Coinciding with a period of cooler, shorter days, and political change (even upheaval), the LA Opera staged a generous month-long run of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, chronicling the subversive pharaoh who incited a religious revolution in ancient Egypt.
Third in a series of “portrait operas,” (the operatic equivalent of the biopic), Akhnaten, followed in the footsteps of Einstein and Gandhi, though three millennia their senior.
“So far I had covered science and politics. After that I was looking for a figure who influenced the religious side of society,” Glass told LA Opera.
Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach (1976)—a collaboration with director Robert Wilson—was shocking in its originality, great length, and anti-narrative concept, but equally shocking in its success, effectively launching Glass’s career.
An experimental work, LA Opera revived it in 2013 for a terse single weekend run.
Akhnaten, by comparison, markets well: commanding yet vulnerable, approachable yet profound. The work hypnotizes in it visual impact, restrained musicality, spirituality, and the ring of historic authenticity.
Varieties of Minimialist Experience
Glass is counted among the foremost exponents of minimalism in music, and has been for some decades. What is surprising in Akhnaten is that an expansive genre like opera fits so spaciously in minimalist terrain, and integrates minimalist techniques continuously and convincingly.
Akhnaten exemplifies minimalism in all its many forms—some often overlooked. Beyond the now trademark arpeggios and tremolos pervasive throughout the Glass output, an economy of means—musical, theatrical, and dramaturgical—guides the opera.
Vocal lines are simple and direct, with narrow tessituras, seeming to avoid any superfluous virtuosity. Texts (when comprehensible) are pithy, repetitive, and set syllabically, fostering clarity and understanding.
Scenes are few in number, and drawn out, but imbued only minimally with story-forwarding action. Atmosphere drives Akhnaten above all else. Drama is restricted by the judicious hand of a minimalist composer: Almost an anti-plot, the opera unfolds in a series of immersive vignettes that paint a portrait of the title figure and his legacy.
Perhaps the clearest example of Akhnaten’s minimalism is its relentlessly slow, measured pace of physicality on stage. The cast moves with a ceremonious, unhurried composure, as if the characters of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings had come alive.
That stately concept of movement, traceable perhaps to Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson’s use of slow motion, distinguishes this production—by Phelim McDermott and the English National Opera—from the original, faster version of the Stuttgart State Opera.
The deliberate pace, which never fails to enchant, induces that present-moment awareness associated with the best of minimalist music. Intermittent juggling episodes course throughout the opera, accenting the palpably inert ambience with gravity-speed bursts of activity.
Commissioned by Stuttgart State Opera during a period of renovation, Glass was required to reduce the orchestral forces to accommodate a smaller pit. He adapted by omitting the violin section entirely, setting the highest string writing for the darkly shimmering violas, lending a fitting melancholy character to the orchestral tuttis.
Though stopping short of that classic operatic organizing principle—the leitmotif, recurring motives do provide a thread of comprehension, unifying the lengthy opera through the power of musical memory.
An exposed A natural minor scale, played as a bassoon solo, courses sedately upwards and downwards, sparsely accompanied by thin string writing and gentle woodwind chords, perhaps symbolizing the rise and fall of Akhnaten, his new capital city, and the monotheistic religion he founded centered on the Aten—the disk of the sun.
At the heart of the opera, rounding out Act II, Akhnaten sings a radiant hymn to the sun, in the warmly contrasting key of A major. The one and only aria in English, it is set syllabically to a simple melody of repeated notes and occasional, sparkling leaps.
A Dead Language Comes Alive
Librettist Sholom Goldman calls Akhnaten a form of “vocal archeology,” in the way texts were borrowed from original sources, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, tomb inscriptions, and Akhnaten’s own poetry.
Most of the opera is sung in the Ancient Egyptian language, its resolute cadence imparting a distinguishing power that elevates text itself to a standing beyond the norm for opera. The first stanza of the choral setting which opens the opera immediately calls attention:
Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Aha en heh
Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shalt exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years
The sole drawback to the textual treatment might be the use of anachronistic King’s James English translations in the “Hymn to the Sun” and the text of the Scribe (the narrator and tour guide of the whole opera), which in its distanced formality seems at odds with the otherwise contemporary, highly personal character of the opera.
A Transcendent Pharaoh
The strongest connector of audience to opera was Akhnaten himself, portrayed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who at once seemed exempt from the boundaries of mortality and sexuality, yet closely related to his listeners.
Akhnaten first appears descending from an elevated platform in a lengthy procession scene, fully frontally nude. His leisurely, aimless gait, and bare, shaved body and scalp impart a newborn, androgynous, angelic quality to the character that endures continuously.
Costumes by Kevin Pollard also served to reduce clarity of gender: ornate, baroquely bejeweled ceremonial regalia enveloped Akhnaten like a newborn swathed in loincloth. His ceremonial robe was imprinted with a female breast insignia, fostering a dual-gender persona.
