, and listen to being.
(For more information and samples, please click here.)
Helmut Lachemann, 80, this November, is one of the most important, original and influential living composers. To hundreds of younger composers whose ambition is to push the boundaries of music and sound beyond its presumed limits, he is a God-like figure, the reigning king of musical post-modernism. Think Stockhausen or Cage, tripled down. Extreme, thrilling, unexpected, visionary, painful, edgy. If he were a Zen master, his mantra would be “Who knows the sound of a beetle lying on its back?”
For listeners who prefer their “classical” music with a touch of consonance, he is one of those composers whose work is more fun to talk about than to actually listen to.
All of which makes John Kennedy, director of contemporary music for SpoletoUSA, a brave man, indeed, for making the American premiere of Lachemann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl) the centerpiece of this year’s Spoleto Music in Time Series. Conceived on a grand scale, Lachemann’s retelling of the tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale of the little girl who measures out her final hours by striking matches for a moment of warmth on the freezing street, employs 106 musicians and various other theater performers.
Lachenmann refers to his compositions as musique concrète instrumentale, basically a musical language that embraces the entire sound-world made accessible through unconventional playing techniques. According to the composer, this is music
“in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc., do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound- or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.”
To take a simple example, guitarists generally try to limit the sound of nails clacking on strings or accidental glissandos produced by sliding their fingers up and down the strings between chords. Their goal is play as faithfully as possible only the notated sounds. In Lachemann’s musique concrete world, these scratches, squeaks and sighs are all part of the music. Through amplification and a plethora of techniques that he has invented for wind, brass and string instruments, Lachemann creates difficult, uncompromising works that are, like their creator, wholly original. His scores place enormous demands on performers. They may be only works in the modern repertory in which players may need a shower after the piece is finished.
Coming as it does in the 40th Anniversary Year of Spoleto with all the attendant “feel good” celebrations, the programming of such a controversial composer as Lachenmann is a welcome sign that SpoletoUSA that the nation’s best—and probably most financially successful–arts festival is still not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of original performance. Founder Gian Carlo Menotti would be proud.
To appreciate Lachemann requires listeners and performers to forget whatever inherited notions they may have about beauty in music. “Try to like it,” he often tells audiences about to hear his work for the first time. For those willing to suspend their preconceptions, his music offers great listening experiences and, yes, even a strange kind of beauty.
Lachenman will be in attendance at the Festival and will participate in a conversation between Kennedy on May 27 (including a performance of Lachenmann’s piece Got Lost); a performance of Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Kenndy’s Spoletudes on June 4, and a performance by Stephen Drury of Lachenmann’s monumental piano solo Serynade, plus Oscar Bettison’s 2014 work for small ensemble An Automated Sunrise (for Joseph Cornell).
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Eminent composer, college professor, and Lutoslawski scholar Steven Stucky has died, aged 66. The cause was brain cancer. Below, listen to one of his beguiling works, the Notturno movement from Serenade for Wind Quintet.
On Friday night, February 5, 2016 a good crowd braved the dreaded 101 freeway closure to travel downtown to Art Share LA . The occasion was …until… the first concert of 2016 for wasteLAnd music, marking the third year they have offered programs of new and experimental music in Los Angeles. Four pieces were performed – including a premiere – each incorporating traditional acoustic instruments accompanied by electronics.
Scott Worthington was the double bass soloist on …until… #10, by Santa Barbara-based composer Clarence Barlow. This was the premiere performance and the inspiration for the concert title. …until… #10 begins with a steady electronic tone from a large speaker and this was joined by Worthington’s double bass. A series of moderately fast notes streamed out from the bass in repeating phrases that featured slight variations in the pattern of pitches and rhythms, but no overarching gestures or development. The notes were confined to the higher registers and none of the familiar deep, woody tones of the bass were heard. The mix with the electronic sound was quite complimentary, the warm tone from the speaker nicely filled up the nooks and crannies of the faster passages coming from the bass. Transient harmonies of bass notes against the electronic tone momentarily appeared and vanished, adding to the intrigue. There is a bright, bubbly optimism to this piece, effectively conveyed by the almost child-like melody. This pattern continued as the work progressed but the slight variations in rhythm and the sequence of the notes kept the listener actively engaged. …until… #10 is a masterful combination of simple electronics and refreshingly uninhibited musicality that envelops the listener with a cheerful buoyancy.
