The University of Michigan’s new music scene gained a full head of steam leading into this weekend’s Fall Recess with an appearance by Guest Artist Kayako Matsunaga and the Michigan Chamber Players’ first concert of the season. Ms. Matsunaga is an experienced new music pianist from Japan who was invited to talk to and perform for the Composition Department here at Michigan by Bright Sheng, with whom she has collaborated. The recital she delivered last Thursday featured work by many older Japanese composers alongside a piece by Mr. Sheng, Toru Takemistu and two University of Michigan students: Justin Aftab and Roger Zare. Yesterday’s Michigan Chamber Players concert featured work by four faculty composers: Paul Schoenfield, Stephen Rush, Michael Daughtery and Bright Sheng, again.

I am not extremely well versed in the work of contemporary Japanese composers, so I was very interested in what Ms. Matsunaga had to share with us, not only with her playing, but in her pre-concert lecture, as well. Essentially, she discussed and played music by Japanese composers who are heavily influenced by John Cage. However, what each composer’s work drew from Cage differed wildly. The first work, Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Inexhaustible Fountain, begins by repeatedly arpeggiating a three-note sonority from which two more complicated melodic ideas emerge – chordal tremolos that sounded like a riffing electric guitar and a linear passage denoted strongly by its exposed, octave doubling. These sonic characters converse with increasing bravado and drama as the piece progresses, yet, as enjoyable as the music is, its connection to Cage is unclear.

Such was not the case with the second work on the program – Yori-Aki Matsudaira’s Blending – insofar as it was clearly based on Cage-esque chance procedures. The piece is a series of very short, ‘blended’ quotations (he literally mixed the music of Stravinsky and Satie, for example, to create a new snippet of music), which are arranged by chance, leaving some to repeat unexpectedly and others to pass through the audience’s ears only once. To nail the Cage reference even more securely, one of the ‘blended’ pieces is Music of Changes. With that exposition taken care of, the piece is a little hard to listen to because none of the ideas connect, and few are transformed. Even hearing the Satie/Stravinsky nuggets change as they repeat, it is difficult to draw any meaning from the transformation. A similar diagnosis can be drawn on the following piece – Michiharu Matsunaga’s Meditation X – because it cycles through disparate ideas similarly to Blending. However, the same handful of figures returns, and becomes more ordered (though still rather heterogeneous) as time passes resulting in a more meaningful listening experience for me than Blending.

Ms. Matsunaga grouped the next three pieces on the recital together in her pre-concert talk because they are, in her mind, all ‘minimalist’ works. John AdamsChina Gates and the University of Michigan’s own Justin Aftab’s Rince Cycle certainly fit that description in my mind, but the remaining piece – Karen Tanaka’s Water Dance – missed the mark a little bit. Indeed, Water Dance uses very simple, tertian harmonies like a stereotypical minimalist piece, but I thought it was just a quiet, soothing, sentimental (if not saccharine) tonal, not exactly minimalist. Sure, I’m splitting hairs here, but my enjoyment of this otherwise beautiful piano piece was inhibited by the expectation Ms. Matsunaga’s pre-concert labeling had brewed. Being that it is 34 years old, and John Adams is about as well known a living composer as there is right now, I’ll skip a thorough musical inspection of China Gates and focus more on Ms. Matsunaga’s fantastic performance. She was not daunted by the piece’s high energy and clashing groupings of the predominant duple subdivision – she not only navigated the outer voice’s looming clamor, she brought out the melodies of the inner voices to great success, too. Rince Cycle played a stunning contrast to the bombast of China Gates. Simple, clean and beautiful, the piece evolves through a process of additive rhythms from a simple scale fragment to a gurgling cloud of peaceful consonances. According to my experience of Mr. Aftab’s music, minimalism is not his go-to style, though no one musical paradigm seems to govern his compositions. Seeing that his compositions’ range spans very experimental to neo-Romantic, I have no doubt he is capable of triumphing over any compositional task. I’m proud to be a peer of his, look out wherever he decides to go after graduation this April!

The recital’s final three pieces don’t really fall into a category, or really connect too well as a trio, but they were the last three pieces I heard Thursday, so I’m grouping them together. Leading the cadre is Roger Zare’s Dark and Stormy Night for Piano and ping-pong balls. Mr. Zare is also a University of Michigan composition student (DMA), though this is an older piece of his. Its novelty – throughout the piece ping-pong balls are dropped into the piano producing a variety of unusual sound effects – explains why it retains such a prominent position in his catalog. The balls produce buzzes, rattles and pop out of the piano in louder sections. One of the more clever and expressive uses of the balls came when Ms. Matsunaga dropped them onto the highest strings of the piano, resulting in a ghostly, seething eacho of a banshee’s cry. Despite one awkward moment when Mr. Zare (he was the piece’s ball-handler) furiously pulled the balls off the piano strings only to drop them back into the piano a few measures later, I felt Dark and Stormy Night was remarkably inventive and fun.