Akhnaten’s gender is negated further—and foremost—by the use of the countertenor vocal quality, a form of falsetto vocalizing, although more resonant and capable of vibrato.
“When you write an opera, you have a very limited time to tell a complicated story,” Glass said. “Any shortcut becomes important.”
Akhnaten is silent onstage for 40 minutes, and when he finally does sing, “they are all astonished by the sound that comes out of his mouth. It is a clever way of emphasizing him as different,” elaborated Glass.
Tom Pye’s set design was always visually stunning and often surreal, featuring a brilliant, blinding sun, a moon of shifting hues—by turns white, pink, and blue—and later several giant levitating luminous orbs, all pointing to a dream realm more than any actual past.
The Welcome Akhnaten
In the end, what is most striking about Akhnaten is its relevance: That an Egyptian pharaoh separated by three millennia of history could come alive to speak to contemporary audiences so intimately, in a dead language left largely untranslated, in a rare, almost artificial vocal type—that listeners should feel a sense of welcome and belonging—is the genius of this opera and production.
Despite courtyard protests that the original Akhnaten was black but Anthony Roth Costanzo is white, there was a mood of excitement and the sense of something important happening at LA Opera. And while some of the Italian opera regulars were conspicuously absent—replaced by new faces this round—at six performances, Akhnaten is firmly established in the mainstream operatic repertoire.
Glass has made a similar observation: “I always felt there was a public that would like this music, and over time, the audiences, so small in the beginning, have only gotten larger.”
Pianist Aron Kallay offered a well-rounded program of innovative, politically charged music, including three world premieres, to open the Piano Spheres 2016-17 season. This, the 23rd season, is dedicated to Piano Spheres founder, Leonard Stein–born 100 years ago December–whose memory will inform each concert even more than usual.
“I did not know Leonard Stein personally,” stated Kallay in a preconcert talk, “but his impact on new music is clear, and makes its way into this program.”
Stein conceived of Piano Spheres, with a mission statement to champion “broader spheres of piano repertoire.” He performed an annual recital in the series, alternating with the four other pianists he selected.
Following his demise in 2004, Stein was never replaced. His spot in the series was left open for a guest artist, of which Kallay was this season’s choice.
Kallay programmed an exciting assortment of new works with an eye to Stein’s preferred repertoire, as well as the upcoming Presidential election and its implications for social justice. True to himself, Kallay–a director of People Inside Electronics and Microfest–performed several pieces involving electronics, though Stein generally played acoustic piano alone.
The REDCAT stage, decorated with political signs, came to life with the first notes of Monroe Golden‘s microtonal composition for retuned and remapped digital piano, I’m Worried Now, after the perennial blues standard “Worried Man Blues,” on a text about penal servitude.
Golden’s piece, a microtonal reinterpretation of twelve-bar blues, set the tone for the Kallay’s program, entitled “I’m worried now…but I won’t be worried long.” Most of the works explored troubling topics in recent history, and pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election, although ended on an optimistic note.
Microtonal music, with its expanded pitch vocabulary, enjoys heightened capacity for emotional expression. Monroe Golden relied on the technique of extended just intonation, retuning the digital keyboard to the pitches of the overtone series out to the 96th partial, to express the atrocities of penal servitude in the 20th century South most directly.
“‘Worried Man Blues’ is a piece I’ve known all my life,” stated Golden in a post concert interview. “The practice discussed in the text primarily affected the poor….I wanted to use microtonality to express the pain the compelled prisoners must have felt.”
Beyond the arresting, microtonal twang, which reinforced the blues song’s original message, viewers were treated to a surreal cognitive dissonance as far right keys sounded low in pitch and far left keys sounded high, defying expectations of any keyboardists present.
In a nod to Leonard Stein, Kallay offered a crystal clear rendition of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (“Musical Sketchbook for Annalibera”), a suite of eleven miniature movements for piano solo dedicated to the composer’s daughter (the work’s namesake), on the occasion of her 8th birthday.
Beyond the scope of most children’s abilities, the work is more about childhood, in its whimsical playfulness, than for children per se.
“This is one of my favorite pieces for piano solo of the twentieth century, and I know Leonard Stein admired it and performed it,” stated Kallay.
A major twelve tone composition, Quaderno, would be known to Stein, who was Schoenberg’s assistant and graded assignments by Schoenberg’s pupils at UCLA. The brand of twelve-tonality utilized by Dallapiccola was closer to Berg’s than Schoenberg’s however, integrating tonal references, such as thirds and sevenths, for a gentle lyricism throughout.
The work also earned a place on the program due to Dallapiccola’s staunch support of the anti-fascist movement in mid-twentieth century Europe, which Kallay deemed apt in view of the imminent shift in Executive leadership and the risks entailed.