This was followed by Ilhas, by d’incise and this consisted of four snare drums with a player assigned to each along with a small, hand-held speaker. The speakers were placed face down on the drum heads, which were prepared with upturned plastic cups or boxes as well as other found objects. Soft electronic tones were heard and the speakers actuated the drum heads to produce a very light drum roll. The result was a pleasantly calming effect, like hearing an organ prelude in a soft rain. The electronic tones were sustained for a few seconds at a time, and the players adjusted the position of the speakers to achieve different effects. The speakers were moved from the center of the drum to the edges and at times the speakers were covered by the plastic cups or a box to concentrate and direct the energy to the drum head. The drum tension was adjusted and occasionally the speakers were lifted up slightly to vary the timbre and intensity of the drum head response. There was no scoring for this – it was up to each player to find the best place to maximize the various effects. Matt Barbier, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Scott Worthington were all effective in drawing out subtle differences in timbre and texture. Ilhas is an understated yet engaging work that is both inventive and surprisingly tranquil, given that it is performed with four snare drums.
Next was Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM, by Jessie Marino. And this was performed by Cory Hills with a single snare drum and lamp stand. The room was completely darkened and the piece began with a sharp rap on the drum followed by a short flash of bright light from a single lamp – and then a few seconds of silence. This sequence was then repeated. The sudden sound and bright flash of light was quite startling – the loss of visual references in the total darkness sharpened the senses and when the sounds and flashes occurred, it multiplied the effect. As the piece progressed the sequence changed so that the lamp flashed before the drum was heard. The beginning section invited your brain to associate the light and the sound together so when the light flashed first, the effect of the sound was that much more alarming. The feeling was reminiscent of a thunder storm at night – a flash of lightening closely followed by a loud thunder clap. Commitment :: Ritual I ::BiiM is an dauntingly instructive demonstration of the power of sensory conditioning on ear and eye.
The final work on the program was untitled three part construction by Michelle Lou, who is the featured composer for the current season of wasteLAnd concerts. For this Justin DeHart and Cory Hills were seated at desks containing a number of mechanical objects and one tape recorder. Matt Barbier and Scott Worthington shared a music stand, with muted trombone and double bass, respectively. Low, rough notes from the amplified double bass opened the piece while the trombone added a series of sharp repeating notes. Mechanical clickers were heard and more mechanical electronic sounds came from a speaker. As the clicking and clacking continued, ratchet wrenches were applied to stationary bolts and twirled backwards, introducing a light metallic ringing to the texture that added to the impression of being inside some sort of operating machine. At times, smooth tones from the bass made for a nice contrast with the clatter; at other times all was continuous rattling, commotion and roar. The feeling, however, was one of virtuous and industrious intent, free from any trace of malice.
About midway through the piece there was a sudden, measured silence, followed by a high pitched note from the double bass, as if hearing a siren at a distance. Knocking and scraping sounds ensued from the electronics, adding a distinct feeling of anxiety. The siren tones increased and the trombone added a deep growling sound. A piece like this invites the listener to create a story around the sequence of sounds – was that the drone of bombers overhead? The thud of bombs falling in the distance? The clicking and knocking increased and the tape recording added more anxious sounds. The double bass and trombone added a few rugged low notes and exited the stage. The tape increased its intensity and finally became disconcertingly chaotic before a sudden silence concluded the piece. untitled three part construction is a marvelously creative combination of sounds and musical tones that invite the listener to inhabit the unfolding drama of one’s own invention.
The next wasteLAnd concert, titled point/wave, will be on February 26, 2016 at Art Share LA.
On February 12-14 and February 19-20, ECCE Ensemble premieres Switch, a new opera by my friend and colleague composer John Aylward. Directed by Laine Rettmer and conducted by Jean-Phillipe Wurtz, the piece features two vocalists: soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and bass-baritone Mikhail Smigelsk. The project is part of ECCE’s year-long residence at Le Laboratoire,a new multimedia space in Cambridge that combines visual arts, music, the sciences, and even olfactory stimulating exhibits.
To whet your appetite, below is a video of Aylward’s Ephemera.
WHAT: World premiere of the contemporary opera Switch
WHEN:February 12-14+ February 19-20 at 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Le Laboratoire, 650 East Kendall Street, Cambridge, MA,
T: Red to Kendall Square
TICKETS: $40/$20 Students.
To purchase, contact Le Laboratoire at
617.945.7515 or visit LeLaboratoireCambridge.com
On Friday, January 22, 2016 the wulf in downtown Los Angeles presented a diverse concert of electronic music by four groups of artists. A standing-room only crowd turned out for an evening of intense sounds created by computer algorithm, spectral analysis and traditional percussion. The room was filled with all kinds of amplifiers, speakers, mixers, patch panels and miles of cable. The four sets made for a varied program that challenged both the mind and the ear.
First up was PDRM, by John Krausbauer and David Kendall. According to the program notes this piece is “…constructed from a ‘just’ tuned, three-string electric guitar with real-time and algorithmic delay and spatialization processing.” Four large speakers were placed on the four corners of the completely darkened performance space that also included active strobe lights. PDRM began with a warm, droney sound from the bowed guitar, accompanied by a substantial bass line in the electronics, providing a solid foundation. The sound filled the room and the consistent texture immersed the audience in a congenial sonic wash. As the piece progressed the volume seemed to gradually increase and the tempo quickened slightly as well. PDRM is very powerful experience that takes control of the senses – there were occasional bass tones that were felt as well as heard. The complete darkness and compelling sounds command the listener’s attention; Krausbauer and Kendall might consider adding an aromatic component to their performances to further extend this sensual dimension. The steady drone and flickering of the strobes give PDRM a distinctly primordial feeling – as if the audience is gathered around some ancient communal bonfire, meditating together in a deep trance.