Ms. Matsunaga’s performance closed with Bright Sheng’s piano piece My Song and Toru Takemitsu’s arrangment of the Beatles song Golden Slumbers. My Song is heavily rooted in Mr. Sheng’s history with Chinese folk music, which shown through the brightest in its first and fourth movements. The first is a solo piano version of a bunch of people piling in on a single folk tune – the melody becomes increasingly ornamented and rhythmically discombobulated as the tune re-enters more and more frequently. Following too athletic fast movements, the contrasting finale is muted, delicate, even exhausted sounding. Its reserved nature could be interpreted as restrained, but I felt the work’s closing music sounded more closely like echoes that have traveled a great distance – obviously a musical allegory for Mr. Sheng’s personal journey. Takemitsu’s arrangement of Golden Slumbers was fairly straightforward (I have not heard the original song, so I can’t attest to the degree of Takemitsu’s imprint on the music). Mr. Sheng noted at the end of the pre-concert lecture that this work reflects Takemitsu’s love of Brahms, whom the Japanese master had discovered around the time he arranged the Beatles song. I may be cynical, but I thought it sounded more like what you could expect to hear at Macy’s, if only they still employed live pianists, of course.

As I learned is a tradition for the Michigan Chamber Players, Sunday’s concert – the first of the season – exclusively featured the work of University of Michigan faculty composers, three of whom actually appeared on stage to perform their works. In fairness, the outlier here – Michael Daugherty – is a fantastic pianist (he showcased his ability to improvise at last year’s ONCE Festival); alas, his contribution to the program, Walk the Walk was scored for baritone saxophone and two percussionists, precluding him from tickling the ivories. We’ll begin with Walk the Walk, which fell in line with many of Mr. Daugherty’s compositions insofar as it was clearly based on a piece of iconic, retro American pop culture – Motown music in this case. Essentially, the piece alternates in the manner of a ritornello between plaintive, solo saxophone melodies and upbeat grooves based on specific Motown hits like My Girl and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. As time passes, the separation between the two musical worlds narrows and the grooves become more and more chaotic, with the sax part expanding its range of expression from commonplace melodies to squeaks, squeals and tongue slaps. These extended techniques were fantastic as they turned the saxophone from a melodic instrument into a member of the percussion section that had heretofore accompanied it.

We’ll now move to the two more traditional pieces on the program: Paul Schoenfield’s Sonata for Violin and Piano and Bright Sheng’s Tibetan Dance for Clarinet Violin and Piano. To me, Mr. Sheng’s Tibetan Dance really stood out the most in the concert. The first movement, “Prelude”, begins very quietly with an extremely delicate chorale of sorts with the clarinet and violin providing expansive outer lines and the piano filling in the middle with just two notes. The glassy, alluring texture changes slowly at first as the clarinet and violin begin to break their parallel melodies and play in counterpoint to each other. Suddenly, yet quietly, the piano breaks the prevailing scheme and widens the music’s range with a low oscillating accompaniment, which ends up in the violin and clarinet at the end of the movement. The second movement, “Song”, begins identically to “Prelude” except for the fact that the clarinet and violin are in actual unison. Stillness and quiet dominate this movement’s affect, while subtle slides in the violin melody perhaps allude to Mr. Sheng’s memories of living in Qinghai, a Chinese province that borders Tibet. The final movement, “Tibetan Dance” is – as should be no surprise – the most raucous, achieving its high-energy feeling of revelry with biting clarinet trills and various instrumental noises in the violin part.

Sonata for Violin and Piano is eclectic like Tibetan Dance but references a different culture – Eastern European. Mr. Schoenfield commonly includes Yiddish folk and Klezmer musical ideas in his work, and this piece actually broadened that referential base with a healthy portion of Late 19-century Romanticism and ragtime. “Vanishing Point”, the first movement, housed the most stylistic diversity by design, as Mr. Schoenfield wished to reflect the stream-of-conscience style of the epynomous David Markson novel. The movement begins agitated and highly dissonant, thrashing in search of a more stable idea, which first appears in the form of a Klezmer-style groove in the piano. Although both this groove and the movement’s opening return, the most memorable idea is a syncopated ragtime/‘vaudeville’ melody that emerges about two-thirds through the piece. The following movement, “Intermezzo” has a much more subdued level of energy, and opens with dark chords in the piano’s lowest register. The subsequent violin melody stumbles as if wounded, but gains strength steadily, ultimately climaxing with forceful double stops, before backing off and echoing its initial musical offerings. Although the dark piano opening returns at the end of the movement, the overall feeling is stronger than before, more ‘pesante’, reflecting the transformative aspects of the preceding musical/emotional journey. Following “Intermezzo” is the third movement, “Romanza”, which is a very straightforward slice of slightly tweaked Late 19-Romanticism. The final movement, “Freilach”, is the most heavily based in Yiddish music of the piece. Drawing on multiple Eastern European folk influences, the movement is a high-energy dance dominated by a conventionally homophonic melody/accompaniment relationship between the piano and violin.

The remaining work to discuss is Stephen Rush’s Taming the Wild Ox, scored for flute, clarinet, piano and percussion. The work is an improvisatory pieced prompted by a series of watercolor paintings. Each illustration is marked by a number, which the players display to show the audience which painting they are improvising ‘to’. The idea for the piece is based in Mr. Rush’s belief that every piece of music fundamentally interactive, and the design of the performance permitted all of us to follow along with which visual prompt commanded the music at a given point in the performance. The result of this graphic score system was very engaging, despite my fear that the ‘play by numbers’ concept might limit the communication of the improvisers. Often more than one members of the quartet flipped to the same number to prevent total musical anarchy and the energy level of the improvisation flowed palpably and compellingly, as one would expect from excellent performers like those on stage Sunday night.


If you are interested in more of my observations about being a composer, student and audience-goer in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan please visit my website.