“I hope you like wrestling…,” signaled Kallay wryly, as a screen lit up and attendees sat up, evidently striving to process what was in store.
Kallay co-funded the next work, a world premiere Piano Spheres commission by composer Ian Dicke—wrestling aficionado, political activist, and accomplished music technologist—a volatile combination, ideally suited to Piano Spheres and the REDCAT stage.
Dicke’s Counterpundit features a montage of classic wrestle-mania footage (names like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter), looped into additive phrases, somewhat like a Stravinsky ballet. Dicke created a computer application combining live electronic processing of piano input with the video media. Kallay, opening the work as a soloist, eventually shifted roles into chamber musician, integrating piano music with the oddly hypnotic footage and layers of electronic sound in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
Heavily camp-laden Counterpundit compares the buffoonery of wrestle-maniacs to the political media pundits that influence perception in critical times such as these.
“I would have written something about this even if Aron hadn’t asked me to, as I consider myself a politically engaged composer.”
Traditional musical language, from Satie to Prokofieff (the latter quoted at one point), works with Dicke’s own harmonic concept as a convincing partner to the footage. The rhythmic play between instrumental forces attained to virtuoso levels, Kallay wizardly synchronizing with the media at several turns.
If Kallay is any example, it is clear that today’s pianist must go beyond piano playing. Kallay creates themed concerts, discovers existing repertoire to support a thesis, finds composers to commission, and constructs a verbal narrative to contextualize the program for attendees.
In the course of such research, he discovered Karen Walwyn, pianist and composer from Washington D.C., who provided the next work—another world premiere—“June 17th,” a movement from her suite Mother Emanuel: Charleston 2015, after the shooting in Charleston on that day.
“As much as I love this piece, I struggled with whether to program it because of its extraordinary gravity,” noted Kallay, “but thought it was important and should be heard.”
The work opens with a simple statement of classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” which breaks off abruptly, interrupted by terse, tense figuration. The hymn is reharmonized in surprising ways, fleshed with angry virtuoso writing until breaking off once more in a sharp, unanswered conclusion.
“Impromptu is a cry expressing the tortures of the soul that plague contemporary human beings,” writes Daoust, and indeed the musique concrète effects of the recorded media—sirens, traffic, and other elements of the urban soundscape—infuse the piece with a sense of angst, supporting the theme of social upheaval.
The Impromptu is a genre associate with the Romantic era, when friends would gather to generate their own music, largely by improvising. Daoust offered a modern, fully worked out Impromptu, every nuance preformulated and accounted for, but still expressing humanity’s key questions.
“I think people are as tortured by existential questions as they were during the Romantic period,” notes Daoust.
Preserving a link to the Romantic Impromptu tradition, Daoust quotes the haunting B section melody of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, (used also by Crumb in his piano work Makrokosmos).
Lee, playing the Steinway model D, brought a melting lyricism to the singing melodies, while angular lines emerged from out of the recording and duo ensemble.
In a strongly topical inclusion to the program, Laura Karpman’s Shrill, a work of “disposable music,” as Kallay introduced it, is overtly centered on the 2016 presidential election. Whether the work will endure as a humorous and surprisingly musical snapshot of current events, or fade away as quickly as the losing candidate, only time will tell.
Shrill, commissioned by Kallay and Piano Spheres, is Karpman’s answer to a critique of Hillary Clinton. Detractors call her voice shrill, “but it is Donald Trump who is truly shrill,” so notes Karpman.
The work is scored for “solo piano and Trump,” which reads like a typo at first glance. Cast in the perennial melodrama genre—spoken word accompanied by music—the verbal content is complimented by music reinforcements, yet unfolds with clarity.
Soundbites of Trump’s especially polarizing statements are presented in catchy rhythms, looped for effect, both musical and political. Kallay served once again as accompanist to the media, interspersing Trump’s charged remarks with a sardonic, biting musical language reminiscent of Satie’s funniest moments. Stereophonic effects abound, imparting a sophistication that lifts the work well beyond its prosaic central topic.
Fortuitously, Trump’s voice and locution is highly musical, so it turns out. Who knew he sang melodies such as descending broken minor triads, and perfect fifths while on the campaign trail. He may have missed a calling as vocalist.
Kallay concluded by stating, “I am actually not sure I won’t be worried long….”
The future remains uncertain, but the Jewish hymn “Shalom Chaverim,” arranged into a set of eight variations for piano solo by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, rounded out the program on a friendly, hopeful note.
Hailstork’s reinterpretation of the traditional Jewish theme, sung by children on holidays throughout the Jewish calendar, utilized modern harmonies, including quartalism and expanded tonality, and warm textures that express the original text implicitly:
Till we meet again
The 13th annual New Original Works (NOW) festival, presented at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (better known as REDCAT), drew to a convincing close last weekend in a diverse program of Body Demonstration, Music, and Dance.