Next up was an improvisation by percussionist Ted Byrnes with William Hutson on accompanying electronics, and this marked their debut as a duo. Hutson operated an old school reel-to-reel tape machine fed with a ten foot loop of tape that stretched across the room and produced a steady stream of metallic clattering and crashes as well as what sounded like a barrel of broken glass shards being rolled across the floor. To this chaos Byrnes added his athletically active drumming with a variety of mallets and brushes on a standard drum kit along with a number of found objects. The rhythmic drumming formed a kind of counterpoint to the crashing tumult from the tape and this became an anchor for the ear. The piece took on an epic character as it progressed: the heroic drummer in combat with the forces of anarchy. This contrast was so effective that the listener often found himself rooting for the drumming to prevail. Byrnes was a constant blur of motion and activity, yet the continuous outpouring of the electronics added a helpful consistency to the texture, filling in for those times when Ted changed drum sticks or reached down to add a new object to his kit. There were quiet stretches, as when brushes were used on the drum heads, but overall the intensity and drama that emerged from this mix of electronics and drumming proved to be a winning combination. The addition of fierce electronics to the animated style of Ted Byrnes was inspired, achieving a new level of energy and excitement for this duo.
Cameron Shafii, the San Franciso-based composer was next, presenting a solo sound piece, part of a collaboration with Joe Gilmore that according to the program notes, “…transforms brass and string instruments by spectral analysis.” This began with a loud drum clap followed by exotic electronic tones that added a vaguely alien feel. The steady electronics were accompanied by a drumming rhythm, producing a sense of anxiety and mystery. The volume seemed to rise as the piece progressed and the drumming became more concentrated and powerful – at times the beats were felt as blows to the chest. The electronic sounds morphed into purer tones and a series of loud rumbles, like distant thunder could be heard. At one point the mood lightened and there were some lovely harmonies. The total darkness and the relentlessly increasing power soon restored the feeling of menace, however, and at times the sound overwhelmed the senses and verged on the painful. Cameron Shafii and Joe Gilmore have crafted a daunting listening experience that operates at the harrowing edges of human perception.
The last piece in the program was VRS, a project from Ellen Phan of Los Angeles who presented “…a new piece exploring modalities of experimental sound.” This piece deftly unpacked an eclectic variety of sounds – a loud buzzing, gongs, bells and the crash of smashing china. The pitches accelerated and became higher and more cutting even as the texture attained a sort of frenetic consistency. Voices were heard in an unintelligible scat singing and the electronic sounds assumed a bouncy, arcade-like feel. As the piece progressed a powerfully percussive hammering dominated, and this soon morphed into a nicely rhythmic groove. VRS is full of fast-changing textures that made for a refreshing wash of bright colors and energetic surfaces that agreeably filled the performance space and the listener’s ear.
Update on the wulf: The building has now been sold and the wulf is seeking new accommodations, although no schedule has been announced. Fund raising for the expected moving expenses has been successful and donations are still being accepted – see www.thewulf.org for details.
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Augustus Arnone performs Milton Babbitt’s Time Series and other solo piano works at Spectrum, Sunday January 24, at 2pm
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of Babbitt’s major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2007. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread of three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). The concert also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording.
Arnone’s performance begins at 3pm, but prior to that, at 2pm, will be an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades. The event should be worth the trek through any rain, sleet, and slush.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concert II
Sunday Jan 24, at 3pm (pre-concert discussion at 2pm) $20, $15 (Students/Seniors).
Spectrum, 121 Ludlow St, NYC.
Those interested in still more Babbitt can check out the Focus Festival at Juilliard, which begins tonight and goes through next Friday. I’ll be writing about that more next week.
Pianist Jenny Q. Chaiis a versatile artist. Her repertoire includes works by contemporary Europeans such as Phillipe Manoury and Marco Stroppa (her dissertation topic), and she recently recorded an excellent portrait CD on Naxos of music by Nils Vigeland. She also performs standard repertoire, such as Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy.
On January 10, in a program entitled Where is Chopin? (subtitled “Steampunk Piano 2”), Chai creates a juxtaposition of Carnaval by Schumann with brand new pieces that feature artificial intelligence, performing the music of Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, a Stanford University-based composer who uses the AI program Antescofo. It supplies a live visual component that responds to the particular nuances and inflections of a given performance. Doubtless Chai will give the program plenty to think about.