The hotly anticipated summer festival is a local oasis of artistic innovation in the creatively dry months of the year. The festival of three interdisciplinary programs over as many weeks featured works by early career artists, selected with an eye to new projects in development.
REDCAT Directors Mark Murphy and Edgar Miramontes opened the program with contextualizing remarks, citing the festival’s mandate and methods. “The NOW Festival allows emerging artists to use this theater as a laboratory for taking risks,” Miramontes articulated.
Filling the house to its 200 seat capacity, a decidedly risk-on audience had no objection to being subjects in tests that proved largely successful.
Energetically bounding into view, self-styled performance art ensemble I AM A BOYS CHOIR took the stage for the first, longest, most outrageous work of the program, Demonstrating the Imaginary Body or How I Became an Ice Princess.
Oddly coinciding with the current Summer Olympic games, Ice Princess chronicles the enmeshed paths of three figure skaters competing in the 1992 Winter Olympics through film and the art of “body demonstration,” an experimental genre blurring the boundaries of dance, theater, and spoken word.
The piece unfolds through a series of vignettes, each named and modeled after steps on Kristi Yamaguchi’s checklist for success: “beauty, stamina, fearlessness,” and others. Through funny, rambling stories, neatly choreographed fitness routines, and mock auditions, all reinforced by gender-bending costumes and driving 90s-era disco music, a clear sense of an ice princess culture begins to emerge, “without a narrative” as collective member Adam Rigg stated upfront.
Emotional intensity mounted throughout the work, moving from the cerebral to the emotional in a kind of exploration of Chakras. Communication evolved from ordinary speech, to body language, to sense-defying videography, followed by a hedonistic frenzy of activity complete with animal costumes, nudity, and other-worldly lighting.
Strongly camp informed, the three-member, queer-identified collective knowingly disregards conventional notions of artistic territory. Banal, self-critical chatter punctuated by an intermittent “what time is it now?” among other seeming trivialities, challenged observers to accept a new standard of artistic merit. “Our goal is to present the truth above all, at all times,” recited member Kate D’Arcus Attwell at one juncture in the performance. Audaciously direct, natural, and unrestrained, I AM A BOYS CHOIR convinces on a visceral level, even as it befuddles logically.
Audience analyses percolated up along the pilgrimage for half-time restoratives. A view proliferated that “much did not make sense,” but the collective clearly delivered on its opening claim to “blow your minds.”
Following a leisurely intermission (and extensive cleanup), composer Daniel Corral arrived on stage to perform his new work Comma in an innovative usage of existing technology.
Presenting the only expressly musical work of the festival, Corral faced the dual duty of satisfying artistically, as well as representing the art of music before the NOW audience.
A darkened hall suddenly flared with iridescent swatches, pulsing and changing with each note in streams of electronic sound reinforced by vigorous minimalist rhythms.
Congruent in purpose with the foregoing Ice Princess, Corral’s Comma reverses traditional musical priorities in a celebration of the Pythagorean comma, the bane of tuning systems since the middle ages.
Pythagoras gets the credit for codifying an intonation based on just fifths, pure and without “beats” (a canceling out of soundwave crest and trough). Beatless fifths are gentle, euphonious harmonies, but the sum of such intervals is greater than their parts, leading to a small but significant inequity in the tuning system. That hair’s breadth of dissonance is the comma (“hair” in Latin), and for centuries, the question was what to do about it.
Today’s intrepid listener accepts the comma, enjoying the dissonant crunch of “wolf intervals,” originally named for the howling of wolves. Comma draws on a pitch vocabulary derived from just-tuned fifths, exploiting their inherent beauty, and cognitively reframes dissonances as sumptuous umami flavors.
Striving for “something that could be experienced on multiple levels,” as Corral notes, a whimsical light show of shifting colors and shapes complements beguiling harmonies and timbres for a “total work of art.” Building on accordion-playing chops, Corral dispatched a dizzyingly intricate drum machine part on Novation’s Launchpad Pro, triggering sound and light with agility and speed.
Comma’s multiple paths of engagement and balanced blend of cooperative elements worked to hold audience attention consistently, slowing time against a steady stream of activity. Enthusiasm for the concluded piece reverberated palpably, as a sense of music’s abiding power to enchant and challenge was affirmed once again.
In the moving finish of both program and festival, dancer and choreographer Wilfried Souly integrated disparate movement traditions and original music in On Becoming, an exploration of identity-evolution.
“Reflecting the way physical history shapes Self across life,” writes Souly, On Becoming reflects influences on Souly’s own history, including African traditional dance, contemporary dance, and Taekwondo, fluidly fusing them for a new, unique genre.
An ensemble of musician from at least three countries collaborated in creating new music through shared improvisation: Boubacar Djiga, from Souly’s West African homeland of Burkina Faso, arranged and recorded traditional Burkinan music. Composers Tom Moose and Julio Montero later created new jazz, blues, and Latin folk-inspired music, taking the original African music as an impetus. A mosaic of styles crystalized, each element retaining its identity while harmoniously supporting the others.
The diverse musical backdrop both drove and reflected movement content on stage. An upbeat swing melody accompanied by shimmering tremolos served as springboard for bouncy gaits and playful turns.
A lyrical ballad for violin, guitar, and recorded media supported a tender episode, featuring intimate close embrace and expressive undulatory gestures. Afro-Blues fusion music pulsed rhythmically in a play on space and number: Dancers merged densely then diffused apart, then bifurcated the stage along a striking diagonal. A later number featured Souly in isolation, divided from the ensemble as soloist, as if satellite reflecting ensemble action. “While the others shared a tender moment together, I preferred to stand apart, on my own,” Souly explained in post-performance conversation. A plaintive soliloquy in spoken word, followed by an episode of descriptive facial expressions and subtle hand gestures brought the piece to an ending point, with ensemble exiting unobtrusively into the audience.
An apt closing number for the evening and season, On Becoming acknowledges the evolving of individual identity and the diversity that shapes it. NOW guests witnessed a moment in that flow of impermanence this season, and can expect new, original works of another variety next summer and beyond.
Delivered with an authority and unhesitating know-how that left no room for doubt, Shpachenko’s virtuoso program of new music for piano—both solo and electronically fleshed—revealed how convincingly present-day composers can match the prestidigital feats of Liszt and Chopin. Simultaneously, universal statements on life and art, expressed in a heartfelt lyricism still resounding almost audibly, emerged to elevate the afternoon event into something profound.
Vacating the ostensibly far-flung protectorate of Pasadena in favor of a more central Downtown Arts District, the Sound and Fury season touched down at Art Share LA, a flexible creative environment serving as gallery, workshop, and performance space. The venue’s edgy, industrially rustic atmosphere and attention-arresting exhibition comingled for the ideal new music terroir. Warm, supportive acoustics brought out the best of a dubious Kimball grand, whose surprisingly sweet, singing tone belied its dilapidated exterior.
At a hearty seventy-five minutes in length, Shpachenko’s thoughtfully ordered offering of uniformly winning pieces, centered on a theme of “quotations and homages,” was an homage to the audience—an inviting, overflowing musical cornucopia, impacting listeners all the more directly in its uninterrupted flow:
“Once I begin a program, I prefer to maintain intensity through to the end, rather than leave the stage midway,” commented Shpachenko in post-recital remarks. As if leading by example, the pianist’s sustained energy bolstered listeners into progressively deeper engagement throughout, up to the concluding work which seemed to arrive ahead of schedule.
Commissioned by Shpachenko herself, the program’s opening piece, Vera Ivanova’s 6 Fugitive Memories, set the tone for what was to follow in its variety, aphoristic wit, and evocative imagery. A festschrift of sorts, six clever pastiches perceptively comment on composers with anniversaries in 2016, year of the work’s premiere. Ivanova sensitively alluded to musical identifiers of each composer in concise reinterpretations of quoted material, leaving listeners hungry for more at every turn.
Calling listeners to attention in a torrent of thunderous tone clusters punctuated by intermittent treble range chirps, the opening sketch draws on the uncompromisingly modernist sixth sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, a relentless procession of raw, barbaric sonority with only the faintest suggestion of anything resembling melody.
Committed classicist Prokofieff served as impetus for the next number, “Fugitive No. 2,” a response to the picturesque Visions Fugitives. A bubbly, effervescent accompaniment supported sweeping, rhapsodic gestures in the foreground for a contrasting emotional foil against the cool preceding and subsequent movements.
Palettes were cleansed in meditation and clarity, as only Feldman, the next movement’s guiding example, can organize into being. Gentle, bell-like note-moments melted to mark the passing of time, like the falling of delicate icicles.
Shortly, aromas of goulash and sun-scorched paprika came to mind in a movement after Hungarian composer Gyögy Kurtág, “Playing Cimbalom.” Shpachenko adroitly manipulated a fine wooden mallet on the piano’s strings, as if playing the Cimbalom—a Hungarian hammered dulcimer for which Kurtág provided the bulk of the repertoire.
The suite concluded in a surreal collision of two tensely co-existing icons of post-Romantic French music—Debussy and Satie, in “Debutie.” The famous opening chords of Satie’s first Gymnopédie are subtly paired with the initial whole-step cascade of Debussy’s prelude Voiles (“Veils” or “Sails,” or both…Debussy wouldn’t say). The two works find a peaceable if strained cohabitation. Satie’s soothing major sevenths meld with Debussy’s bleak, directionless whole-tone environment for a musical synthesis of Ivanova’s conception, a whole as great but different from its parts’ sum.
In Shpachenko’s dedicated hands, 6 Fugitive Memories proved a fully satisfying, complete listener experience in itself, without need of enhancements or additions. Yet the opening electronics of Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle, next on the program, signaled new sonic dimensions emerging to compliment and enrich the piano.
Setting out with a clear vision for her program, Shpachenko approached composers with a specific request: write a piece inspired by another composer. “I approach composers I know and like, and commission music to fit my programming concept,” the pianist articulated from the post-concert receiving line.
Her concept struck a chord with Flaherty, composer of two works on the program, who “immediately recalled a passage from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and relished the excuse to play with some its elements.” The Quartet’s seventh movement, “Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time” provided the thematic vocabulary for Flaherty’s 2015 work. Vibratory repeated chords course up and down the piano’s range, expanding upon the gentle undulations in the piano part of Messiaen’s “Tangle.” Brilliant, original electronic elements as striking as the original Quartet’s instrumentation, heightened the ecstatic topic, while a crisp, interlocking hocket texture lent a drive and acerbic bite, galvanizing Messiaen’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Spun of more contemporary inspiration, Daniel Felsenfeld’s Down to You is Up, harkens back to the composer’s own early years, which were filled with the subversive sounds of The Velvet Underground. Felsenfeld’s three-movement work for piano solo draws on source material from the band’s debut album, “Velvet Underground and Nico.” The opening movement is a free adaptation of key melodic fragments and the piano part from “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Belting the work’s energetic opening chords with the self-forgetful abandon of a rock star, Shpachenko set a decidedly rebellious mood, rousing listeners to heated attention. A contrastingly introspective mood shortly followed in “So Cold/So Lonely,” movement two of the cycle. Repurposing Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” as a musical loom, a collage of delicate chords started life as accompaniment to the original song—then the song was removed, leaving the accompaniment self-standing.
The final movement, “Everything Was Alright,” quoted more strictly, this time from “Beginning to See the Light.” Fiery charge returned to the hall as Underground’s darker elements rose up, channeled through a motoric bass ostinato and a blaze of squeezed, descending arpeggios, terminating resolutely.
Least quotational but equally relevant, the program’s next work, Close Ups (Through Tiny Eyes) by Stephen Cohn derives inspiration from Realist painting: “The art of depicting nature as seen by toads…,” notes Cohn. Augmentation and diminution—contrapuntal devices extant from Palestrina to the present—power the work in an interplay of expansion and contraction, ultimately heightening listener perception.
Meditative sonorities alternated with crashing chords and driving scalar figuration in 15ths. A cute, understated tremolo figure between the hands recurred continually, unifying contrasting elements and restoring listener orientation at regular intervals, finally returning in full forte for a decisive last word.
Forging ahead indefatigably, industrious Shpachenko spryly prepped the upcoming number, donning ear bud and microphone headset and issuing a brief sound-check. A conspicuous white screen instantly grew functional as the first slides of an art show materialized. Epitaphs and Youngsters, by Peter Yates, a cycle of melodramas (in the original meaning of the term: spoken word over music), honors four creative figures of intangible relation, connected by their meaning to the composer. Inspired by Shpachenko’s “absorbing presentations of eternal moments,” each movement is cast in a harmonic language reminiscent of the honoree, complimented by Shpachenko’s resonant sprechstimme on pertinent texts, and images by young artists Yates admires, Shpachenko’s own sons. A movement for naturalist John Muir features rugged quartal harmonies, while intricate contrapuntal lines accompany a quote by Glenn Gould, and an overflowing stream of words by juggler W. C. Fields stretches past a Gershwin-inspired musical tapestry, ending the work openly, in a tender moment of wonder.
Shpachenko resumed her seat at the piano—briefly—turning a sharp musical corner to ground listener sensibilities in the terse, steely brilliance of Nick Norton’s Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday. The aphoristic work, a reflection on the sinister sparkle of Elliot Carter’s Caténaires, uses all 88 keys exactly once in rapid-fire succession for a jolt of musical adrenaline to the senses.
The homage offering by Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder, next on the lineup, is especially personal for pianists. Written for Emmuel Ax’s “Brahms then as now” project of 2014, the piece is an homage to Brahms, based closely on the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, op. 79, a repertoire staple of student and seasoned pianists alike. Reminiscing on her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the piece as a budding pianist, Mazzoli reinterpreted the Brahms Rhapsody by emphasizing its tempestuous effects in dense, thundering chords, dramatic hand-crossings, and lighting-like ascending arpeggios. Shimmering accompanimental tremolos recall the Rhapsody’s mysterious development section, while the key heartbeat rhythm of the Rhapsody’s second theme palpitates the new Bolts into an intense, vibratory finish.
The rhythmic drive quickly resurfaced in Tom Falherty’s Igor to Please—occupying final position in the program (officially). An eagerly awaited world premiere, Igor to Please immediately sets out to show Stravinsky as the great liberator of pulse, where Schönberg might be called liberator of pitch. Highly charged syncopations and sharp interplay of piano and electronics fill out source material from the famous “Augurs of Spring,” the startling moment in The Rite of Spring, where dancers lunge and stamp to throbbing blows of dissonance. Initially polarizing—indeed inciting a riot at its premier—the work is now canonical. Yet the “Augurs” retains its power to revitalize and stimulate, like an invigorating deep-tissue massage.
Scored for piano and electronics, Igor benefits from a rich palette of sonorities, including harpsichord and toy piano, as well as stereo-sonic effects. The work is slated for performance in an alternate, assuredly impressive instrumentation of two pianos and two toy pianos, with six pianists (among them Shpachenko). Hopefully the unique electronic effects will find expression in the acoustic version, for an equally pleasing rendition.
Billed a “bonus/encore” piece, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart, the final musical number of the afternoon, was a good natured, zany parody of Mozart’s piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. In the ilk of Satie’s sardonic Sonatine Beauroctratique or the poignant Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy—parodies of equally obligatory teaching repertoire—Borecki’s “set of very serious various,” breathes new life into the ubiquitous, tradition-encrusted classic. Each variation is modeled after a particular alcoholic potable, whether imported beer, boxed wine, rare whisky, or even stronger spirits. Evidently an expert in libations, Borecki conveyed the essence of each beverage with clear musical gestures, punctuated by humorous pop art slides. Audience members emerged a little closer, having shared a round of drinks.
Shpachenkos’s generous program was preceded by music of Sound and Fury founders, Christian Dubeau and Christine Lee. Lee performed her Crystal Glass, a piece about pure sound depicting the breaking of glass through the sparkling pops and crackles of granular synthesis. A haunting melody is accompanied by, and later accompanies, the tasteful electronic effects.
Dubeau presented the first four of his forthcoming set of twelve preludes for piano and electronics. The opus’s promising initial numbers treated of weighty environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains, where Dubeau grew up. Recorded material and live processes infused depth and additional meaning to the piano writing, complimenting it naturally.
Musical proceedings concluded, a cordial Shpachenko greeted enthused attendees. Stragglers later coalesced into an ad hoc reception at nearby Wurstküche, where gracious Stephen Cohn toasted to the pianist’s success, thanking her for “giving composers a reason to go on writing.” Shpachenko tasted her first sip of beer, pronouncing it smooth. A Chimay ale, the question arose whether it would figure in Adam Borecki’s next piece.
Minimum and maximum shared the stage at Boston Court last Friday, their point of contact being People Inside Electronics—the leading presenter of music involving electronics in Los Angeles. Presenting a program of electroacoustic music by three generations of composers called “Points of Contact,” the PIE team once again demonstrated the vital, transformative power of electricity in music.
“Why use electronics…?” an attendee queried in the populous, enlightening pre-concert talk. Theories, each satisfying in their own right, ranged from an expeditious “because it’s there,” to the discretionary “we need not use it,” settling finally on a more deliberate “to create sounds that could never be heard otherwise.”
“Points of Contact” refers to the centerpiece and concluding work of the program, Kontakte (Contacts), by legendary electroacoustic pioneer, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). PIE’s riveting rendition by pianist Todd Mollenberg, percussionist Ryan Nestor, and sound engineer Scott Worthington proved a pan-sensorial, full body delight, captivating listeners and reaffirming Stockhausen’s place alongside the greats.
Kontakte, composed 1958-60, was among Stockhausen’s first space pieces, whereby the element of space plays an integral role in audience perception. “Sit in the middle of the hall for the full experience, as the piece is quadraphonic,” advised PIE director Aron Kallay pre-concert when there were still a few seats left.
Stereophonic sound was used as early as 1940 in the Disney film Fantasia, where Rimsky-Korsakoff’s bumblebee is heard buzzing to-and-fro among increasingly nervous viewers. Such is the effect of a moving sound source on listener perception. Sound takes on dimension, becoming tangible, corporeal.
Kontakte, among other space pieces by Stockhausen, offers a boosted listener experience by multiplying all the usual effects of music—pitch, timbre (itself highly original in Kontakte), rhythm, volume—with the element of sonic rotation, promoting that sense of absorption and self-forgetfulness induced by all great music.
To ensure optimal success, Stockhausen called for specially built halls ideally suited to the demands of space music—something approaching Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Fortuitously, Boston Court’s Main Stage, site of the Summer Music Series, approximates an egg shape and met Stockhausen’s requirements satisfactorily.
The beautiful configuration of instruments on stage, a Western Gamelan of sorts, was prescribed by Stockhausen and is used in all renditions of the piece. The pianist—really a percussionist with piano abilities—begins by striking a gong, dramatically placed center stage, then wades through an obstacle course of percussion instruments to take up temporary residence at the piano. Pianist Todd Mollenberg handily met the extraordinary demands of his role, juggling a virtuoso piano part while nimbly navigating among an extensive collection of percussion instruments (inadvertently enlarged by percussive footwear) with both control and abandon.
Ryan Nestor, dedicated percussionist, glided discretely and efficiently among his instruments, often approaching them at the last moment as if to avoid spoiling the surprise.
Sound engineer Scott Worthington, working from a station in the back row, adjusted levels of each channel independently, continuously adjusting outputs to achieve the ideal balance.
With keen rhythmic sense, Mollenberg and Nestor coordinated the numerous points of contact between electronics and acoustics, articulating sonic hand-offs precisely. Such stretto effects added an additional source of meaning, promoting listener endurance throughout the objectively lengthy piece.
Climactic moments seemed to be followed by additional high points, without loss of impact or credibility. Treats for the listener abounded in every moment, quite by design.
“The piece was conceived in Moment form,” noted Todd Mollenberg in post-concert remarks. “Each moment is self-contained and separate from its neighbors to create an antinarrative,” elaborated Mollenberg.
The completion of each moment—the unforeseeable evaporation of sound followed by fresh sonic germination, a kind of ongoing death and resurrection of sound itself—induced a timeless state, an eternal (or at least 35 minute) present, in listeners.
Far from mere theory, this all happened. There was an atmosphere of excitement in the air that abstract music such as this—undeniably bizarre, space-age music for electronics and acoustic noise-makers—could be so thrilling.
Contrasting so sharply from Kontakte as to be linked only by the use of electronics, the pre-intermission lineup featured a minimalist tasting menu of three pieces by three generations of composers sympathetic to the cause of less being more in music.
If Kontakte drew on the maximum means to induce focus in listeners, the minimalist first half subsisted in narrower bands, allowing space for meanderings of free-association, leaving free rein to the imagination.
Scott Worthington, before donning sound engineer’s hat, took the stage for the opening number as contrabass soloist in Julia Wolfe’s Stronghold.
“I am always thinking about the physical effort involved and what it takes to make sound,” Wolfe (born 1958) has said of her compositional process. The term “stronghold” should refer to the bassist’s bow grip, which is thoroughly tested throughout the ambitious, extensive exploration of bass terrain. A stronghold of musical devices, each finding safe haven in the towering presence of the contrabass, king of strings, the piece unfolds in a steady flow of events including abrupt changes in volume and textural density, microtonal moanings of marine mammals, and crab canons (where a melody is accompanied by itself played backwards) reminiscent of Bach.
Throughout, the work is unified by a disciplined self-referential process, where each idea grows from an initial germ stated in the solo bass, then taken up by additional basses in a recording. The resulting effect is a musical kaleidoscope, with one event type subtly giving way to the next. The piece halts suddenly following powerful, characteristically deep bass tones, bowed on the bridge.
In proper new music form, lights were dimmed to pitch black for the next work, The Light Gleams an Instant, by PIE director Colin Horrocks (born 1992). Horrocks himself performed the work, scored for solo saxophone and live electronics. The title, borrowed from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, refers to the impermanence of life and music. “Music is a temporary art form; the ephemeral nature of sound allows it to exist only in the moment,” explained Horrocks in program notes. Beckett’s “light” is, for Horrocks a metaphor for sound.
Horrocks’s sounds did not merely fade away, however, gleaming an instant only to disappear into oblivion. They were all recorded, electronically reworked with Max, the industry standard for live musical processing, and played back in self-referential accompaniments. “The live notes are transposed, and in some cases the upper partials are played back,” clarified Horrocks in post-concert discussion.
As expressive saxophone tones and their musical fractals emerged from the lights-out backdrop, a surreal calm descended on the hall, calling listeners together in a moment of reflection and recollection.
Steve Reich’s (born 1936) Electric Counterpoint, a contrastingly bright, light piece befitting the season in its carefree summery bounce, drew the program to the halftime mark and off to a busy intermission.
Brian Head, noted guitar leader, performed the piece with refreshing vitality and jazzy flair. Head played the work’s 1987 premiere, thus bringing seasoned insight to the current performance.
Electric Counterpoint, like so much of Reich’s music, is the quintessential minimalist example. Terse, spare motives intermingle with each other, delicately phasing in and out of synch to form mosaics of scintillating mist. Discrete notes, while extremely few in number, seem to interlock in ornate braids of extraordinary richness and complexity, much as a DNA molecule or spiral galaxy.
Amidst the simplicity of musical means, otherwise banal devices like crescendos and modal shifts take on striking impact and purpose, inspiring listeners and lightening spirits.
A satisfied audience departed the hall for intermission amusement—a caption writing contest on a photo of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Later, a generous post-concert reception included beer and sake (potentially worth the price of admission itself). Artists and audience mingled in enthused conversation, their own electric counterpoint, as another original evening at Boston Court drew to a charged close.
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.